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  • J. J. Fischer

The 50 First Dates Life

50 First Dates (2004), starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore
“We are too prone to engrave our trials in marble and write our blessings in sand.”
– Charles Spurgeon

I’m not the biggest Adam Sandler fan, but one of his films I’ve enjoyed is 50 First Dates (2004). Sandler plays Henry, a womanising marine veterinarian who falls almost instantly in love with an art teacher named Lucy (played by Drew Barrymore). The next day, Henry realises, to his chagrin, that Lucy doesn’t remember him in the slightest. Henry learns that Lucy was involved in a car accident which left her with anterograde amnesia (deficits in the ability to remember new information). He sets about trying to win her affections every day, even while knowing that she is going to forget him the very next morning.

One of the hardest things about chronic suffering is the way it wipes our memories. We are already forgetful creatures with short-lived memories, but suffering seems to take a bad situation and make it worse.

What do I mean by a “bad situation”? You might be thinking, “Actually, my memory’s pretty good, thank you!”

Have you ever had a fight with a significant other or close friend and, all of a sudden, you could remember—with perfect clarity—every bad thing they’d ever done to you, but absolutely none of the good? Have you ever found yourself saying to said spouse or friend, with complete and unswerving conviction: “You’ve never done X. And you always do Y!”?

We humans have a nice way of discarding information not consistent with our current hypotheses. For example, if I’m seething with indignation about my husband’s leaving his dirty socks beside the laundry basket rather than inside the laundry basket for the gazillionth time, it does no good to remember that he made me a cup of tea an hour ago; it only erodes the potency of my argument.

The various memory biases we are prone to have been well-documented in psychological research. For instance, studies have shown that memory is often state-dependent—that is, we are far more likely to remember information when the state we were in when we learned it matches the state we are in when we recall it. A now famous study conducted by researchers Godden and Baddeley [1] asked deep-sea divers to memorize lists of words on the beach or underwater. Later, they were asked to recall the words, again either on the beach or underwater. The divers did much better when the state they were in when they recalled the words matched the state they were in when they memorised the words. Another well-known study used sober and drunk participants instead of divers—with similar results! [2]

It is no wonder, then, that the chronic sufferer, standing in the empty, yawning wilderness of their life, finds that all their memories of the mountaintops—their triumphant moments of faith and life—have become foggy and insubstantial. “I thought I saw everything so clearly… but what if I was just kidding myself?”

In his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, C.S. Lewis makes this fascinating observation:

“Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done” [my emphasis].

Doesn’t this remind you of Henry from 50 First Dates, setting out to woo Lucy each and every day from scratch? And that’s exactly what it involves. When suffering wipes the slate clean, you may find yourself having to start almost from the beginning—right at the very bedrock of your faith. What has God ever done for me? When has He ever shown me He loved me? (All variants, of course, of the serpent’s original question in Genesis 3:1: “Did God really say…?”; my emphasis.)

At the end of 50 First Dates, after surviving a number of obstacles which threaten to keep the couple apart, Henry eventually comes up with an ingenious idea. He makes Lucy a tape called “Good Morning Lucy” which gently breaks the news of her accident, shows her footage of her and Henry’s wedding, and encourages her to come and have breakfast with her husband and daughter when she’s ready.

When you’re suffering from “suffering amnesia”, it’s helpful to turn to the Bible because, among other things, it’s God’s resumé—a record of His work throughout history and His faithfulness to his people, even in spite of their unfaithfulness. When God rescues His chosen people, the Israelites, from Egypt, He gives them a number of commands and laws so that they will remember what He has done for them (Exodus 13) and so that they will be a nation separate from other nations. As you read through the Old Testament, you can see how, over and over again, the Israelites become amnesic (e.g., 1 Samuel 12). They forget what God has done for their ancestors, despite being warned about this ahead of time by Moses (Deuteronomy 8). They turn away from the true God and worship other gods who have no proven track record at all. Disaster comes on them because they fail to remember, and it is only when they remember God—and God in turn remembers them—that they get out of trouble.

Of course, it’s important to note that in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, individual suffering per se is not necessarily a punishment for turning away from God. The stories of Hannah, Joseph, Mary, and Paul (to name only a few) are a testament to the fact that the righteous often suffer even though they are innocent. Individual suffering comes about, first and foremost, because we live in a fallen, sinful world.

Even so, a choice remains for all who are suffering: in this moment, when all the available evidence seems to suggest that God does not love you, or has forgotten you, or even does not exist at all… do you choose to remember? Do you choose to remember in the darkness what you were certain was true in the light?

