For emerging adults, life is often consumed by thoughts about the present and the future. A host of new responsibilities and life skills beckon for attention. Learning to “stand on their own two feet” requires significant energy on a daily basis.
In addition, they are often probed to think deeply about the future. What major will lead to a desired future career? What do you most want to explore as a vocation? What will it take to get into graduate school? Will this relationship continue towards marriage? In all of these ways, emerging adults are pressed to invest deeply in the present so that they can build a strong foundation for future success.
More than Present and Future
But what about the past? At this time of life, more than most, the past is a forgotten world. Emerging adults often shed childhood identifications and press to embrace new identities. They see people in their former lives—parents, teachers, coaches, and youth pastors—as foils against which they are now developing new and improved views and lifestyles. The past can appear as a weight holding them back from their future dreams and visions. Technological advances can intensify this perspective, identifying the past with things “outdated” and therefore irrelevant to future progress. The past, they reason, should be left right where it is—in the past.
And yet the Scripture is clear: God continually calls his people to remember, to consciously and repeatedly look back to the past in order to actively call to mind the past mercies of God. Annual God continually calls his people to remember.feasts and festivals tied to the agricultural calendar—Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, Purim, etc.—brought to mind God’s works in delivering the Israelites from Egypt, giving the law on Mt. Sinai, protecting them during the wilderness wanderings, and preserving them from genocide. Throughout the book of Joshua, God calls his people to set up visible markers and altars so that future generations would look back and remember God’s work and promises among them. In the wake of a decisive victory against the Philistines, Samuel set up a rock and named it “Ebenezer” to help the Israelites in future generations remember: “thus far the Lord has helped us” (1 Sam. 7:12). God wanted his people to remain attentive to him, and one way to promote this was through the practice of remembering.
Boldness, Humility, Generosity
Why was this so important, and what benefits might the practice of remembering bring to contemporary emerging adults living in such a fast-paced world devoted to personal achievement and perpetual progress? In one sense, remembering should serve as a pathway to enhanced boldness. In Deuteronomy 7:17-18, confronted with the daunting entry into Canaan, the people are reminded: “You may say to yourselves, ‘These nations are stronger than we are. How can we drive them out?’ But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all of Egypt…” In other words, remembering God’s past faithfulness and power was a means of helping them to move forward in confidence. Remembering God’s past acts was a way of bolstering in their minds the reality of God’s strength, presence, and provision. For emerging adults, regularly confronted with new challenges, meditating on God’s past faithfulness can provide courage by reinforcing the truth about his character and help. The fearful tendency to shrink back from new opportunities is often directly related to feelings of personal inadequacy, but the practice of remembering shifts the perspective to God’s adequacy in these situations. Boldness, rooted in divine confidence, is often a direct result.
Yet that boldness must also be humble. In times of success, God saw fit to remind the Israelites of the potential of pride: “when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud…. You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me’” (Deut 8:12-14, 17). For emerging adults, the achievements of this stage of life can easily swell the ego, furnishing a self-congratulatory posture in which they see themselves as the architects of their successes. Learning about and developing one’s gifts can foster what Walter Brueggemann once called “self-groundedness,” the belief that “our life springs from us, that we generate our own power and vitality, and that within us can be found the sources of wholeness and well-being.”Walter Brueggemann, “Covenanting as Human Vocation,” Interpretation 33, no. 2 (1979): 116. Remembering can be a powerful antidote to this prideful posture, reminding them that all of their accomplishments, all of their gifts, are indeed the result of God’s providential work in their lives. Boldness in this sense is tempered by humility in recognition that “every good and perfect gift” is from above (James 1:17). Remembering can enable emerging adults to acknowledge all of life as a gift, defining them as stewards rather than the sources of their blessings.
