Remembering (and) Retelling

“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?” Isaiah 43:18-19

“…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.” Philippians 3:13-14

“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

“Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees... Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down...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... 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 8:10-18

Forgetting sounds amazing when we think of abuse or sin in our history. Remembering sounds great when we think of beauty and peace. So how do we honor both these commands? How do we "forget what lies behind" while remembering the wisdom of generations and the presence of God in our past? Is there a way God wants us to think about our past?

Bob Kellemen, a Christian counselor, author, and speaker, has a great perspective on this question. I am indebted to him for the following way of thinking about the past.

1) Remember
“Remember” is used 167 times in the Bible; clearly, God is a fan of history. Part of our confusion comes from some confusion about biblical language. In Philippians 3, Paul uses a Greek word for “forget” that conveys the idea of not focusing our attention on something that would take us out of the race for the "upward call of God in Christ Jesus." In this case, the distraction Paul refers to was not something bad at all. It was the list of admirable accomplishments in his life – which could lead to self-righteousness and pride in personal accomplishments.

Paul was saying something like this: “Don’t lose focus on your goal. Don’t get caught up in your own ‘glory days’ and start patting yourself on the back for how awesome you were. Don’t lose sight of the high calling of your life in Christ.” We also see this happening in the passage in Isaiah 43. Right before and after the verses where we read, “Forget about the past; don’t dwell on former things,” Isaiah notes:

“This is what the Lord says—he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses…Review the past for me; let us argue the matter together.”

Isaiah wanted them to remember the past, the former things, for the purpose of remembering God. He didn’t want them so caught up in it that they forgot to look at how God was going to work in them now. Remembering how God worked in the past helps us look at the present with new eyes.

2) Reflect

“Remember and never forget how angry you made the LORD your God out in the wilderness.” Deuteronomy 9:7

That's a reference to the whole Golden Calf Episode. 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. It gives clarity about why we are who we are in the present, and can help to establish who we want to be in the future. Trying to suppress bad memories can become a refusal to face and deal with life. We talk a lot about “coping mechanisms” such as alcohol, drugs, food, and relationships, 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?

3) Repent (when needed) I say “when needed” because sometimes bad things in our past have been done to us. In that case, we seek healing and move toward forgiveness. But for the times we have have done something sinful, we have a biblical admonition: “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” (Revelations 2:5) True repentance comes after honest reflection.

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. 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)

4) Reinterpret

Joseph makes this comment about his past: “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)  In the Hebrew, “intended” can be physical (like weaving a tapestry) or symbolic (weaving together a good or evil plan). In this case, Joseph reflects on his life and notes that what one person was intending to weave into an evil tapestry of his life, God was weaving in an entirely different outcome.

This is looking back at our lives and purposefully finding where and how God intervened in our stories and created some type of beauty and life where there would have been none. This is not the same as asking, “Why did God allow this to happen?” (which is a legitimate question). It’s asking, “How has God been present in spite of this happening? How is God taking something meant to harm me and accomplishing something good?”

5) Retell 

Bob Kellemen has noted, “We shape our sense of self and who we are in Christ from our retelling of our experiences.” In fact, we engage in an act of worship God to God by retelling our stories in a way that shows how God weaves goodness into a tapestry full of evil. Our testimony of God’s involvement in our life honors and glorifies Him and His role in redeeming our past. David wraps up Psalm 51 in this way:

 “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) 

How will David teach this? He will tell his story (which is, of course, recorded in the Bible). Even the worst parts of our past can be reclaimed and retold for the glory of God.