Recently, a gentleman came to my office and we were discussing the past; more specifically we were discussing his past. As we talked, the old adage came to mind, “Those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it.” We discussed the thought, and how it applies to us and our stories. The timeless truth of this bit of wisdom has been repeated frequently, but usually only in the context of the civilization or country history. This is the macro application.
Many acknowledge the truth of these wise words as we look at past societies and kingdoms. We see how Babylon, Rome, the Aztecs, the Songhai empire (Africa), and the British empire have all gone through their rise, shine, and decline. Volumes have been written delving into the cause of the demise of these glamorous kingdoms. We see the current condition of the falling kingdom of the United States. Men have determined to try to avoid the natural human course toward moral, relational, & societal entropy. However, it seems that even with an awareness of history, societies will try the same path to failure over and over again.
Why is this the case? Is it because we are missing a deeper part of this ancient adage which renders us helpless to prevent this wholesale return to failure? The answer is pretty clear, when you stop to think about it. We have embraced this truth on a macro / impersonal level, but most reject it on the micro / personal level. Yet the micro level is the one that makes the most difference. There are several key aspects to the importance of applying this principle in the micro sense:
- Societies are comprised of people. A society will only be as healthy as the group of individuals who comprise it. Regardless of rules, taboos, or constitutions, the sum of society will never exceed the sum of those who make up the society. If I am part of a society that is crumbling, then there is a pretty high likelihood that I have, in one way or another, contributed to the demise of the society in question. I do not hear anyone wrestling with this question.
- Personal history is important. When we consider the nuances of past kingdoms, that’s wise. When we stop to consider the nuances of my story, and especially my role in the story, — somehow in the minds of many people, well now that’s meddling. We can get really creative to avoid our past issues and having to deal with the reality of my own responsibility in the mess. I’ve heard accusations of “psychology,” “mucking around in the past,” “blaming the parents,” and more. If it is important to learn from macro history, it’s also important to learn from micro history as well. My part of the story is a part of the composition of the whole.
God’s view of both Macro and Micro history is what really matters. It is crucial that we turn to him and allow His Word, the Bible, to speak to into our handling of every issue, history included. When we do, here is some of what we find:
- History matters to God and he wants us to learn from it. Consider what percentage of Scripture is filled with historical accounts. Some of it is macro history (stories of the big picture, of nations) even more of personal accounts and examples.
- There are specific scriptures (both examples and directives) that point to the need to look at, learn from, and correct our past. Zacchaeus did it and there was no psychologist twisting his arm. There was a counselor present though and that definitely had something to do with his response. After he committed to making restitution, Christ informed him that “This day is salvation come to this house.” The scriptures record the apostle Paul using his life story on 4 occasions, sharing the ugliness of his past to magnify the beauty of Christ to others. How can we do that if we don’t process our own story well?
- However, we are also given directives to deal with our past (Matt. 5; 1 Cor. 11; 2 Cor. 13; Heb. 12:15-17; Psa. 19:12-14, etc.).
So what should we learn from looking at history? The most important way to learn from history, in order to change the future, is by learning in the micro sense. I have to apply the lessons to my own life first and get right with God and others. As each one in a culture applies history and wholesome change to their own life, history will be rewritten because we changed the future. If we continue to only look at history in the macro sense, we still fail to learn from history, and will repeat the failures. May God guide us as we wrestle with our own stories, the micro history. May He open our eyes as well, to the role we are filling in the macro history yet to be written.
– Jeremy Sensenig