I’ve been listening to a class from Yale on the history of western civilization. It’s been interesting on a number of history-geek levels, but one thing that really has struck me has been how certain pivotal events in history didn’t seem like such watershed moments to the people who lived in those times. Their lives continued pretty much along the same trajectory (except, of course, for the people who were executed or killed in war). It was only in retrospect, sometimes a century or two down the line, when men would say that such and such an event was the beginning of the collapse of an empire or the beginning of an era, like the Dark Ages, for example.
Reflecting on that truth, I noticed in life how certain decisions, certain deeds, certain events in life often go unnoticed—life goes on along the same trajectory as before. We get pulled in by sin and afterward things don’t seem to be radically changed. Things continue to go on largely the same…for a while—leading us to believe that the sin we’ve committed really doesn’t have any big effect, no serious consequences. So, we do it again…and again—getting pulled in deeper and deeper. We don’t know that we’re veering off into the weeds until its too late.
Then we look back and realize what a watershed moment it was—years later. We call it “20/20 hindsight”, the realization that this or that decision, that turn to the left or the right, that word, or that deed was a crucial mistake that effected the rest of life, and sometimes eternity. And I noticed how we long for the wisdom, the ability, to see beyond the end of our noses and have “20/20 foresight”. It is the reason that movies like “Back to the Future” and others like it capture our attention; we all wish for a time machine to be able to undo the watershed deed and make a better future for ourselves, in the fashion of Marty McFly.
Interestingly enough, Christians have at their disposal, not a time machine, but a revelation from God who does indeed have “20/20 foresight”. God has been watching the human drama since day one with all of its errors, horrors, goofs, good intentions gone awry, and selfish evil; and in His grace He has given us a better way of living. It is a way of living that doesn’t end in grief, regret, or death.
In Scripture we get to see stories of real people who lived in situations not that different from our own. We receive commandments that will benefit us, despite being admittedly difficult sometimes—they are not “the path of least resistance”. We receive wisdom in places like Proverbs. We find philosophic reflections on the meaning of life in places like Ecclesiastes. We get the curtain pulled back on the spiritual back-story of some of the suffering we endure in Job. We find correction in the prophets, and a perfect example in the Gospels in the life of Jesus. And we even get personal counsel on how to change our minds, our hearts, our words, our attitudes, and ultimately our deeds—Paul calls it “newness of life”—in the letters to churches and individuals in the New Testament. We even get a glimpse forward to the final victory in the book of Revelation. It is nothing less than “20/20 foresight”.
And it applies to more than just individuals; it also applies to churches. In Scripture we’ve been given a pattern for the church to follow, and we’ve been warned against false doctrine and changes to God’s pattern. We’ve been given clear conclusions about the church following the Lord and the results of departing from His way, of holding to the pattern and of adding men’s traditions. We’re given examples in, for example, Revelation of churches whose love grew cold vs. those whose love remained faithful under all sorts of persecution, of churches who remained faithful in teaching and practice vs. those whose morals and doctrines were way off the mark. In Scripture are examples of what happens when the church compromises, absorbs the world’s ways, and caters to the whims and desires of who don’t want to be separate (2 Cor. 6:14ff).
The problem, as individuals and as churches, is that we often don’t believe God’s “foresight”. The world and Satan and even our own bodies tell us that God’s foresight may be alright for other people, other times, or other situations—but “I know what I’m doing”. And it will even look that way for a while.
Maybe not today. Maybe not next week, or next month, or next year. Maybe not even in our lifetime (in some cases). But worldly wisdom, sin, always ends the same way. It always catches up with us.
The world can only use history, though it usually doesn’t, to predict outcomes. And even so, it often draws the wrong conclusions and still goes astray. That’s why it longs for time machines. But the Christian has a loving God who has seen the mess we’ve made, has given His Son to take away the guilt and consequences of our sins (if we’ll believe and obey), and gives us a new kind of life—one with “20/20 foresight”.
Read the Bible. Listen. Reflect. Heed. Obey.