Is forgetting the past something the Bible instructs us to do?
Isaiah 43:18 instructs the reader to, "Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old." Paul declares in Philippians 3:13, "one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead." Do these verses indicate that we should forget the past?
In order to understand any verse in the Bible, a reader must look at it in the context where it is written as well as within the context of the Bible as a whole. While Isaiah 43:18 says, "Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old," the next verse explains the reason why the Israelites were being told to do that. Isaiah 43:19 says, "Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" The Israelites had certain expectations of God, what He would do, and how He works in the world. But their expectations were preventing them from seeing what God was actually doing in their midst and hindering them from comprehending what He had planned for their future. So rather than commanding the people to forget everything they had lived, experienced, and learned in the past, this command seems more about not allowing the past to hinder their ability to see God's work in the present nor to hinder their trust in His plan for the future.
Likewise, Paul's example of "forgetting what lies behind" in Philippians 3:13 is directly tied to his "straining forward to what lies ahead." In Philippians 3:14 he expounds upon what lies ahead saying, "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." Paul recognizes that his prize will come in eternity on account of the saving work of Christ Jesus and not on account of his personal accolades or achievements. Those personal qualifications he outlined in Philippians 3:4–6 citing his Jewish heritage, personal piety, and renowned zeal. In Philippians 3:3 and 7 he states that he "put no confidence in the flesh… but whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ." Paul is not forgetting his past so much as he is choosing not to rely on his past for salvation or allow his past to prevent him from pursuing God's call on his life.
In fact, when we look at the Bible as a whole, the reader is instructed many more times to "remember." Deuteronomy 5:15 says, "You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm." The Psalmist in Psalm 77:11 declares, "I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old." Even in the New Testament Jesus Himself asks His disciples, "Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?" (Matthew 16:9). It is obvious that God expects us to remember the things He has done in our lives.
Readers of the Bible are not instructed to only remember their personal experiences of God's work, but to pass down those memories to the next generation. Deuteronomy 32:7 says, "Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you." In the New Testament, we are exhorted to "remember the predictions of holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior" (2 Peter 3:2) and "remember … the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Jude 1:17). Jesus told His disciples He would send the Holy Spirit in part to, "teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:26). In the New Testament we see many references to events that occurred in the Old Testament, both in the words of Jesus as well as the writing and preaching of the apostles—they were remembering. Certainly we are to regularly remember Jesus' work on the cross. Partaking in the Lord's Supper is a way in which we remember the work of Jesus and also look forward to His return (1 Corinthians 11:23–26). Our remembering should include God's deeds and words throughout the ages.
But it is not just God's work in our own lives and throughout history that the Bible instructs us to remember. Ephesians 2:12 calls us to remember our hopeless situation before knowing Christ saying, "remember that you were at that time separated from Christ … having no hope and without God in the world." Moses even taught the Israelites in Deuteronomy 9:7 to, "Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness." Even the negative circumstances we have lived through should be held as precious memories showing how far God has brought us. Because Romans 8:1 explains, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," we can take to heart the words of Isaiah 54:4 to "Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;… for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth" even as we remember the negative things we have done or lived through. Interestingly, even as we are instructed to remember our sinful past, God assures us that He will not call our sins to His mind. In Isaiah 43:25 God clearly says, " I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins" (see also Jeremiah 31:34).
Every instance of remembering, whether it be our hopeless past, our personal witness of God's good work, or the collective memory of God's work throughout history, is meant to draw us into a more intimate and trusting relationship with our heavenly Father. So, too, the commands to forget our shame, forget "the former things," and "forgetting what lies behind" are meant to spur us into a more trusting relationship to see what God is currently doing in our lives and what He might have in store for our future. When we rightly remember the past without allowing it to hinder our perception of God or our opinion of ourselves, only then can we truly know God and trust Him more fully.
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