Perhaps surprisingly, remembering can also serve to enhance an emerging adult’s focus on others. If remembering fosters a view of one’s blessedness, it can also furnish a growing desire to bless others. This is the logic of grace. A recognition of deliverance from slavery promotes a desire to release other slaves (Deut 15:15). Recognition of forgiveness of one’s own sin generates forgiveness of others (Matt 18:31-35; Col 3:13). If emerging adults perceive their lives in terms of scarcity or deficiency, they are apt to use others to get what they need. Self-centeredness is in many ways a natural correlate of this posture. If, on the other hand, they view themselves as blessed and favored, they are apt to graciously give out of that overflow to bless others. Our consumer-driven culture certainly highlights and reinforces a sense of lack. Reflection on God’s past mercies, however, can begin to foreground gratitude, which leads directly to a desire to share that blessing with others through service, compassion, forgiveness, giving, and many other practical expressions of outward-looking love.
In Deed and Word
So how can this practice be reinforced in emerging adults’ lives? In the Old Testament, remembering happened through the feasts and festivals, through singing (e.g., the Song of Moses), through physical reminders of God’s work, through oral recitation of God’s great deeds, and in many other ways. For emerging adults, remembering can be fostered in similar ways. They can corporately celebrate great things God does, creating venues to commemorate significant moments of grace. They can get in the practice of documenting God’s good work through journaling or creating physical reminders of these moments. I have known emerging adults who have constructed photo albums complete with words and pictures detailing God-given blessings in their lives. I have known others who do this through an online or social media journal. I’ve known college roommates who actually had a jar in their room into which they regularly placed rocks with God’s great works written on them. Periodically, they would remove a rock, read its contents, and turn this into a prayer of thanksgiving. In all these ways, they are taking part in a project that Puritan Richard Baxter once called “aggravating the mercies of God” so that they would stay at the forefront of their minds.Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory: Or, a Body of Practical Divinity and Cases of Conscience (Vol. 1-5) (London: James Duncan, Paternoster Row, 1825; Original work published 1673), 430.
It would also be helpful for both individuals and churches to recover the lost practice of “testimony.” As Amanda Drury has suggested in her recent book, Saying is Believing, there is a close link between articulation and reality.Amanda Hontz Drury, Saying is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Development (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015). For something to seem real, for it to continue to remain plausible in the mind, it must be verbalized and expressed. This is true for all matters of faith, but it should be noted that such articulation is critical for remembering God’s work in one’s life. As emerging adults share stories of God’s faithful provision, help in suffering, and other aspects of his work in the past, they bless others and also solidify and confirm their own belief and confidence in his character. Without such verbalizing, these acts of God can begin to appear distant and unreal, obscured by the urgency of present events and natural forgetfulness. Remembering, in this sense, occurs best when it has an oral component. The more emerging adults speak these memories, the more they feel and believe the reality of God in their lives.
Hearing Biblical Stories Again
Finally, it should be mentioned that a critical aspect of remembering goes beyond emerging adults’ own lives to consider the larger scope of biblical and church history. Interestingly, it seems that churches and other ministries often fail to communicate biblical stories beyond the childhood years. Yet it is only through constant repetition of such stories that these continue to inform the soul and shape identity. It is through such narrative accounts that we see God’s character shine through, Christianity is an immersive story that defines our very identity.historical demonstrations of his actual (rather than presumed) nature. It is also in such accounts that emerging adults can be immersed in the story that is truly their story. Without a continual reiteration of these biblical stories, the dominant narratives of the culture can begin to seem more real, more self-defining, and more constitutive of identity. Beyond childhood and adolescence, emerging adults still need to hear and sit with these stories so that they can effectively remember God’s faithfulness, character, and work in the world. Church history is also critical along these lines, helping emerging adults see that they are part of a lineage of faithful saints who have placed their trust in Christ. We teach national history to foster a sense of loyalty and identity in our citizens, but we often fail to teach church history to our emerging adults who are citizens of the Kingdom of God. Christianity, therefore, is viewed as a belief to hold rather than an immersive story that defines their very identity. They need these stories to heighten their focus on the larger spiritual world.
In all of these ways, remembering can become a critical means of fostering spiritual attentiveness in emerging adults. Looking back becomes a critical means of gazing deeply into the character of God, promoting confidence in God’s work and character, humility in light of his greatness, and compassion emerging from a sense of gracious divine overflow. In the endless flow of new events, experiences, and challenges, spiritual attentiveness must be accompanied by a repeated call to remember.