There’s a powerful inscription on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, Germany, where Jews hid for the duration of World War II:

“I believe in the sun, though it be dark; I believe in God, though He be silent; I believe in neighbourly love, though it be unable to reveal itself." [3]

I can think of few times in history darker than the Holocaust. The conviction expressed in this inscription is admirable… almost incomprehensible, in light of everything those Jews were facing.

But what it demonstrates is that the key to enduring in the wilderness is memory. We have to watch the tape of truth every day. We need to preach the Gospel to ourselves daily, even if we’ve been a Christian for decades; we need to think constantly about eternity, and how the what-will-be makes sense of the what-happens-now; we need to remind ourselves, over and over, what God has done, what He is doing, and what He will do. Don’t let today’s hurt rob you of yesterday’s conviction.

Once again, Jesus provides the way. When Jesus is tempted by Satan, He rebukes him by saying, “It is written…” (Matthew 4). Jesus goes back to God’s resumé, which provides irrefutable proof of the goodness and wisdom of His laws.

One of the reasons why we need to do this so regularly is because we naturally pay attention to bad things more than good things. We constantly contend with a fundamental “negativity bias”. As psychologist Rick Hanson puts it: “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” [4] You may be familiar with the research of Dr John Gottman, one of the most influential experts in the area of couples’ counselling, who came up with a “magic ratio” of 5 to 1: the idea that for every negative interaction couples have during a conflict, there needs to be five positive interactions to balance it out [5]. Five positive interactions to level the playing field after just one negative!

Could it be that counting our blessings works on the same principle? That after experiencing something difficult or even tragic, it requires us to actively search for five—or possibly more—blessings to bring our suffering back into perspective? How would our lives be different if we engraved our blessings in marble and wrote our troubles in sand, as the Charles Spurgeon quote goes?

But wait… isn’t this the equivalent of brainwashing? If I choose to preach something to myself—or even actively bring something to mind—that doesn’t feel real or true to me at that time, isn’t that hypocrisy? Isn’t the absence of evidence, evidence of absence? (In contrast to the maxim attributed to astrophysicist Martin Rees.) Doesn’t this whole thing just smack of inauthenticity?

These kinds of objections stem from our immersion in a culture which defines hypocrisy as acting differently to how we feel. Despite the golden rule of counselling: “Feelings are not facts”, we increasingly live in a world where feelings have become a kind of belief or truth; where feelings actually are facts. But, as Professor Erik Thoennes wisely points out:

“There’s this idea that to live out of conformity with how I feel is hypocrisy; but that’s a wrong definition of hypocrisy. To live out of conformity to what I believe is hypocrisy. To live in conformity with what I believe, in spite of what I feel, isn’t hypocrisy; it’s integrity.” [6]

This idea might seem alien to many in our feelings-driven culture. Even despite my training, it often feels alien to me as well. But you are probably already doing this in many different areas of your life.

Imagine that you’re waiting for a very good friend to catch up for coffee and they don’t show up at the appointed time and place. It’s not like them at all. Normally they’re perfectly on time—early, even. What goes through your head? Which is more likely: your friend has been held up in some way (perhaps gotten stuck in traffic), or they’ve decided they no longer like you or wish to be friends? Now, they’re a very good friend, as I said before, and they haven’t given you any reason to doubt them. But perhaps it’s been a while since you’ve seen them—years, even—and you’re not exactly sure if you really know your friend as well as you used to.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Our insecurities have a way of worming in even despite all evidence to the contrary. And weeds grow best when there are cracks.

Let me give you a personal example. I have probably the best husband on the planet. He encourages me, tells me daily that he loves me, buys me flowers and gifts on our anniversary, and on days when I’m feeling particularly vulnerable or insecure, he makes extra attempts to reassure me of his love. I know his personal/dating history, I know all of his passwords (just as he knows all of mine), and he always tells me where he is (as I do to him). He never spends time alone with another woman, and he actively corrals his gaze in private and public (even though I don’t ask him to).

Now all the evidence is there that I have the most faithful of husbands. But imagine that a sneaking suspicion creeps into my mind. Could that friendship with his female colleague be something more? Could he just be really good at masking his tracks? Could he be seeing someone else? Is he just being so wonderful to me because he secretly feels guilty?

