An example of misremembering the past is given to us in Exodus 16:
“They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’”
–Exodus 16:1-3 (ESV)
As soon as the Israelites were out of Egypt, they began to rewrite their own history. More accurately, we can say that they remembered their history correctly, but not completely. They only remembered certain aspects of their former life in Egypt.
“We sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full,” they said. This was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. They also worked non-stop as slaves. They also lived under a regime that sought to control their population by killing their children.
When God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, he said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters.” (Exodus 3:7 ESV)
He said it a second time: “And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them.” (Exodus 3:9 ESV)
What cry did God hear? These people are now acting like they were content in their bondage. They have forgotten their cry for deliverance. They have remembered only the meat and bread that filled their bellies. They have misremembered the past.
This should have been a warning sign to Moses about how hard these people were going to be to lead. Logic doesn’t work on people who have an inconsistent and distorted memory of the past. You can’t reason with them, because the are not seeing reality clearly.
The Israelites were double-minded. They held conflicting ideas and motives, so it was easy for them to remember certain aspects of their past and forget others.
They also tended to focus on the negative. When people can only see what is bad about the present, they will only see what was good about the past.
There is lesson here for all followers of Jesus, just as there are many lessons for us in the history of Israel.
In 1 Corinthians 10, after recounting some of the suffering of Israel in the wilderness, the apostle Paul said this:
“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”
–1 Corinthians 10:11 (ESV)
In following Jesus, people often make the mistake of misremembering their past. That past, of course, is the life they lived before they began to follow Jesus on the path to the crucified life.
Christians can make this mistake even after they have made some progress. They have had some victories. But problems persist. Difficulties don’t go away. And their former life, which is fading into the past, is starting to look different to them.
They don’t remember the pain, the despair, the emptiness. Instead, they only remember the ways in which their life was easier than it is now. They remember only the comfort and enjoyment they found in doing things they no longer do.
It is good to remember your past. Indeed, it is necessary. But remember your whole past, good and bad. Follow the advice Paul gave to the church in Rome: Remember the fruit of your former life.
In other words, remember the real outcome of your sin: the pain it caused, the lost opportunities and wasted potential. Remember your slavery for what it was. At the time, you thought you were free. Now you know better. Don’t deceive yourself with a distorted version of your former life.
Here is how Paul put it:
“For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
–Romans 6:20-23 (ESV)
The apostle Peter also talked about the importance of looking back at the past with clear vision. If you do so, you will also have a clear vision of your future, and the blessings God has in store for you. On the other hand, if you lose sight of where you came from, you will also lose sight of where you are going.
Peter explained it like this:
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.”
–2 Peter 1:5-9 (ESV)
He warns, here, about the danger of becoming so nearsighted that you are almost blind. A nearsighted person can only see what is right in front of their face. They can’t see far ahead.
Peter, however, is talking about a spiritual blindness. This comes when you lose sight of where you are going and can only see your immediate circumstances.
How does this happen? Peter said it happens when you fail to look back, or when you look back with a distorted vision. The person who does this “is so nearsighted that he is blind,” said Peter, “having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.”
Forgetting that you were cleansed from your former sins: this is the error of misremembering the past. This will rob you of your long-term spiritual vision.
Always remember, however, that there is no condemnation in Christ. Don’t be burdened with guilt over things God has forgiven a long time ago. Guilt and shame were part of your slave mentality. You are now free.
Yet it is precisely because of this freedom from guilt and shame that you can have an accurate assessment of sin, including your own former sins.
You will know that you are properly remembering your past life when you can remember the kind of person you once were, but there is no condemnation, only thankfulness for the grace of God.
As Paul said, remember the fruit of your former ways. As Peter said, remember that you were cleansed. There is no condemnation in Christ.
Paul himself could remember his past without condemnation:
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
–1 Timothy 1:12-17 (ESV)
- Your long-term spiritual vision depends upon an accurate account of your past
- You can remember your past sins without forgetting that you have been cleansed and forgiven
This excerpt is from The 14 Rejections of Moses: Guideposts on the Path to the Crucified Life