Thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee.
— Deuteronomy 8:2
Forgetting those things which are behind.
–– Philippians 3:13
There seems a contradiction in these texts. They seem to be quite opposed to one another. You would almost think that the apostle Paul had broken with Moses so completely that he cast to the winds here the prophet’s counsel. But Paul was Paul, and not a revolutionary. He was too big a man to scorn the past. He loved to say wise things that a wise God had taught him; but to say smart things, he was above all that.
I take it, then, for all apparent contrasts, that Moses and Paul are in true harmony. They are forging out a doctrine of the past, and it takes prophet and apostle to do that. The one turns round, and looking down the past, he cries Remember! The other turns his head and cries Forget! There are some things, then, that I must remember, and there are other things I must forget. In other words, I can so train my memory, by choice, by meditation, and by prayer; I can so drive it into the service of my soul; I can give it such a spiritual education, that it will open its hand and cast to the winds of heaven whatever would check me in my struggle heavenwards; but grip like a vice and wave like a banner over me whatever will help me to my distant goal. There is not a faculty but may be sanctified, and there are few faculties so rich as memory.
Someone has said that today has two great enemies. The one is tomorrow and the other is yesterday. And memory plays such madcap pranks sometimes that we are almost half-inclined to think that true. Do you remember Israel in the desert, and how they spoke to Moses about Egypt? ‘Is it a small thing’, cried the rebellious children, ‘that thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey?’ Were there no brickfields there? They had forgotten that. Was there no swirl of the taskmaster’s lash? The sound of it had passed long years ago. Faced by the desert and the desert-hunger, that wizard memory brought back the milk and honey. They would have been better men and stronger travellers, more worthy of their leader and their God, if they had forgotten the things that were behind.
And the wizard memory still plays these tricks. It smoothens out the wrinkles of the past. It was a furnace of iron when we dwelt in it. It is almost a land of milk and honey now. We hear men talking of the good old times. I grant you they were old, but were they good? I sometimes think that had we a twelvemonth of them, we should all long for the bad new times again. It is distance lends enchantment to the view. It is across the valley that the song is sweet. And when we are tempted to sit down and dream, and mourn for a happier past and wish it back, it is then that Paul and all the saints of God cry Forward! and forget the things that are behind. If happiness has gone, then let it go! If innocence has fled, so be it. But still there is duty, and that is more than happiness. And still there is character, and that is more than innocence. And the best is still before me in the battle, if I am only true to self and God.
In that sense, then, it may be true that the great enemy of my today is yesterday. But there is a deeper and a more Christlike sense in which yesterday and today are bosom friends. They are both working in a common purpose; they are both given by the same Hand Divine; they are both carved out of the same eternity. Now you can tell a man by his friends, the saying is. And this is certain, we must know the past if we would ever understand today.
We meet a stranger, for instance, in the house of a friend, and there is a look of suffering about her face and a certain mute agony within her eyes; and we know at once, though never a word has passed, that we are face to face with tragedy. And the face haunts us, it is so sweet, so sad; it haunts us, and we want to know its story; and then comes some hour when the lips are unlocked under the touch of sympathy, and we hear the record of that bitter past, and we see the hour when sun and moon were darkened — and we understand the sorrow of today because we know the tragedy of yesterday.
Or there is a man whom we have passed for weeks, and the look of conquest and the glow of power about him would catch and rivet the very blindest eye. And we never see him but we fall to wondering what is the meaning of that look of victory. And then we learn it. We are told the story of his life some day. We see the humble cottage where he was born. We find how he struggled against tremendous odds through school, through college, to his present place. We understand the triumph of today because we know the dauntless fight of yesterday. And there is the moral value of remembrance. Not now must I forget the things that are behind. But to grasp today, and have a song of praise in it, and understand its leaning and its power, I must remember the way by which my God has led me. There are some men who, had they killed a lion and a bear as David did, would have lived on the reputation of it to the end, and been insufferable. But David said, ‘The Lord who delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and the Lord who delivered me out of the paw of the bear, will give me the victory over this Goliath!’ And the memory of the Almighty made him strong. Forget past triumphs if they make you proud. Remember them if they make you strong. Forget past failures when the trumpet calls. Remember them when you are prone to boast. Have you no Red Sea crossed? Have you no lion slain? Have you no token of the love of God in the year that is driving to its close tonight? Bind that upon your heart, my brother, and set it as a frontlet on your brow, my sister. There is a moral power in remembrance when I remember the bounty of my God.
