The Word and Memory

The Ministry of God's Word, CFP, 195-206, by Watchman Nee

Another thing of which a minister of the word must take note is memory, the power to remember. It occupies a much larger place in ministry than we usually think. We have much to learn in this respect.

Need for Memory

When one is ministering he invariably senses the inadequacy of his memory. He may be endowed with a strong memory naturally, but when it comes to ministry he discovers his incompetency. This incompetency affects the outgoing of the words, seems to keep such outgoing covered as by a veil, and so hinders the burden from being discharged. We can only say what we remember, not what we do not remember. How does the inward word uphold the spoken word? How does the former flow out? Without the support of the inner word there will be no spoken word. If the inward word is absent, the spoken word must change its subject, for the subject is in the inward word and not in the spoken word. The second needs the backing of the first, or else it will wither away. Here then is the significance of memory. It is through recall that the inward word is transported to the outside. Whenever our memory fails, our burden ceases to be discharged.

A strange experience common to all the ministers of the word is that the more you remember doctrine the less you recall revelation. You may understand teaching, be quite clear on it, and remember it well. But with revelation it is different. You receive an inner revelation, you see the light, and succeed in fixing that light; you are also given a few words with which to express what you have just seen. Strange to say, though, you find it difficult to remember these words. They may be simple, perhaps only five or ten of them.

Humanly speaking they should be easy to remember. Yet to your amazement, the truer the revelation and the greater the inward seeing, the harder (in actual fact) for you to remember the words. When you rise up to minister, you forget the words within a few minutes. Frequently you mix up the order of the words; occasionally you leave out some of them; and at other times you are able to recollect them with great effort but forget the thing itself. Thus you begin to realize how difficult it is to preserve God’s revelation in man’s memory. You start to learn to pray, “Oh Lord, be gracious to me that I may remember.”

You have to support the spoken word with the inner word. Due to the inadequacy of memory, however, you often fail to have the supply ready. The longer you speak, the farther you drift away from the inward word. After you finish delivering the sermon you find your inner word remains untouched. You came with a burden, yet you return with the same burden. You have not been able to discharge it. This is a great suffering to you. Perhaps you say, “I will write it down in my notebook; then I will remember.” This may or may not help, for an unusual thing happens: as you read your notes you recognize every word of them, but you cannot recall the thing behind the words. How totally inadequate is your memory. If what you have is mere doctrine or teaching you are well able to deliver it. The more doctrinal it is, the easier you remember. But it is not easy to recall revelation. In attempting to communicate your inward revelation you must come to realize that you cannot remember what you have just seen. The words you may remember, yet the thing itself is forgotten. Our problem on the platform is that we forget the thing we have seen. We may say many words, yet none communicates the thing we see. The ministry suffers loss. How necessary it is to have memory.

The memory we need is of two kinds: the outward memory and the Holy Spirit memory. A minister of the word needs both. The outward memory points to the memory of the outward man, that which is produced in a man’s brain. It occupies a very important place in testifying the word of God. The Holy Spirit memory is what the Lord Jesus mentions in John 14.26: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” This is the Holy Spirit memory, for it is the Holy Spirit who brings things to your remembrance, not you yourself.

The Holy Spirit Memory

In our spirit we see something; we are able to fix it in our mind and we are also given inward words. These inward words contain the thought we have as well as the light we receive. God gives us a few words which are called words of revelation. Revelation means seeing, lifting the veil so that light shines and we see the thing behind the veil. When we see that inner reality we at first cannot express it. God grants us sufficient mental power to hold the light and translate it into our own thought—as though photographing the thing. He also grants us words to embrace all the meaning of the revelation. The words God gives include the whole meaning of what is behind the enlightenment. Such words of revelation are therefore seeing words. They are more than words, for they speak of our inward seeing and inward revelation. These words in us are simultaneously a seeing.

What actually are these inward words? They are the utterance of the revelation in me. They are more than simply five or ten words; they utter what I have perceived within. Seeing originally was the function of my eyes, not of my lips. I may be most clear inwardly but unable to utter what is within me. Now God gives me words to embody that light as well as to enable me to utter that which I have seen.

Such words need memory to accommodate them. I must remember two things: the words and the light. Let us call the recollection of the words the outward memory, and that of the light the Holy Spirit memory. Wherein does our difficulty today lie? It is that often we remember the words with our outward memory, but lose the Holy Spirit memory—that is, we cannot recall the light. Words we recollect, but sight we forget. There is no such problem in the realm of doctrine or teaching, because we can memorize and deliver every word and so our task is done. Doctrine stops at the outward. The ministry of the word, however, is to touch life. The more doctrinal, the easier to be remembered and to be uttered. The more full of life the inward seeing is, the easier to be forgotten. We may recall every word but lose sight of the reality. This is due to some defect in our Holy Spirit memory. Only in this way will the words be living. Whenever these inward words are separated from the Holy Spirit memory they change from spiritual to material. All spiritual things can turn material if care is not exercised.

