The past can be a tricky thing: it clearly forms us, but how much? Do we need to remember in order to move forward? Do we need to forget? Is our history control our destiny or does it merely influence it? And most importantly, whatever has happened in our lives up to this point, is there hope?
Bob Kelleman, a Christian counselor, author, and speaker (http://www.rpmministries.org/blog/), has a great perspective on this. His claim is that the Bible reveals to us not only the importance of remembering our past, but making sure we grow in Christian maturity as we do so.
“Remember” is used 167 times in the Bible (at least in the NIV), reminding us of the importance of remembering. We see it both in the Old Testament and the New. Usually, it has to do with remembering events in order to remember that God was at work in the midst of those events
- “Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, 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 and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.” Deuteronomy 8:11-18
- In Deuteronomy 32, God warns Moses that the Israelites will break their covenant with him. He tells Moses to write down a song of God’s presence (with all the interaction, faithfulness, and blessings and cursing of the covenant) and teach it to all the people so it will be a witness. One portion of the song says, “Remember the days of long ago; think about the generations past. Ask your father, and he will inform you. Inquire of your elders, and they will tell you.” Deuteronomy 32:7
- When Jesus and disciples participated in what we call the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Keep doing this to remember me” (Luke 22:19).
There are times we read about forgetting the former things, but this idea is often misunderstood. Here are the two verses I hear quoted the most:
- After citing all the ways He has redeemed or saved the Israelites, God says through Isaiah, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (NIV) Isaiah 43:18-19
- Paul writes in Philippians that “…forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (NKJV) Philippians 3:13-14
The writers were not urging people to develop amnesia. In both cases, it means not being distracted by success and blessing. Isaiah was referring to good things, not bad ones (and actually tells them several verses later to “review the past for me”). Philippians is referring to good things in Paul’s life that could lead to self-righteousness, pride in personal accomplishments, and complacency. Bruce Springsteen was right: Glory days really will pass you by. Remembering the past is important for at least two reasons: our past clearly forms or informs who we are today, and God was present (and He is worth remembering).
Trying to suppress bad memories can become a refusal to face and deal with life. We talk a lot about “coping mechanisms” such as drinking and drugs and food, at least when they are used to numb our pain, emptiness, or guilt. But what about when we simply refuse to be honest about the things that have formed who we are? Is that not an unhealthy coping mechanism too? Here’s a daunting verse: “Remember and never forget how angry you made the LORD your God out in the wilderness.” Deuteronomy 9:7
Never forget how angry they made God!? This is not a verse we see on coffee mugs or taped on bathroom mirrors. That’s a reference to the whole Golden Calf Episode, though Moses promptly lists four more places where they really made God angry because of their disobedience ( “You also made the Lord angry at Taberah, at Massah and at Kibroth Hattaavah…Kadesh Barnea.” 22-23). This was hardly a shining moment in Israelite history, but there it was. Nobody was allowed to dodge it.
We should be honest with ourselves, God and others regarding our past. Can you remember times when you angered God – or your spouse, kids, parent, boss, friends – because of your sin? If this principle holds true, don’t forget how it impacted those around you. It can be a great incentive to stop your drifting back into that part of your life, and it can give clarity about what kind of person you are striving to be. Reflecting on the devastation of sin also reminds us of the grace of a God who forgives us even after the worst of our sins, as well as the forgiveness people around us have offered to us.
In Revelation, after John gives props to the church in Ephesus for their perseverance and godly deeds, we read an admonition as well: “You have forsaken the love you had at first. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelations 2:5).
I am more and more convinced that true, life-changing repentance can only happen after honest acknowledgment of who we are and what we have done. The goal – at least when it comes to memories of things we have done wrong – is not shame but repentance and then renewal and restoration. In Psalms 51, written after his disastrous affair with Bathsheba, David modeled what to do after falling from the heights: remembering and repenting of his heart and his actions – and then receiving God’s renewal:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight… Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (Psalm 51:1-4; 10-12)
Notice how David adds repentance to his recollection of events, then anticipates the forgiveness and mercy of God on the other side of the chaos that resulted from his sin. Remember….reflect, repent….God will be faithful.
Reflecting and repenting have a lot to do with looking at our choices and our lives. There are also plenty of times when things are done to us that greatly impact our lives as well. Joseph makes this comment to his brothers, who sold him into slavery: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20)
The language in Hebrew captures both a physical or symbolic weaving together, like a tapestry with a good or evil plan. Joseph looked back at his life and found where and how God intervened in his story to create some type of beauty and life where there would have been none. In this situation, Joseph was able to see in a very practical way that God had brought a good result (“the saving of many lives”) from a bad situation.
I preached on this a number of years ago, and in looking back at my notes I think I got something wrong. I said this was about Joseph. It’s not. It involves Joseph, but it’s about “the saving of many lives.” Joseph wasn’t saying, “They intended harm for me and now God has intervened by my good.” He’s saying, “They intended harm for me and now God has intervened for the sake of the world.” The story of Joseph is rightly highlighted as pointing toward the arrival of Jesus,  so I am not going to tell you that you are Joseph. Joseph was Joseph, and God used his life uniquely.
However, his story highlights an important point: God can take a life that has absorbed a lot of harm and bring about good - for the sake of the world. Many times we look at our lives and assume we are worthless in the overall scheme of things. (“Do you know what has been done to me? Do you know how I have been betrayed and used?”) But God is not stumped by sin and chaos. Just read the Bible – God is very, very good at taking broken, sinful, messed up lives and redeeming them for His glory and for the good of the world.
Reinterpret does not mean lie, ignore or make up stuff to make the story better. It just means that we should not give up on a God who is very, very good at taking situations or people that have been harmed and using them in the healing of the world (think of all the people whose past makes them such good ministers of the hope of the gospel now).
Reinterpret is a challenge to see how your past experiences allow you to minister to others for their good and God’s glory.
We engage in an act of worship by retelling our stories in a way that shows how God weaves goodness into the world. Our testimony of God’s involvement in our life is never meant to be just about us – it must honor and glorify God and His role in redeeming our past, and it is meant to give hope to the world. Look at how David wraps up Psalm 51 (the one about Bathsheba): “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you... Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.” (Psalm 51:13)
Really? How will David teach this? Well if the previous verses in chapter 51 are any indication, he will tell his story. He speaks as a transgressor and sinner in whom God was at work even in the midst of his sin. It is often in the retelling where we see that even the worst parts of our past can be reclaimed and retold for the glory of God. We don’t remember to wallow in our past sin and shame, but to remind ourselves and others of a God who present, faithful, and redemptive.