While debates persist concerning who actually said it first, most everyone is familiar with the oft-repeated quote, “Those who fail to learn from their past are doomed to repeat it.” If this is true (and I believe it is), then why do so few people today give any thought to the study of history? Is it really enough to only learn the newest technology, the most recent ideas – the hottest trends of our day? Personally, I don’t think so.
There are certain undeniable principles for being a good employee, a good leader, or even a good person…and they’re as true today as they ever were, no matter what new ideas, strategies, and methods may be celebrated in the days to come. As Ecclesiastes argues so succinctly, “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us.” (Eccles. 1:10). The secret to living a truly great life will never be new methods or cutting-edge ideas, but rather learning and applying the ageless principles of wisdom, knowledge, and love as set forth in the pages of Scripture. One way that God’s Word repeatedly calls upon us to do this is by considering the stories of the saints of old, listening to the accounts of the struggles, fears, and doubts that they encountered throughout their spiritual pilgrimages, and – quite frankly – learning from their mistakes.
Of course, if we desire to learn from history we should always start with the Bible itself. How will we endure times of suffering if we haven’t studied the book of Job? How will we handle power in a wise manner if we haven’t heard about Solomon’s shortcomings as a leader? How will we know what God can do through us – in spite of our imperfections – if we haven’t read about Moses, Joshua, and Paul? If we truly want to live lives that are rich, full of purpose, and bring glory to God, then we must read, consider, and appreciate the lessons learned by the individuals in biblical history, and commit ourselves to living in a way that avoids the errors in their thinking and builds upon their wise choices.
History isn’t just relevant for biblical study, though – we also benefit from studying more modern historical accounts. After all, isn’t it important to know who we are, where we come from, and what decisions and actions have helped put us where we are today? While history strikes many potential readers as nothing more than dull lists of dates, names, and locations, this is not what history (properly articulated) is supposed to be! On the contrary, it’s the exciting accounts of what God and people have done through history to bring the world to where it is today. Some of the stories are tragic and heart-breaking; others are magnificent and awe-inspiring; even the less eventful accounts are significant, for they all helped to make our world – and us – what we are today.
Do you want to know the most exciting thing about this? YOU are a PART of that history! The things that you and I do – or fail to do – are playing a role in what our history will look like tomorrow. That’s precisely why we must make history a regular part of our educational diet…so we can learn about the consequences of bad ideas, the blessings of faithfulness to good ideas, and avoid making the same foolish mistakes that those before us have already made! With this in mind, we should seriously consider making time to learn about the history of our families, our churches, the companies we work for, the schools we consider attending, etc. Undoubtedly, we wanted to learn all that we could about our spouse’s history prior to marriage (“Have you ever been in love before?”, “What is your greatest memory?”, “Why do you act the way you do in certain situations?”, “What experiences helped make you who you are today?”, etc.), so shouldn’t we have some similar interest in learning about the other significant parts of our lives, too?
If we do not actively work to preserve, learn, remember, and teach our history to the next generation, it will be lost and forgotten and we will have learned nothing from it. Scripture calls on us to not let this happen. Consider, for example, the following Old Testament passage reflecting upon God’s promises to his people: “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children…” (Deut. 4:9).
Even artists take note of the significance of history, and the roles we play in helping to shape it for future generations. Consider Walt Whitman’s poem, O Me! O Life!, in which he contemplates the great ebb and flow of the human story and concludes, “That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” Do you want your “verse” to count, to be remembered with fondness, and to make this world a better place than it currently is? Then study history and consider how to build upon the fruitful work of those who came before us. History is important for all of us, and we neglect it to our own peril.