Hindsight Isn't Always 20/20

We tend to believe the adage referred to in the title of this article, but usually because it is stated after the fact, and only when someone has learned a lesson that could have been learned previously — the hard way instead of the easy way, usually. But since we only tend to repeat that old adage when someone has learned the lesson [even too late], we forget that, many times, we don’t learn the lesson and, therefore, our hindsight is just as bad as it was during the time the event in question occurred. It is when someone doesn’t learn the lesson [even after the fact] that we use another old adage: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

      Why is it that we do not always learn from our mistakes, or learn from the past? As we approach the end of another calendar year and, as we often do, look back and contemplate “what might have been” or what we might have done differently, now would be a good time to first consider whether or not we are going to look back with 20/20 vision, through rose-colored glasses, or looking for another sign we are nearing the end of humanity. I would encourage each one of us to look back with clear vision and without preconceived ideas and conclusions, and with a willingness to own up to mistakes, bad choices, and wrongs we have done, with a simultaneous willingness to do better.

      But true improvement will come only if and when we are willing to see things as they truly were [and are], and make corrections where needed, learn the lessons we need to learn, and make no excuses for what has already passed. So, why is it we are not always honest about the past or, more specifically, with our past behavior, words, or actions? Let’s consider just a few reasons, then take a good, hard, long look in the mirror, and see if we might be guilty of looking back with altered vision.

      Our Current Situation is not What We Expected/Wanted. When the Israelites were brought out of Egyptian bondage by the great power of God, one might think they would not forget that, and that they would be thankful, but we know that was not the case. Throughout their journey out of Egypt and towards the Promised Land, they complained and complained — and complained some more. At one point, the people complained about the manna, saying to Moses, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!” (Num. 11:4, 5). It seems the Israelites had what we sometimes refer to as ‘selective memory.’ But why do we do this? Why do we remember only the good, and forget the bad?

      One might be tempted to say it is just a case of over-exuberant optimism, but that certainly wasn’t the case with the Israelites. No, what we see with them is a case of not liking the situation they were in and looking back only to make it appear things were somehow ‘better’ in the past, when such was clearly not the case. The Israelites were in bondage; they lived under oppressive taskmasters (Exod. 1:8-14); the rulers sought to kill all their sons upon their birth (Exod. 1:15, 16); and so great was their misery that their cries came up to God and was the impetus for Him sending Moses back to bring them out (Exod. 2:23-25).

      The Israelites looked back and saw only the good [and that is even questionable as to whether or not they actually enjoyed such bountiful foods] because they were in the desert and not yet inside the Promised Land, and all they had for food was manna. Though God provided everything they needed, it wasn’t enough. They were ungrateful.

      We Don’t Want to Admit Mistakes. We also tend to look back on the past and paint a different picture than what actually happened because we don’t want to admit the mistakes we made ‘back then.’ And it doesn’t have to be too far back in history for this to be the case.

      In the case of King Saul, he had just returned from the mission God had given him [to utterly destroy the Amalekites] but having failed to do what God commanded. When he was confronted by Samuel about the presence of livestock and everything good they desired to save, Saul made excuses and did a little ‘revisionist history-telling’ and told Samuel, “the people” [not He] spared these things (1 Sam. 15:10-15). Saul conveniently left out his own part in disobeying the Lord, even telling Samuel, “I have performed the commandment of the Lord (1 Sam. 15:13). He had not.

      We Want to Appear Better Than We Actually Are. In His harshest criticism of the Pharisees, Jesus concluded their condemnation by speaking to them directly and noting, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets’” (Matt. 23:28, 29). They looked back on the sad history of their forefathers and postulated that they would have been different! In the present, they ‘honored’ the tombs of the very prophets their forefathers had killed and the monuments of the righteous ones who were then despised, and declared, “We would not have done so!”

      And these same men were the ones who would soon recruit false witnesses to falsely accuse Jesus for crimes worthy of death (Matt. 26:59-61), stone Stephen to death for telling the truth about their forefathers and them (Acts 7:51-60), and would threaten and beat the apostles and forbid them from preaching about Jesus (Acts 5:40). They were no better than their forefathers.

      We Are Deceived. Far too often, the reason we look back as we do is that we are deceived [by others or even by self] about what things were like ‘way back when.’ It is this deception we read about in Peter’s words when he warned the early disciples about “false teachers” who would come amongst the believers (2 Pet. 2:1) and deceive some of them, and who would “allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error” and convince them to come back into the world and abandon Christ, to the point they “are again entangled in them and overcome” (2 Pet. 2:18-20). They are deceived by these false teachers into ‘remembering’ how much ‘better’ things were in the world, and how restrictive the ways of God are, and conveniently omitting any talk of how, in that condition, they were condemned before God as they lived in sin.

      Sometimes, we deceive ourselves into thinking this way and ‘remembering’ life outside of Christ in this way. The devil is expert at getting us to focus on all the ‘fun’ and ‘freedom’ and neglecting to mention or simply obscuring the truth about our real condition. Not only was our condition in no way preferable as we lived outside of Christ, if we choose to go back to that way of life, we will then be in a worse condition than where we started (2 Pet. 2:20, 21).

            As we look back on the past year, let’s do it honestly; don’t let our current situation cloud our memories of what actually happened; admit the failures; admit who were actually are right now; and don’t be deceived into seeing things not as they were, but as we want. — Steven Harper