And what about past sins? Shall I remember these? Shall I forget my sins that are behind? I dare say, brother, you have sometimes felt that the answer to that was lodged in other hands. You have tried to forget, you have tried to forget: you cannot. There is an involuntary resurrection of the past. You have prayed: you have come to the blood of Christ for cleansing: you are a pardoned man. But the hour comes when in a flash we see it again, and the old sin that we thought dead is back.
Does that dishearten you, so that you sometimes doubt if there is any pardon, and are tempted to question the truth of God’s forgiveness? Remember that even David, redeemed by blood, was harassed and haunted by his guilty past. ‘My sin is ever before me’, cries the psalmist. ‘It is there when I waken; it is there when I sleep; it is there in my home and in the house of God.’ Yet God, for his dear Son’s sake, had wiped that sin away, and David was on the road to glory all the time.
The fact is, it is a sign of growth, of stress and strain, of climbing of the hills, that resurrection of the buried past. It is not when I am at my worst it comes. It is when I am stirred by God to better things. It was when the sufferings of Christ were crowned at Calvary that the graves were opened and the dead came forth. If I am willing always to be impure, I can forget with ease the impure past. If I am quite content to be a prayerless man, the prayerless years slip from me like a dream. But let me be moved by heaven to seek my knees, and how the prayerless days confront me now! Let me lift up my eyes to the purity of Jesus, and my vile past is at my side again. There is some token of a struggle heavenward, brother, when that blood-forgiven past comes back. Therefore I say, even of forgiven sin — I say, forget the things that are behind; and if you cannot, if in spite of all there is that resurrection, then remember the way that the Lord thy God hath led thee, thank him that he has called thee out of darkness into the marvellous light of the Redeemer, praise him that though all the graves were opened, and though the sea gave up her dead, all that shall never separate the soul from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ.
There is one bright light that the gospel of Jesus sheds upon our past.
It is the light of the eternal future. We hardly realize, we are so used to it, what a weight was lifted from a weary world by setting a man’s past in that endless vista. When Christianity entered the world, the noblest teaching in the world was Stoicism; and one has but to read a Stoic’s diary to feel the dead weight of an iron past. For the Stoic there was nothing before birth, and for the Stoic there was nothing beyond the grave; and the one passion of his heart was this, to grow complete and perfect in his threescore years. It was a noble aim, it was a hopeless one. There is a cry of despair from its very noblest children. Life fled, the past grew larger, death and the grave drew nearer every year. And life was to have been a perfect thing, rounded, harmonious, unified, complete — and the noblest Stoic of them all confessed it was a tattered and a tangled failure.
And then came Jesus, and threw down the wall, and launched life out into an endless future. And men ceased to crave an impossible perfection, in that new hope of an eternal growth. And they ceased to cry over a sinful past with the sorrow of this world which works death. For in the very failures of the past that marred the beauty of the Stoic’s circle, they traced a beauty that was not of earth, for they were being trained and disciplined and humbled for an eternal fellowship with God. The Stoic looked upon the oak-tree of the forest, and he saw where the storm had rent away a branch, and he said, ‘The tree is marred, the tree will never be the same again.’ But the Christian, in the new light of Jesus, asked, ‘Has there been growth? Are the rings forming, has the sap been circulating, spite of tempest? If so, all’s well, even though the branch be rent; there will still be the music of a thousand leaves when the time of the singing of the birds is come.’
And so I want the disciples of Jesus who are here, and who from this ridge, if I may call it so, are looking back over the vista of the year; I want them to ask themselves this simple question: Has there been spiritual growth in my own life? I don’t want to know how your affairs are prospering, but I do want to know how your soul is prospering. I don’t ask if you are a better man, but I do ask if you are a growing man. O friend, it has been a strange year for you: sin in it, folly in it, neglect of duty and of God in it; but if the heart is crying ‘I will not let thee go except thou bless me’, if the interests of life are moral ones for you, if the one worth of being alive at all is daily self-conquest to the glory of God — then bid defiance to your sin and failure, in the name of Christ forget the things that are behind, there is a year worth living ahead of you.
This article was first published in the December 1973 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.