Forward, or Backward?
Every year about this time, we start thinking about the year gone by, and looking forward to the next. [Especially this year!] We think about the events of the past year, remembering as best we can what happened, and think about how we might have done things differently, or what we could have done but did not, or what we wanted to do but could not. With these memories in mind, we start thinking about the next year and how it can be better, and what we want to do in the next calendar year [those old New Year’s resolutions], and we start planning. And then, three weeks into the new year, life takes a hard right turn and all our plans go out the window.
With the remembrance of things past and the hopefulness of looking forward, we might wonder if we should be looking forward, or backward? Which is best? Which is wisest? Which is, according to God’s word, the right thing to do? Today, let’s take a look at what Scripture teaches us about looking backward.
Looking Backward: The Scripture’s Record. The most obvious argument for looking backward is the existence of the Bible itself. Since it is a history of God’s dealings with mankind, it requires the reader to consider the events of times past and, hopefully, learn from those events; the Bible was not compiled to be merely a book for our reading pleasure, but a book from which we learn. And even within Scripture, we find a clear indication that these things were written for us that we might learn from the past. Paul wrote the Christians in Rome and noted the example of Jesus and then said, “whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
Looking backward to these people and events that are recorded within Scripture, we can learn from the good examples and the bad, and we can learn what pleases the Lord and what displeases Him and, hopefully, choose that which pleases Him. Under the Old Law, it was required that the king have a copy of God’s word, to “read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left” (Deut. 17:18-20). If a king could do that, could we not, also? And, now, with the New Testament record, how much more could we learn?
Sometimes, we read the historical record of God’s dealings with mankind and we learn what not to do. The apostle Paul had this in mind when he wrote to the Christians in Corinth and pointed back to the example of the faithless Israelites and then said, “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted” (1 Cor. 10:6), and warned them against idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7), sexual immorality (1 Cor. 10:8), and complaining (1 Cor. 10:9, 10), concluding, “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition” (1 Cor. 10:11). So, whether the good or the bad, we can look backward into the Scripture’s record and learn some important lessons. If this is the reason for looking backward, then that is a good thing, and should be done.
Looking Backward: Our Personal Experiences. Looking backward is also beneficial if we want to learn from our own personal experiences — good and bad. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul admonished those Christians in Corinth, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified” (2 Cor. 13:5); in other words, he wanted them to look inward and consider the life they were then living, and whether or not they were truly living for the Lord. We can only know that by what is in our own hearts, but it will also be evident by what we have done in the past!
Examining self and reflecting on the past year [or years] is good if our desire is to also learn from those things. We can look back on what we have done this past year and ask questions: Did I do all I could for the Lord this year? What mistakes did I make? What did I learn this year? Who did I help? Who did I teach? Was my life an example for others to follow? — and many more.
We could also get very specific in regard to the crazy events of this year, with all the pandemic-related issues that arose: Did I often complain about the situation, or did I offer solutions? Did I encourage my brothers and sisters who were stuck at home alone? Did I help others who were more vulnerable to the virus and could not get out? Did I rail against the government’s actions or did I, like Paul, learn to be content in whatever state I was in?— and many more. Looking backward, we can certainly learn what we can do in the coming year, and we can learn what not to do again. If we are looking backward for the purpose of improving our lives and the lives of others, and looking back to learn how we might be better examples in the coming year, that is a good thing!
On the other hand, we can look backward in a way that is not helpful or beneficial. We can look back on mistakes we have made and sins we have committed and dwell on them so much that we start wallowing in our failures and start to believe we are a failure. The apostle Paul was one who remembered his past failures, noting that he had been guilty of persecuting Christians “to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women” (Acts 22:4), and how he had “punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:11). He remembered these things, but he didn’t wallow in them and let those past acts define who he was in the present.
In fact, Paul would thank Jesus Christ for having “counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man” because he had “obtained mercy” and “grace…exceedingly abundant” (1 Tim. 1:12-14). Paul remembered his past, but he did not wallow in it and allow it to define who he then was because he trusted in God’s grace and in His promise of forgiveness. He moved on, forgetting the past wrongs because God had forgiven them.
So, if you are looking backward, be careful to not dwell so long on those past sins and mistakes and poor choices, else you might start believing you are still that same person; that is what the devil wants you to do. He wants you to remember all the mistakes and poor choices you’ve made, and he will remind you over and over that you’ve failed God, to the point you start thinking you can never live up to God’s expectations and it would be better to just give up.
What the devil doesn’t want you to remember is that you sought God’s forgiveness and God granted it. He wants you to forget God’s mercy and longsuffering and His desire that you, and all men, will be saved, and that His love made it possible for even the vilest of sinners to be forgiven, including you and me. Don’t fall into his trap! Don’t look backward and start thinking you are still held accountable for past sins, if you have actually sought God’s forgiveness.
If you are looking backward, do so with the intent of making yourself better, and not to wallow in past mistakes. Once that is done and the lessons are learned, we can then look forward. — Steven Harper