2020 will go down in infamy. The year hasn’t even (technically) ended yet and it’s already become a byword of disdain, a nickname for something unusual and crazy. Its résumé is quite extensive: Australia fires. Rumors of World War 3. Covid-19. Toilet paper shortages. Lockdowns. Quarantine. Curfews. Traveling bans. Tiger King. Murder Hornets. Zoom calls. Homeschooling. Working from home. Church live streams. Small businesses closing. The deaths of hundreds of thousands (this obviously stands out as the big one on the list). The isolation of the hospitalized and the elderly. Face masks. Racial tensions. Police controversies. Riots in the streets. Looting and burning. The most active Atlantic hurricane season on record. A contentious Presidential election. Accusations of election fraud. Shall I go on?
With all that being said, it’s no surprise that I’ve seen many folks on social media express relief over 2020’s imminent end. People are ready to put this year behind them and move on to the greener pastures of 2021. For many, this year has felt like several years wrapped into one. Let’s be done with it already. And that collective desire to put it all behind us is understandable. Who would want to linger on a year like this one?
With all due respect to the hardships that have been endured, I want to encourage us all to pause for a moment. Before rushing past the mayhem of this year for a fresh calendar, let’s stop and remember 2020. Why? It makes sense to remember good times. Pleasant memories warm us, comfort us, and revive in us the joy of an earlier time. They’re reminders that there is good in the world, and they’re nuggets of hope that things can be good again. But why remember a year we’d rather forget? Because reflecting on bad times can actually be spiritually edifying.
I’d like to provide three examples of why that’s true, from the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy was written by Moses near the end of his life and serves as his Holy Spirit-inspired parting instructions to Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. Much of the content may sound familiar, and that’s because the name of the book itself means “repetition”: it is a summary and restatement of much that Moses had taught Israel over the course of forty years in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. It contains, more than any other book in the Bible (with the exception of maybe the Psalms) the frequent call to “remember.” It is one big repetition to help the people remember. And within its pages are three curious texts that exhort the people of God to remember bad times specifically.
1. Remember the bad times…to remember God’s deliverance.
12 Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. 15 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. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)
Israel was to utilize the Sabbath day to remember something very particular: their slavery in Egypt. For four hundred years they had toiled under the whip of Pharaoh’s task masters, subject to suffering and misery. They had no freedom, no dignity, and no future. Their bodies were beaten, their hearts were heavy, and their baby boys were thrown into the Nile. And not only were they to remember their slavery, but their slavery in Egypt. They were displaced slaves, far removed from the territory God had promised their ancestors. Why would Israel focus on that? Having finally arrived in the Promised Land, why wouldn’t they just absorb themselves in its pleasures instead of remembering the darkest chapters in their history?
Verse 15 explains that this was not for the purpose of being haunted by trauma or wallowing in self-pity. Rather, by remembering their affliction they could remember God’s deliverance from that affliction. They could not relish the Savior unless they remembered that they needed saving. They would not treasure the Rescuer unless they remembered that they needed rescuing. It was only against the backdrop of the black night sky that the stars of God’s deliverance could truly shine. We remember the bad times, not as ends in and of themselves, but so that we can remember God’s faithfulness right through the middle of them.
Perhaps the most startling example of this is when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with the words, “Do this in memory of me,” calling us to perpetually remember the most tragic event in human history. Why would we want to remember the betrayal, humiliation, and suffering of our Lord? Why would we regularly want to reflect on a gruesome murder? Because it was by those means that Christ paid the cost of our sin and secured our deliverance. We can’t properly remember the good of what we have unless we remember the bad through which it was secured.
This increases our trust because as we remember the difficult times of the past and how God was faithful to bring us out of them, we can have that same confidence when dealing with trying times to come.
What were some challenging situations that you faced this year? In what particular ways did God provide for/deliver you?
