There Have Been Bad/Good Days Before, Part 2
In the first part of this post, I discussed one extreme response Christians can have to the cultural forgetfulness we see around us: cluelessly submit without examining the implications of how we think and remember. Our corrective to this is to be active rememberers of God’s stories, how he has worked in the lives of men in history.
On the opposite side of cluelessness is the extreme response of despair: “America is so awful! The world is so awful! I don’t see God changing things!” These Christians despair, at least in part, because they don’t have a clear understanding of how “awful” other cultures and time periods were. History moves in waves; “history is not a straight line down any more than it is a straight line up” (Piper). But these Christians are narrow-mindedly nostalgic; they make all their comparisons through rose-colored glasses. They romanticize the past, wanting to go back to the “good days,” but forgetting the ungodly ideas that accompanied such periods in history. Such narrow-minded nostalgia can lead to cynicism because we don’t think we see God moving. We think this world is pretty quickly going down the drain and for whatever reason God’s not using the plug.
But there have been bad days before and we should remember them. The Bible doesn’t whitewash the past. When Moses sings his song to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 32, he reminds them of the past sins expressly to warn them. David retold his past sins, in part, to keep others from the same sins. When God feels very far to David and David is surrounded by trouble, David comforts himself by remembering God’s great deeds (e.g. Ps. 77). David remembers that when trouble surrounds, God leads his people out of trouble (77:20). We are served well by knowing and being warned by the ways that past generations (from our culture and others) have not walked in God’s ways. And we are served well by retelling the ways they have walked in God’s ways as God led them.
Let me give you an example:
"[T]o read about the moral decadence and violence of 18th century England before God sent George Whitefield and John Wesley is like reading today's newspapers. . . . ‘Only five or six members of parliament even went to church . . . The plague, small pox, and countless diseases we call minor today had no cures . . . Clothing was expensive, so many of the cities' poor wore rags that were like their bedding, full of lice . . . The penalties for crimes seem barbaric today (hanging for petty thievery) . . . Young boys, and sometimes girls, were bound over to a master for seven years of training. They worked six days a week, every day from dawn to dusk and often beyond . . . If you were unlucky and starving, you might fall foul of the law and be packed off to the stench of New Gate Prison. From there, you might have the chance to go to the New World in a boat loaded with prisoners of all sorts . . . [Drunkenness was rampant] and gin was fed to the babies too, to keep them quiet, with blindness and often death as a result [did you think crack babies were a new thing?] . . . The people's love of tormenting animals at bull-baitings was equaled only by their delight in a public execution.’ ("Revival and Revolution," Christian History 2, pp. 7–8)
All that and more, including a desolate and corrupt and powerless church. Yet God moved with a great awakening. And to add hope upon hope for our prayers, he used two men who could not agree on some significant theological points and one of them was overweight and the other was 5' 3" tall and weighed 128 pounds. We pray for a desolate church by remembering past mercies, past triumphs of grace. We remember that history is not a straight line down any more than it is a straight line up" (Piper).
Hearing such a simple narrative from history encourages my heart to pray for a great awakening in our country and culture as well. I do not have to ignore our problems or despair, for I know the God who worked that miracle in the past can work one here and now as well. When we do not have God’s context for our experiences, we can’t make sense of them, for ourselves or whoever is listening to our stories. As David points out in Psalm 77, understanding how God has worked in the past gives us confidence that God will continue to work through his infallibility and faithfulness to his people. Ultimately it grounds us in God’s reality rather than the “reality” our culture and time in history espouses.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. . . . So we do not lose heart.” 2 Cor. 4:7, 16
John Piper, “How to Pray for a Desolate Church.”