Inward words may easily plunge into outward death. Spiritual words may quickly be materialized. To insure their effectiveness spiritual words must be kept alive in the Spirit. Words of revelation need to be nurtured in the Holy Spirit or else you may recall the words but not the revelation. It is relatively common, for example, to know the uncleanness and the repugnancy of sin. Some see this on the first day of their faith in the Lord; others are awakened to it at the time of revival. The first ones see the repugnancy of their sin immediately upon hearing the glad tidings, whereas the others live such a loose life that it may not be until three to five years later that they are revived by the Holy Spirit to be convicted of it.

Once a certain brother was convicted of his sin. He was so overwhelmed by it that he rolled on the floor from eight in the evening until dawn. Others had long left the meeting hall, but he remained there rolling as though he had come to the gate of hades. “Even though I go to hell,” he cried out, “it still is less than I deserve!” During that night the Lord showed him the repugnancy of sin. He saw it in his spirit, and he was able to tell others of the hatefulness of sin. As is written in a hymn, he saw sin as black as smoke, and nothing is darker than smoke. With just those few words he was able to utter his inward revelation. Many were helped. Even so, after two or three years his revelation gradually grew dim. The words “sin black as smoke” were still with him, but when he rose to speak, the picture was no longer there. The revelation of the Holy Spirit had faded away; it was no longer as distinct and powerful as before. Formerly when he preached on the blackness of sin it was with tears in his eyes; now he spoke with a smile. The taste was different. The words were the same, but the Holy Spirit memory was absent.

One day the Lord may show you the sinfulness of sin as found in Romans 7.13—“that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.” You see the sinfulness of sin and you are terrified by the word “sin.” It is possible, though, that within a few days afterwards you may still recall the words “sinful beyond measure,” and yet the picture is missing. At the time you see the sinfulness of sin before God sin is present and is the image before you. When you subsequently stand to speak on that subject, however, the words may remain with you but the picture has disappeared. We call the picture the Holy Spirit memory.

As a minister of the word you need the Holy Spirit memory which enables you to recall not only the words but the picture also. Hence each time you rise up to speak you should ask the Lord to grant you the Holy Spirit memory so that when the words are uttered the reality may also be sent forth. Otherwise, after you have spoken ten or twenty times on the repugnancy of sin you yourself may become confused. Only when you once again see the sinfulness of sin in the Holy Spirit memory are you able to present the picture as well as speak the words. That is the word of God. Words plus the picture. Brethren, do you realize that God’s word needs to have that picture? Words alone cannot be considered as God’s word. There must be the reality behind them.

Let us use another example. Suppose you are preaching on the love of the Lord. While you speak you have the picture with you. You speak according to the picture; and it is effective. Frequently, though, you speak of how God loves you yet you yourself do not quite sense that love. How then can you expect others to believe? You are in need of the Holy Spirit memory. It is He who gives you that picture, that reality of the Lord’s love. As you present the reality to others, the more you speak the more that reality is touched and the more abundantly life flows. Without the Holy Spirit memory, words are only words—correct, yet not real. Therefore when you preach the word of God you must look for the Holy Spirit memory to enable you to recall both the revelation and inward words God has given to you. Speaking according to the inward words will bring out life, and people will see what you have seen.

Probably many have been saved through the words in John 3.16. But suppose you merely recite the words, even to the tenth time; do you think they will be effective? To make it once more effective it requires the Holy Spirit to recall from your memory what you saw in that verse when you were saved.

Many feel the preciousness and loveliness of the Lord after their sins are forgiven. They receive an inward revelation which distinctly shows them how very precious the Lord is, for the one whose many sins are forgiven loves much. He has seen the Lord and he has the words as well as the thought in them. He can speak for an hour or two, pouring out what is within him; and those who hear feel the anointing and are helped. After some days have passed, he may once again speak on this subject. He remembers the words perfectly; they are just the same; yet the more he continues speaking the less it seems to be the real thing. He has forgotten the reality. The words are there, yet the love is missing. He lacks the Holy Spirit memory. All revelations must be kept in His memory.

Hence the one who desires to be a minister of the word needs to be one who has a good Holy Spirit memory. The better that memory the richer the ministry, because there will be much that is living in the minister. If our Holy Spirit memory is faulty, many of our revelations will have to be re-revealed. This is a very pitiable condition. Before God such a one must not only have the revelation of the Spirit, he must have it again and again in ever growing. measure. Thirty years ago when you were saved you received a revelation from the Lord. Later on He gave you more and more revelation. In other words, revelation grows. What you saw at the time of salvation is the basic revelation which must grow progressively. A minister of the word nurtures all the revelations he has received in his Holy Spirit memory. And consequently all that he has is living.

