Do you remember 1984 – George Orwell’s cryptic vision of a futuristic totalitarian society? The protagonist, Winston Smith, worked for the government in a department called “The Ministry of Truth”. His job, strange as it may sound, was to revise the history books by rewriting history in the interests of the ruling party.
There was one point where Winston had to rewrite the details of an entire war. This exercise proved to be a defining moment of enlightenment for him. “This, thought Winston, was the most frightening aspect of the party regime – that it could obliterate memory, turn lies into Truth and alter the Past. The Party slogan was ‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’”
George Orwell understood something. The one who writes the past determines the message that history sends. The decisions for the future key off the lessons from the past.
Principle # 1 – How We Remember Matters to God
Orwell was not the first person to recognize that if a person can rewrite history, he can influence the future. This tactic goes all the way back to Eden when the serpent hissed, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’”(Genesis 3:1). Are you sure you remember that correctly Eve? Satan had his own agenda: supplant the memory, control the person.
You see, memory – the ability to recall and reflect upon past – is a gift from God. It’s instinctive to our personhood, and even our praise. Think about how often we are commanded in Scripture to remember the deeds of God (Deuteronomy 4:34, Psalm 9:1, Psalm 77:11). It’s why Hebrews 11 throws up portraits of Old Testament heroes and calls us to remember them. We gain confidence for the future by remembering the past.
This is why sin often acts upon us by overwriting our memories and rewriting our histories. Our memories become corrupted and begin to serve the wrong master. If you’ve ever met a person locked in bitterness, you’ve met a person whose memory is serving the wrong master. Indeed, part of spiritual growth is seeing how God wrote himself into our pasts and redeemed them for His glory. Then we start to remember things with God in the picture.
Pastoral ministry is a people business, and if you’re in it for any length of time, you’ll begin forming memories of certain people. Contrary to popular opinion, memory is not a morally neutral thing. The way we remember people has a direct influence on our souls, and, if you are called as a pastor, your ministry.
Principle #2 – Remembering People For Their Best Moments
In Philippians 1:3-8, Paul provides us with three crucial principles that must shape the way we remember those who are, have been, or will be in our care.
In verses 3-4 and 7-8, Paul says the following:
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy…It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.
In these verses, Paul is choosing to remember the Philippians in a way that elicits thankfulness and prayer, not anger and gossip. The Philippians were a strong church, but they certainly weren’t perfect. In his letter, Paul addresses issues of rivalry and selfish ambition (Philippians 2:3) – things that were undermining their unity. He also entreats Euodia and Syntyche to resolve their conflict (Philippians 4:2).
Paul has his own issues. He is chained up in a prison, yet unable to escape the need to troubleshoot the Philippians problems.
And yet, when Paul remembers the Philippians, he chooses to remember their strengths rather than their weaknesses. Just listen to his words: “I thank God for you”; “I pray for you with joy”; I hold you in my heart”; and “I yearn for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ”. Funny, but Paul is not thinking about the Philippians through their problems. He is not rolling his eyes over Euodia and Syntyche or withdrawing his affection because the church is struggling with unity. He chooses to remember them first for their partnership rather than their problems.
Pastoral ministry is a paradox. The people you serve will bring you the greatest joy and the greatest pain. You will have the joy of seeing people converted to Christ and the pain of seeing people drift from Christ. You will have the joy of building your church and the pain of seeing people leave your church. But what you remember them for will say a lot about the gospel’s activity in your heart.
The gospel empowers us to see beyond people’s sin. It incites us to think charitably, which means we remember their strengths and focus more on the ways their lives have enriched us. When Paul goes to greet the confused and sin-sick Corinthians he begins:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1: 4-7).
Paul is not in denial as to their problems. In fact, his letter is written to correct many of their faults. But the gospel orients Paul to think about them first through their strengths – to remember them not from their worst moments, but through their best ones.
The gospel tells us to remember others the same way we want to be remembered. Do you want to be remembered for your sinful episodes? Do you want your stupid statements and uncaring actions to be the first things folks think about when they hear your name? Of course not! We all want to be remembered for God’s best work in us and through us. Go and do the same.
The gospel shapes our memories so that we can remember people for their best moments. Paul was able to encounter the fallenness of the Philippians and yet still see them as fellow partners of grace. For Paul, his experience of the gospel framed his ministry. He had experienced grace, which then enabled him to extend grace to others.
Principle #3 – Remember The Story Thus Far
In verse 5, Paul recalls his partnership with the Philippians: “…because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” Paul’s memory protects the precious history between Paul and the Philippians. Paul remembers the wonderful gospel partnership he had with the Philippians that began years back. He remembers all they had shared together. When we take this passage in conjunction with passages like Acts 20, it becomes clear that Paul’s definition of ministry success was wrapped up in “continuing together” with the Philippians.
If you find yourself switching churches often or unsatisfied in roles because of the problems of people, you may need to think harder about Paul. Ever changing, revolving partnerships say very little about the power of the gospel. Disposable partnerships are professional, not true gospel partnerships. Paul’s partnership with the Philippians was, “…from the first day until now.” It was an ongoing, gospel-powered partnership. It was not a relationship of convenience. It was durable, like the gospel.
Like Paul, we should seek after partnerships that last from, “…the first day until now.”
Apart from grace, we have a sinful tendency to always turn inward. We view life as if it is all about our stories, where other people just come onto the stage to support our personal dramas. We put ourselves at the center and minimize the influence and role of others in our lives.
When we remember our gospel partnerships with others, it moves us to look outside of ourselves towards others. It helps us kill the me-monster that is always locating us at the center of our histories. It allows us to say with Paul, “I thank God for you” (1 Corinthians 1:4).
George Whitfield was a man who could look beyond the sinner to the gospel at work, even in the lives of those who disappointed him. Whitfield had a very strange relationship with John Wesley. Wesley often criticized and preached against Whitfield, which resulted in Whitfield being vilified and slandered. And yet when John’s brother, Charles, wanted to separate from John over doctrinal reasons, Whitfield marched Charles right back to John so that they might be reconciled.
Whitfield didn’t exploit John Wesley’s vulnerable moment, because he didn’t see Wesley through his sin. Whitfield remembered Wesley through the gospel, so reconciliation became the goal.
When Whitfield died, he asked that the following epitaph be inscribed on his gravestone: “Here lies GW, what sort of man he was the great day will discover.” For Whitfield, remembering the gospel power in people like John Wesley was more important than being remembered himself.
We’re not called into ministry to be remembered. Our goal is not to build a church that lasts forever as a testimony to our wisdom or leadership. Our goal is to remember the gospel and then remember people through the gospel. But to get there we must allow the gospel to play the role that the ruling party aspired to but could never achieve in Orwell’s classic 1984: Control the past, control the future.