How Looking Back Can Help Us to Move Forward

Our histories play an important role in our marriages, particularly when storms are raging. The twenty-one years that my husband and I had together served as ballast to keep us from capsizing during a string of tragic losses. We remembered how God helped us to forgive each other during our broken engagement. We remembered how he led us to take a first-time homebuyers’ class that enabled us to purchase a house with a mere 5 percent down payment and no closing costs. We recalled the many adventures and trials that shaped our marriage. The more we remembered, the more fortified we felt.

To some degree our pasts conjugate our present and future tenses.

“We engage our memories in tandem with God,” writes pastor and spiritual director Casey Tygrett, “because they are the starting points for who we are now and who we have yet to become.” We’re not bound by the past, but it definitely shapes our todays and our tomorrows.

Judaism has much to teach us about the role of our histories and the power of remembering. Perhaps because of the many times the Jewish people have been persecuted, they understand the importance of recalling God’s faithfulness. To this day certain holidays, such as Purim and Passover, facilitate community-wide opportunities to remember. Additionally, several millennia ago the Hebrews crafted tangible altars of remembrance. These visual reminders made it impossible for them to forget God’s faithful provision. The Old Testament book of Joshua recounts how one of these altars came to be.

For forty years God miraculously sustained Moses and the twelve tribes of Israel as they escaped from slavery and wandered toward the Promised Land. After Moses died, Joshua became the new leader. On the last leg of their epic journey the Israelites came to a full stop at the swollen Jordan River. There was no bridge or ferry, and we can assume it was not swimmable. But God once again proved that nothing can thwart his purposes.

The moment the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the river, the water stopped flowing, allowing them to pass on dry ground. God then directed Joshua to have one representative from each tribe take a stone from the middle of the Jordan, put it on their shoulder, and build “a memorial out of them” so in the future when their children ask about the memorial, they can say, “‘They remind us that the Jordan River stopped flowing when the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant went across.’ These stones will stand as a memorial among the people of Israel forever” (Joshua 4:2-7).

Unlike the Jewish faith, contemporary Christianity by and large fails to provide traditions that help us to remember God’s supernatural provision and protection. Therefore, we have to be more intentional. The Psalms provide one example of what this might look like.

In Psalm 77 the author admits that he’s in a difficult space and seems to feel forgotten by God:

When I was in deep trouble,

I searched for the Lord.

All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven,

but my soul was not comforted.

I think of God, and I moan,

overwhelmed with longing for his help. (vv. 1-3)

Then there’s a pivot:

But then I recall all you have done, O Lord;

I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago.

They are constantly in my thoughts.

I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works.

O God, your ways are holy.

Is there any god as mighty as you?

You are the God of great wonders!

You demonstrate your awesome power among the nations.

By your strong arm, you redeemed your people,

the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. (vv. 11-15, emphasis added)

The psalmist chooses to remember God’s character, which puts the brakes on his descent into despair. He then encounters hope.

Just as the psalmist’s words inspire and encourage us today, when we tell others how God has come through in our lives, we not only refresh our own memories but bring encouragement to those who may be standing on the banks of the Jordan waiting for God to part the waters.

During the turbulent year that my husband and I went through, God’s faithfulness became our own personal “stone of remembrance,” which provided the sustenance we needed to keep going and ultimately revealed a new way forward. As we build and revisit memorials to God’s faithfulness, we begin to see a distinct through line that serves three purposes: it fills us with faith and hope, it brings us clarity about the future, and it shifts the focus from our weakness to his magnificent strength.

Adapted from Marriage in the Middle: Embracing Midlife Surprises, Challenges, and Joys, by Dorothy Littell Greco. Copyright (c) 2020 by Dorothy Littell Greco. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

Image Credit: Roman Kraft from Unsplash

Dorothy Greco
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