Let us use the hatefulness or abhorrence of sin once again as another illustration. Such abhorrence must be fresh in your memory when you speak; otherwise you may talk about it but it will be totally ineffective because you are serving overnight manna or even last year’s manna. Many brothers rise to preach the gospel; some, you notice, have the Holy Spirit memory; others do not. This is something beyond pretension. Its presence or absence is unequivocal. However high and deep is the revelation, it must be kept alive in the Holy Spirit memory. How strange it seems that even at the very first delivery of a word we may have already forgotten the reality of what we have beheld in the spirit. It may be forgiveable to have forgotten the abhorrence of the sin which you saw ten or fifteen years ago, but what about forgetting the revelation you received only last night? A revelation must therefore be remembered in us by the Holy Spirit.

We can use still another example. Some years ago a brother saw the big difference between touching the Lord and pressing the Lord, between that which is spiritual and that which is merely objective. He saw it most vividly at that time and he was full of joy. A few days passed. He went to visit a sick brother. He tried to share with that sick brother what he had seen, but he was simply circling around. He tried desperately to recall what he had seen; he even perspired; yet the more he talked the less meaningful it felt in him. This is because he had not learned to nurture the revelation in the Holy Spirit memory. Only when the word of revelation is nurtured there can you use it when you minister.

In addition to revelation, thought, and inward and spoken words, there must also be the Holy Spirit memory. Its absence affects both the inward and the outward spoken words. No one can depend on his natural strength. Whoever you may be, your natural strength is incompetent in the ministry of the word. Only the fool is proud of himself. How can you boast if you cannot recall even what you saw yesterday? You may try to recollect till your head aches, nonetheless you still do not remember. To supply spoken words with the inward words of revelation requires the Holy Spirit memory. This alone enables you to speak what the Lord wants you to and to use spiritual words instead of merely objective words. If this is not so, your spirit will fade out at your speaking.

It is therefore evident that when the Lord is working in us, to be a minister of the word is easy; but when He is not working, nothing is harder than being a minister. God’s demand on a minister of the word is exacting. May He be gracious to us that we may have His memory so that we may remember the revelation together with the words. As we speak we will have the reality with us. To lose sight of the thing while speaking will upset us. The longer we talk the more confused we will become. We will not know what we are talking about. Brethren, let us acknowledge the futility of our natural brain.

The Outward Memory

Next we shall consider the outward memory. This may or may not be employed by the Lord, as He pleases. We are not able to explain why this is so; we can only mention the fact.

Frequently your condition may be as follows: you have the inward words, the words of revelation; you also have the Holy Spirit memory. But the latter needs the help of your own memory. The Spirit will bring things to your remembrance, but He does not create another memory for you. Review what John 14.26 declares: “and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” The Spirit of God in you is living, and the revelation God gives is nurtured in the Holy Spirit. Before you go to preach, God gives you two words, two key words. If you are able to remember these two words the Holy Spirit memory can also recall the revelation. If you forget these two words the Holy Spirit memory will also be lost. To protect yourself from forgetting you may write down these important words. Often at the sight of these words your inner picture reappears and you again see the revelation.

The outward memory is therefore at times used by the Holy Spirit. However, what you have written may sometimes fail to bring back the picture. That is why this outward memory may or may not be used of God. If only the outward memory remains and the inward revelation is gone, then of course nothing can be done. Usually the more revelation you receive the more effective is your outward memory. As the Holy Spirit memory increases in you your outward memory is correspondingly purified. The purer the thing the easier to be remembered, both inwardly and outwardly. At first your inward memory may not be able to compare with your outward memory. Do not be discouraged. For as your experiences multiply you will find these two memories getting closer until they become one. Hence we must humble ourselves before God. Pray much and wait more. After you are clear within, go out and preach. The inward words must be in the revelation of the Holy Spirit before we can ever speak.

Occasionally people praise you after your preaching, but you yourself know you have not been able to recall the thing. Your inward memory was disconnected from your outward memory. What you have said was perfectly right, but the revelation was dim and blurred. As ministers of the word we need to learn before God to have both the Spirit memory and the outward memory. The Holy Spirit memory must be placed between revelation and the word so that it may supply the inward words; while our own memory must be placed between the inward words and the spoken words so that it may support the spoken words.

We have noticed three steps (leaving thought temporarily aside): first, enlightenment; second, the inward words; and third, the outward words. Put the Holy Spirit memory between the first and the second, and our own memory between the second and the third. Between enlightenment and the inward words stands the Holy Spirit memory, for it uses the enlightenment to supply the inward words. The inward words need to be supplied with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. Without that, the words are dead—merely objective and unspiritual. Through the Holy Spirit memory, light shines on the inward words, which in turn live in the enlightenment. Our own memory then supplies the outward words so as to make us articulate.

