Use the Tool of History | Tomorrow’s World — March/April 2024

Use the Tool of History

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What can we learn upon a closer inspection of history? Facts matter—especially when grounded on biblical truth!

One tragedy of our modern times is the neglect of history. On the personal and academic levels, society has become so engrossed in the here and now that facts and lessons of history often go ignored or disregarded. How far back can you trace your genealogy—your “personal history,” so to speak? The Bible reveals that the Israelites could determine their ancestry over multiple centuries (Numbers 1:17–19; cf. Matthew 1), but I would need to pay a website to help me go back more than three generations!

Teaching our children lessons from history can be a daunting task, since it involves more than learning basic facts; we must have the proper context. But it is worth it! Ignorant assumptions about history are dangerous and allow bad actors to cherry-pick or even create falsified history—so called “revisionist history”—often in service of a devious agenda.

Skewed Facts, Skewed Conclusions

I recently saw an online survey that asked which world empire had been the worst. I chose the one that I thought had treated its opponents and subjects the most brutally. Imagine my shock when I saw what the majority had chosen—the British Empire! Though far from perfect, any honest inquiry should reveal that Britain did not lead history’s “worst” empire.

Facts matter. The British Empire did commit many national sins; it was, after all, an empire stretched over centuries, with millions of people and generations of leaders who did not make the right decisions in every situation, and with many “bad apples” as well. But other historical facts show real benefits that flowed from British rule. The same could be said for many other empires, with different balances of positive and negative.

Learning about the history of different peoples, nations, and empires can help us discern when facts are manipulated or distorted, and thus when ideas are manipulated and distorted. While one Internet poll ought not be taken too seriously, the idea that the British Empire is the worst in history has indeed gathered a following. Yet it is simply an ignorant or dishonest take on history. Find a good history book on the British Empire and compare it to the Assyrian Empire, the Mongolian Empire, the Spanish Empire, the Soviet Empire, or the Third Reich. You will not find that the British Empire was perfect; however, you will see that it was far from the worst empire in history.

Avoiding Past Mistakes

The lessons of history should also help us in our personal lives. Parents naturally want their children to learn to avoid mistakes, and the Bible includes much instruction that can help children to do so. The book of Proverbs should jump to the forefront of parents’ minds as a great book to read with their children, because it will expose them to godly principles for making decisions. Solomon even introduces the book by writing that his purpose is “to give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion” (Proverbs 1:4).

Beyond direct moral instruction, the histories recorded in Scripture should help us learn lessons. The Apostle Paul was reflecting on various details of Israel’s past when God inspired him to write that “all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). The Old Testament is full of stories that record how God worked with His people and how their faith was rewarded; many of these stories are summarized in Hebrews 11. Our children can learn many positive qualities such as perseverance, obedience, and focus from the lives of those who were aiming to “obtain a better resurrection” (Hebrews 11:35).

By studying history, our children can also learn the consequences of bad choices. When Paul recounted the Israelites’ travails, he pointed out how Christians should avoid the many sinful actions the Israelites committed: “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted” (1 Corinthians 10:6). Paul also highlights idolatry, sexual immorality, tempting Christ, and complaining as evil actions that we can learn from (vv. 7–10).

Applying History to Ourselves

Parents can teach their children history to help them learn to avoid sinful conduct—and thus to avoid the consequences of disobeying God. But, as our children grow older, they can go deeper. Like their parents, children can draw the wrong lessons from history if they don’t understand how and why certain events occurred.

For example, when we see mistakes that people have made throughout history, it can be easy to assume we would have known better than our ancestors. It is tempting to cast ourselves in the story as the “good guys.” We tell ourselves that we would have been the faithful Israelites, not the disobedient, sinful, stiff-necked ones. When we do this, whether out of vanity or naivete, we too easily overlook the painful fact that there are times in history when the vast majority of people made the wrong decision, and we would likely have been part of that wrong majority. Would we really have been the third faithful man standing next to Caleb and Joshua? Or is it far more likely that we would have fallen to temptation like the hundreds of thousands of Israelites who did not enter the Promised Land?

To apply one lesson Paul presents in 1 Corinthians 10, do we really think we would have gone through the Exodus without complaining? Perhaps we think that we would have been too smart, too focused, or too righteous to complain. The truth is that this is almost certainly not the case. When we study history with our children, we as parents can point out how easy it is to complain. Most children will at times complain—some more often than others. However, many children in the Western world present complaints that are often trivial compared to what the Israelites endured during the Exodus. They were hungry, thirsty, and tired. The Israelites fell into complaining under dire circumstances. But how often do our children fall into complaining about what they get to eat or what entertainment they get to have? Of course, as parents helping our children learn these lessons of history, our children may turn those lessons around on us if we are the ones yielding to the temptation to complain!

The Bible Is the Foundation of History

History can be an amazing teacher, but parents must understand that it can easily be manipulated, cherry-picked, or ignored. As Christian parents, we have the obligation to both learn lessons of history and learn to accurately apply those lessons in our lives and the lives of our children. This can be tricky, since the time and energy required to do so might seem beyond our ability.

Thankfully, there is a solution to this problem. That solution is the Bible. It provides a framework of historical facts as well as lessons we can learn from those facts. The Bible teaches the reward of faith—and the cost—while reminding us how easy it is to fall into temptation. It even reveals prophecies proving that there would be far worse empires than the British Empire throughout the history of the world! Studying the inspired word of God is the best way to ensure that we rightly understand the facts and lessons of history.


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