In the end, I have a decision to make. Either I confront my husband with my fears, or I take him at his word. But if I choose to believe him, based on all the available evidence, there is only one course ahead if our relationship is truly going to work. I have to trust him. And that decision then involves a million tiny leaps of faith over the course of our lifetimes which allow trust to flourish between us and make our marriage strong (of course, he’s already given me ample reason that he’s trustworthy, which is where the memory part comes in).

Now my husband is still a sinful human being, capable of sinning greatly, just as I am. And some of you will have had partners or spouses who proved unfaithful, even despite the best evidence to the contrary. Maybe sometimes we cannot take people at their word, or the evidence suggests we shouldn’t.

But remember that God is infinitely more faithful than the most faithful spouse. He has a perfect track record, and we get to see that even more because we’re sitting on the other side of the Cross. We’ve seen what God has done, which foreshadows what God is going to do next. If I can choose to take my husband at his word, sinful human being as he is who may fail me someday, how much more should I take God at His?

Why should we remember God? Because He remembered—and loved—us (1 John 4:19). Psalm 106 is both a scathing and stirring record of all the times God’s people forget Him, and yet He hears them… He remembers them (Psalm 106:45). He loves the world so deeply that He gives His only son for our redemption (John 3:16). The stains of trillions of sins are erased in one act of all-consuming love and undeserved grace. How’s that for a “magic ratio”?

Of course, the crafty serpent will get us to look, again and again and again. Did God really? Did God really? It’s a little like that sneaky voice that pipes up when you’re five minutes into your commute to work: “Wait… was the stove really turned off?”

Now, you know you’ve checked the stove five times already. You know it’s off. You believe it’s off. But you still feel uncomfortable. And you probably will, at least for some time. That’s how psychologists treat full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—helping people to sit with the anxiety until it dies down. And we do this over and over again until the anxiety loses its power over the person, and the next time anxiety says “Was it really off?” they can say much more comfortably: “Yes, it is—I saw it with my own eyes!”

When you choose to remember and remember in faith, you will probably not feel perfectly at ease. I can’t imagine that Drew Barrymore’s character Lucy, upon viewing her “Good Morning” tape, was immediately happily reconciled to the idea that she had a husband and a daughter and was now on a boat to Alaska, when in her mind she should have been eating waffles alone in a café on Hawaii. It probably took some time to come to terms with her reality. There would have likely been quite a few tears. It probably required some mental convincing on her part (in this day and age, I’d probably be checking that video wasn’t a deep fake!).

Jerry Bridges puts it like this:

“For many years in my own pilgrimage of seeking to come to a place of trusting God at all times—I am still far from the end of the journey—I was a prisoner to my feelings. I mistakenly thought I could not trust God unless I felt like trusting him (which I almost never did in times of adversity). Now I am learning that trusting God is first of all a matter of the will, and is not dependent on my feelings. I choose to trust God and my feelings eventually follow.” [7]

For the suffering amnesiac, it is a daily battle to actively recognise and discard the untruths that propagate in the space of God’s apparent absence. But the more you do this, the easier it gets (I promise!). It turns out that our amnesiac brain is actually capable of laying down some long-term memory (and if you’ve seen the end of 50 First Dates, you’ll know what I’m talking about).

So may I issue a challenge? In your head, practice labelling and treating Satan’s jibes as “junk mail”. At times, they might seem convincing and compelling (like that email that declares you’ve just won the lottery or a fortune in bitcoin), but you know they’re ultimately flimsy because they’re from an untrustworthy source. To start this off, you may like to wrestle with some of the questions below:

  • What are some truths you’ve relied on in the past, but now you’re not so sure? They may be truths about God, yourself, or others.

You may like to wrestle with the following passages: Psalm 46, Psalm 106, Luke 12:6-7.

  • What is the evidence (in the Bible and in your own life) that suggests they actually are true? (E.g., if you feel like God has abandoned you, has there ever been a time when you were certain God had acted or spoken?)

  • What are some lies you’ve found yourself believing in the wilderness? (Again, they may be lies about God, yourself, or others.)

  • What is the evidence that these lies are not actually true?

References: [1] Godden, D. R., & Baddeley, A. D. (1975). Context‐dependent memory in two natural environments: On land and underwater. British Journal of Psychology, 66(3), 325-331. [2] Goodwin, D.W., Powell, B., Bremer, D., Hoine, A. & Stern, J. (1969). Alcohol and recall: state-dependent effects in man. Science, 163, 1358–1360. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] Jerry Bridges, ‘Choosing Trust’, in Be Still, My Soul: Embracing God’s Purpose and Provision in Suffering, ed. Nancy Guthrie (Illinois: Crossway, 2010), 109-110.

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