But let us be reminded that this outward memory can never be a substitute for the inward memory, since oftentimes the Holy Spirit memory does not take up our outward memory.

A warning needs to be sounded here. Our outward memory may sometimes strongly obstruct the Holy Spirit memory. Our inward words may be full of light and life as the Holy Spirit enables us to remember that enlightenment, but if we cannot recall outwardly those few key words then they are blocked from going forth. Nothing is wrong inside; the problem is with the outside. If you are busy with many things throughout the day and evening, naturally you are unable to recall many words. Or if your thoughts are loose or you have many cares, the three or five words which the Lord gives you will soon be forgotten. It may be a help if you write these words down so that you may restore the thing and revitalize your inner revelation.

Each time you minister the word the Holy Spirit has many words to say. You need to be careful not to over-emphasize one part while overlooking another. For example, the Holy Spirit may have three things in mind but you may let two of them slip from your memory. These will become a load to your ministry. How can you minister well if you lose something? Within a certain revelation God may want you to mention two or three problems. If you forget and let some slip by they will make you feel very uneasy. Hence in taking down any word be sure that these few words cover all the things to be mentioned, lest you skip over something. It is bearable if you miss the last point, but it is disastrous to forget the first point. The entire ministry would then be spoiled.

How serious is the ministry of the word! Let us not offend the Holy Spirit in this. Do not think it does not matter if you skip over only one of the five words. If you skip over what you should have said, you will come to feel heavier and heavier as you drone on. This is because you have failed to give the words which the Lord intended for His children.

A minister of the word must not fail here. Mention three things if the Lord wants you to speak on three things; five if He so wishes. Any failure will intensify the load. If everything is said except the one thing which ought to be said, the light of that one thing will overwhelm you and make you miserable. Let us therefore exercise our memory. We must guard against any defect in it. May God show us the way of ministry. Our outward memory is only a slave to the Holy Spirit memory. Yet if this slave fails, it impedes the usefulness of the Holy Spirit memory. May our memory be renewed for the use of the Holy Spirit. That is why our thought life must be dealt with. Our memory must be disciplined until it is usable. How important recollection is in the ministry of the word. Its failure means the end of a revelation.

Memory and Quoting the Scriptures

As we deliver the word of God we should be like the apostles—that is, we should quote the Scriptures. They quoted the Old Testament, but we quote both the New and the Old. What we say must be based on the written word, on the Old and the New Testaments. A difficulty is present with us today, however. If we are less careful, we may run away with the Bible—we may speak on the New Testament as well as on the Old Testament but fail to discharge the burden of the day. If so, our burden will become heavier when we arrive home. We frequently have no control over our memory at the time of speaking. We can easily be carried away by a passage in the Old or in the New Testament. We return home deeply reproved in our conscience because we have spent all our time in talking about the Bible, in preaching on the doctrine, whereas we have not discharged the burden which God laid upon us.

Consequently all the while we are speaking we should check to see if our burden is being discharged. We speak one word or many words; we quote from the Old or the New Testament; nonetheless all of these are only engaged to draw out the word which God has given us for today. Otherwise, people may as well gather and read the Bible together; why should we come and speak? We must say not only what the Old and New Testament say; we must also utter the words God gives to us.

The ministry of the word is a most subjective thing in a man. We have words to speak which God gave before, and we have words to say which God gives today. We must let out not only the words of the Old and New Testament but our words as well. We speak the word through the Old Testament and through the New, and afterwards with our own words. Our words should be strong and rich. As they are delivered they should pierce and cut so as to let out life. As life continues to flow, the burden is gradually discharged. By the time we cease speaking, the burden is entirely released. Even if our words are not as we wish, so long as the burden is lifted the job is done. There will be fruit. One thing is very certain: if a burden is discharged God’s children will surely see light. Under such circumstances as these failure to see light is due to some difficulty in the audience, not to the speaker. But if the burden fails to be discharged the difficulty lies with the speaker, not with the audience.

Let us learn something important before God: the minister of the word has a burden, words are used to discharge that burden, and the Holy Spirit memory is necessary for this discharge. But even with the Holy Spirit memory, care should be exercised lest we be carried away by the truth we find in the New or in the Old Testament. Always keep in mind that our responsibility is to bring God’s current words to men. We are not to teach the Bible and forget what God has shown us. If we forget the word given to us, then no matter how much we say and though strange as it may seem, we will continue to have that one thing pressing in on us. It is possible Satan is trying to obstruct. Our thoughts must be rich and our memory strong as we give our very best for the discharge of the burden.