In the human experience, it is the past that most essentially forms who we are. No matter what we do, no matter how long we live or where we go in life, we will carry the past with us. How we see the past will undeniably define how we live in the present and how the future will unfurl before us. Every decision, every desire, every day will be shaped and colored by the past. What will we do with our past? What will we do with the pain, the regret, the glad moments and sad ones, the shame and the miracles of life? It seems to me that the answer to that question may be the defining key to a life well-lived.
Every human being loves remembering the good times and needs no convincing to do so. But what about the regret and shame and the moments we would rather forget: the things done, that should not have been done, or the things that should have been done but were not? We go to great lengths to justify the past, or cover it, or escape it altogether. Like the time I stole peppers from our neighbor’s yard when I was eight: I still remember the arresting vibrancy of their color and the smoothness of their skin in my hands when I picked them. I did not eat any, so far as I can recall, but I was overwhelmed by my guilt when our neighbor drove around the corner and so I threw the peppers into the shrubs. I quickly brushed off the evidence from my hands onto my face and pants, and ambled past her as casually as I could. Within thirty feet, my face felt lit with fire. I started wailing, sure that I was going to die, and my dad came running. He needed no medical training to see that a terrible rash had broken out on my face. Although my face was burning, I still tried to protect my ego.
“What happened?” my father asked. Ah, that dreaded question, feared primordially by humanity ever since God asked Adam and Eve the same question in the Garden of Eden so long ago.
My answer was an outright lie: “Dad, I tripped and hit my face on the gate!”
That was not the only time I tried to cover up my past or justify it or escape it. It was not the only time I complained about my past or coddled my self-pity, but you already know that. How? Because you are just like me. My brothers and sisters, these are all actions of unbelief, not belief. As with most things in life, there is a distinct difference between those who truly believe in Christ and those who do not. The past is one place where that difference is exposed. Belief remembers the past; unbelief does anything else.
There is plenty of proof. Consider the most basic principles of story. The coherence of a story falls apart unless the reader remember previous chapters. Who would open a book at the midway point or the end and get frustrated because that part of the book made no sense? It can only make sense if you read the first part of the book. Since life is a story, the coherence and meaning of a life depends upon remembering the previous chapters of that life. These story basics originate in our God who is, amongst other things, a story-telling God and a God who commands his people to remember.
For this reason, God warned his people in Deuteronomy 6 to “beware, lest you forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage (v. 12). And Moses tells the Israelites to “Remember! Do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness” (Deuteronomy 9:7). In Isaiah 46, God tells Isaiah to “remember the former things of old, for I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done” (v. 10). Paul continues this theme in Ephesians when he encourages his readers to remember that they were once without Christ, being strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:12).
So God’s people have practiced remembering. That is why they built altars in the wilderness and celebrated Passover. That is why we celebrate Easter. It is why we take communion. It is why we educate and why we mourn Alzheimer’s disease. Christians believe that the past is freighted with God’s love, and to forget the past, including the pain, is to forget God’s work.
In Joshua 4, when all the people had completely crossed over the Jordan safely with the Ark of the Covenant, God told Joshua to pick twelve men, one from every tribe, who would each choose a large stone from the river and build an altar of remembrance. Joshua told the people that this altar would be a sign among them so that when their children asked, “What do these stones mean to you?” Then they could tell the story of what God had done. My family has a small basket of stones in our living room. Those stones range in size and color, but each one has a date and one sentence written on it. We call it our Joshua basket, a memorial to the key moments in our family’s history. Each stone calls to mind a miracle or a grief or a loss and seeing the stone forces us down memory lane in accordance with God’s command to remember.
Unfortunately, countless Christians use Philippians 3 as reason to forget their past. Paul writes, “One thing I do; forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward.” The full context of that verse, however, is often neglected. Paul is not talking about every thing in his past; he is talking about all of his accolades and academic pedigree, his trophies and ribbons. So, yes, by all means, forget what is behind if it means forgetting accomplishments. Never let prior accomplishments blunt today’s purpose. Claim the present for the sake of the future. Love God and love people right here, right now, for the glory of God. But you cannot love God nor love people if you forget the disease of the past. You will grow proud, you will lose perspective, and you will lack empathy if you forget the past. If you forget your failures and sins, you will gravitate away from dependence on God and gravitate toward self-reliant arrogance. If you forget your failures and sins, you will forget what you have learned about yourself and about others.
If you forget your failures and sins, you will lose the ability to understand other people’s regret and shame. Remember the past so that you can depend upon God, remember what he has taught you, understand other people’s pain, and track the faithfulness of God.
[read more in Honey from the Lion’s Mouth: available at a bookstore near you]