Reading history to honour God and strengthen our heartWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Everyone loves a good story. We’re wired that way by our Creator, with a unique capacity to appreciate the beauty and power of narrative. This is only fitting. After all, God designed his created order to display the features of a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Its myriad episodes, small and great – what we call history – each play their part in God’s epic drama of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.
Accordingly, God also gave us the majority of his Word in the form of historical narrative. The bulk of the Pentateuch, as well as the historical books, large chunks of the prophets, plus the Gospels and Acts all fit broadly under the umbrella of historical writing. Even the parts that don’t – law codes, oracles, poetry, letters – often appeal to God’s actions in history to make their point.
For all these reasons, it’s strange how many of us in the modern Western world treat history as a dreary subject filled with dusty old stories that have little relevance to our lives.
While most of us aren’t historians, all of us are invited to ponder God’s wondrous works in history – not as a dry academic exercise, but to stir our hearts toward awe and worship and to strengthen our faith in him. Here’s a handful of considerations that can help us do that.
History reflects the glory of God
King David wrote that the heavens declare the glory of God, and the Apostle Paul echoed that all of creation displays God’s power and divine nature. At our core, we all know this to be true, both intuitively and via direct experience. When we picture a starry night sky or a bright summer day, the roaring ocean surf or the explosion of colours in autumn, we sense God’s beauty and majesty behind it.
But the same is true of history. God created time as well as nature. He knows the end from the beginning, and in fact has ordained it. Every intricate, interwoven strand of cause and effect, from world-shaking events to obscure details of private lives, all unfold according to his sovereign will. And yet they unfold in such a way that his human image-bearers make real decisions that contribute to the tapestry.
As David wrote elsewhere, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6). Or as the Prophet Isaiah exclaimed, “O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure” (Isaiah 25:1). It’s not for nothing that Scripture frequently urges us to consider God’s wondrous works with awe and praise.
No such thing as secular history
There’s a common tendency among Christians as well as our critics to divide history into two broad categories: the sacred and the secular. Sacred history is what’s recorded in the Bible and secular history is pretty much everything else.
For critics, secular in this context is shorthand for real history, the stuff that actually happened, whereas sacred for them means a collection of myths and historical distortions that serve a religious agenda. Christians would disagree, but we can still fall prey to a similar error, applying different rules to the two categories. We may think of God as directly involved in sacred history, marking it as history that matters, whereas he’s only tangentially involved (if at all) in the mundane affairs of secular history, rendering it largely irrelevant.
But these categories of sacred and secular are artificial constructs. There aren’t two sets of conditions. In ancient times, God was just as involved in the events outside the Bible as in the ones recorded therein. And he didn’t step back from history after the canon of Scripture was completed. He’s active now as always in guiding historical developments, both in his church and in his world. There’s only one history, and God is sovereign over all of it.
Embracing mystery and nuance
Our Western culture on the whole is enamoured with the standard Hollywood approach to interpreting history. We’re drawn to straightforward stories, free of ambiguity, heroes and villains clearly defined, with a happy ending in which everyone gets their due. Likewise, our popular historical sources tend to follow revisionist, reductionist patterns, simplifying issues and conforming them to serve a narrative favoured by their target audience.
Actual history, of course, doesn’t work that way. It’s complex and ambiguous and often mysterious, and it requires nuanced, critical thinking to comprehend. It rarely follows a path we’d expect, much less prefer, and can leave us asking, “Why, Lord, and how long?”
God has assured us that his ways and his thoughts are as far above ours as the heavens are above the earth, and that he creates well-being as well as calamity (Isaiah 45:7; 55:8-9). And since history is the Lord’s story, we shouldn’t expect it to read like a preschooler’s board book, but more like a multi-layered drama for mature audiences. As we embrace its nuances and mysteries, we begin to appreciate history for what it is, and to perceive the unfathomable wisdom of God that underlies it.
Our place in the grand narrative
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” wrote Shakespeare. “They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” The Bard’s soliloquy, while neither optimistic nor theologically robust, is nevertheless insightful.
Most societies throughout history have been preoccupied with their place in it. They’ve taken pains to preserve their traditions, their roots and the memory of their ancestors. By contrast we in the West, steeped in individualism and concerns of the moment, rarely know anything before our grandparents, and we don’t much care. This dichotomy is brought into sharp focus by our puzzled indifference to the genealogies of Scripture, evidently far more meaningful to its original readers than they appear to us.
But to know our history – as well as that of others – is to understand who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Remembering our past shows us our triumphs as well as our failures, and reveals the areas in which we need to change. Our history is a key piece of our rootedness, our sense of where we belong on the stage of God’s grand narrative. And for followers of Jesus, our identity is grounded not in a philosophy or a system of ethics, but in the central event of history – the life, death and resurrection of our Lord.
To love God is to pursue truth
Jesus told his followers that the greatest command of Scripture is to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind. But to love God with all of our mind entails loving and pursuing his truth in all its forms – scientific, philosophical, historical – whatever its source and wherever it may lead.
All of us are prone to confirmation bias, to camping out in our preferred echo chambers with members of our own ideological tribe. This is an especially powerful temptation when it comes to engaging with history. We read selectively, inflating those things that justify our position and make us look good, while diminishing or dismissing inconvenient truths that cast us in a negative light.
This is not the pattern of Scripture, nor should it be ours. Biblical history isn’t about the greatness of God’s people, but about the greatness of God. The Scriptures present an unvarnished record of the consistent and often spectacular failure of God’s people and of his unfailing grace to them in spite of it. Above all else, it’s the story of God’s Messiah, sent into the world at the right historical moment to save his people from their sins.
In that same spirit, when critics point out our own historical failings, we need to own them, repent of them, and seek to do better, by God’s grace. At the same time, we need to know our history well enough to correct reductionist and revisionist assumptions with patience and respect, giving our critics a compelling reason for the hope we have in Christ.
We all love a good story, and we’re all part of the best one, being written by God. Whether in good times or in bad, meditating on God’s wondrous deeds honours him. But it also serves to inspire our hearts with awe and worship, and to strengthen our faith in the one who is sovereign over our past, our present and our future.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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