The old saying goes, “History repeats itself.” The negative spin on that statement is also an oldie: “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Both statements certainly hold wisdom, but I would submit that forgetting our history, in an of itself, may be the bigger tragedy. As technological and social connections advance, our scope tends to narrow more and more onto the present. Now is all we have, all we really grasp, and therefore worth all of our investment. The lessons of the past were for those living in the past. This is a new day. We’ll make our own mistakes and learn our own lessons, and therefore pave our own way. And we’ve convinced ourselves that’s how it actually works.
This is not a new phenomenon. One of the saddest chapters of human history, certainly of Jewish history, was the time period of the Judges recorded in the Old Testament. The cyclical nature of the Jewish people rebelling against God, hitting rock bottom, crying out for mercy, and finding redemption spanned about 300 years. After the death of their storied leader Joshua, followed by the passing of the entire generation that survived the wilderness, the new generation “did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel”. (Judges 2.10) They had no first-hand recollection of the miraculous works of God that had dramatically defined the previous generation. Therefore, all they could do was live in the moment, one generation after another, and it would cost them dearly
We may be quick to blame the second generation for neglecting the lessons learned by their fathers, but how could they remember the miracles that they had never witnessed? Could it be that the first generation deserves more share of the blame for not passing on the stories of God? The history that defined their existence could have been the foundation for generations to come. Instead, we have the book of Judges to serve as a dark sequel to the miracles of the Exodus.
There’s a real danger in forgetting our history. There’s an even bigger danger in not sharing it. Our present circumstances are not void of influences from the past, but are instead wholly shaped by them. Why should we care? Because without an eye to the past, our present is no more than a collection of emotions, reactions, and best guesses. “The moment” drifts from port to port without the steady compass of the past to guide us. In the same manner, the future gives meaning and hope to an otherwise pointless present. The future is the star toward which the compass of the past points our ship of the present.
For those who trust in Christ, let’s throw out some theological terms to round out the point. Once our justification (past declaration of forgiveness by God) is settled, only then can our sanctification (present spiritual development) take shape, which is informed and strengthened by the knowledge of our glorification (future and final eternal condition). Eugene Peterson, in his book Where Your Treasure Is, illustrates it this way in the context of prayer: “We require a history of salvation and a hope of a kingdom. We need a past and a future that impinge on the present and give it dimensions – depth and height and breadth. Prayer develops these dimensions.”
The life of Christ does not simply exist here and now. If you are a believer, the stories of how God acted in your past (and of those who came before you), as well as the glorious future that awaits you, all profoundly shape every day of your life. Countless times the Bible calls us to “remember” what God has done and to “wait” for what he has promised to do. This is the only way to truly live in the moment.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.
Peterson, Eugene. Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms That Summon You from Self to Community. Grand Rapids, MI, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993. Page 89.