2. Remember the bad times…to remember what God taught you.
2 And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. 3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. 4 Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. 5 Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. (Deuteronomy 8:2-5)
Slavery was hard for the Israelites, but the hard times didn’t end when they left Egypt. Because they disbelieved and disobeyed God—since they didn’t remember His past faithfulness—He disciplined them with forty years of desert wandering with nothing to eat but manna. It was a hot, sandy, homeless time-out that lasted nearly half a century. Yet God tells them to remember it. Why?
God used those miserable years to teach His people some very important things. First, He taught them humility (verse 2). Next, He taught them to trust in His word more than they trusted in material objects (verse 3). These were lessons that they sorely needed to learn, and God did this through the experience of hard times. By remembering the unpleasant years, they would forever remember what He taught them through those years. He calls this period one of “discipline” (verse 5), as a father might discipline his children—not ultimately for condemnation, but to instruct them, benefit them, and grow them.
God often uses the most difficult times to do the most good in the lives of His children. Romans 5:3 tells us, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.” Similarly, James 1:2-4 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet many trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
It’s not our job to say, “Why is God doing this?” We can’t seek out His eternal, sovereign purposes. But it is our responsibility to say, “What is the Lord teaching me through this? What shortcomings and weaknesses is God addressing in my life?” Through this process, God conforms us to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ. We remember hard times because they’re vehicles of sanctification. If we forget the bad times, we are prone to forget the good things God taught us through them.
What did God teach you through the challenging situations of 2020? How can you apply that to your life going forward?
3. Remember the bad times…to remember God’s unconditional grace.
4 Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. 5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 6 Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. 7 Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord. 8 Even at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you. (Deuteronomy 9:4-8)
Once Israel’s enemies had been driven out and they entered the Promised Land, they were not to think it was because they had earned it or because God owed them anything. Upon leaving behind the bad years and entering the good ones, they might be prone to believe it was due to some merit in themselves. But God reminded them that they were rebellious and should have incurred His wrath. Whatever happened in the wilderness was less than their sin deserved. Far from earning anything good, they should have been annihilated like the other godless nations. This state of deserved condemnation is one that God says they were to “remember.”
So on what basis would God deliver them from bad times and into good ones? The gracious convenantal promises He swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (verse 5). As Deuteronomy 10:15 would go on to explain, “the Lord set His heart in love on your father and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.” Their deliverance and prosperity could be credited to nothing other than God’s free, unconditional, gracious love.
We don’t like to remember our sin. Why focus on something so negative? And when we emerge from a difficult situation into greener pastures, we like to assume it was because of something noble or noteworthy in us. I’m leaving behind the desert wanderings of 2020 and seizing the opportunity of the new year because of my hard work; it’s because I’m a survivor, I’m an overcomer, I’m a success story, and I’m such a good person that God is finally giving me what I’m due. Yet our sin reminds us that the good we have is due exclusively to God’s grace. Galatians 3:13-14 says Christ took our curse in our place so that now we can receive the blessing He earned. Like Israel, we should have been struck down in the affliction of the wilderness. But God has not dealt with us according to what we deserve. Not only that, but He’s bestowed upon us all the rewards Jesus won.
When times are bad, our sin reminds us that things are not as bad as they should be. When times are good, our sin reminds us that those good times are a gift of unmerited love. This is a game-changer because instead of being puffed up with entitlement (or bogged down with envy when someone has it better than us) we will be filled with gratitude for what we have, that we did not deserve. Rather than grumbling, as Israel often did in the wilderness, our hearts will be thrilled with thanksgiving.
What are some ways you’ve felt entitled in the past year? How can the unconditional grace of the Gospel break you of that entitlement? What are some specific things you can be thankful for?
As I think back on 2020, I see a lot of strife and struggles. But in the tapestry of this fallen world we also see the thread of God’s mercy being woven skillfully through. Before the big countdown tonight, take some time to reflect back on the thread God is weaving through your life. Disease, lockdowns, riots, and political turmoil aren’t pleasant things to think about. But remember 2020. By doing so we can remember God’s deliverance from the bad times. We can remember the sanctifying lessons God taught us through the bad times. And we can remember the grace He poured out in those bad times through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. None of that was due to merit in us, but came from the abundance of His unconditional love. For that, we can remember and give thanks.