There was a time when I used to have a pretty good memory. I could memorize facts for tests, keep track of current events, and even come up with some good trivia at parties. These days, simple tasks like retaining a “to-do” list, or memorizing an address, seems more challenging. I’d like to think that this is because there is more information stored in my brain, but that might just be something that naturally-forgetful people (like me) made up to make ourselves feel better.
Because I’m aware of this, though, I can take steps to address it. When someone asks me to do something at work, I try to make a note of it (sometimes, starting an e-mail message back to them with a meaningful subject line, and maybe a couple of points to get it started), or ask them to send me something that I can use to track the task. Not only do lists help me keep in mind what I need to do, they provide an encouraging morale boost when I can cross a completed task off of the list, or put a checkmark next to it.
Take a look at this passage from Deuteronomy:
“Now write down this song and teach it to the Israelites and have them sing it, so that it may be a witness for me against them. When I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, the land I promised on oath to their ancestors, and when they eat their fill and thrive, they will turn to other gods and worship them, rejecting me and breaking my covenant. And when many disasters and calamities come on them, this song will testify against them, because it will not be forgotten by their descendants. I know what they are disposed to do, even before I bring them into the land I promised them on oath.”
Deuteronomy 31:19-21 NIV
One of the downsides of my keeping records (so that I don’t forget), is that my notes can also be used against me. I don’t regularly hang out with many people who would intentionally throw something back in my face, but there are times when I go back to see what I had written about a particular subject (like in my e-mail “sent items” folder), and find that I had clearly known the right answer at one time, and later made a significant omission or outright mistake (which could have been prevented). In these cases, I don’t have a good excuse, especially when it is clear that I knew the answer (and had access to it), but either forgot or simply ignored it.
In the passage above, God instructed Moses to teach a song to His people. (You can read the entire song in Deuteronomy 32:1-43.) Music and poetry are a great way to memorize things, both important and trivial – just ask a child to tell you the words to a popular song, and hear how well they know them! The lyrics to songs can remind us of facts (like the ones my children would learn in school about their lessons), of our history (like patriotic hymns), or of God’s nature (like many classic songs of the faith).
However, once we have learned a lesson, we become accountable for that lesson. A school teacher expects students to be able to recite or use the concepts taught in class (depending on the subject). Driver’s Education training imparts skills that are meant to keep future drivers – and nearby pedestrians – safe on the streets. A heart surgeon is not taught about veins and arteries just so that he or she can forget about them in the operating room.
In the same way, we – like the ancient Israelites – have two options to select from when it comes to knowledge that we learn from God (whether through reading the Bible, direct insight received from the Holy Spirit, or holy instruction).
In the one case (which is, regrettably, what the Israelites chose), we can learn the truth and choose to act contrary to it. We can know the right thing to do, and then willfully take another path. Here, we should expect no less than the lessons we learned – about the consequences of sin – to come to fruition. When the logical outcome of our evil decisions brings suffering upon us, we remember that we knew better. (Now, God is gracious and merciful, and can forgive sin. However, even those who are forgiven may have to live with the consequences of their wrong actions.)
In the better case, though, we can not only learn from God’s instruction, but then we can also choose to follow the path that He has given us. That path doesn’t lead to unlimited prosperity and popularity (after all, God never said that it would), but it does lead to the avoidance of curses set aside specifically for those who continue in sin without repenting and seeking forgiveness through Jesus Christ.
So, just like we may have songs that we can’t get unstuck from our brains, we have knowledge of good and evil that sticks with us as well. The question is, what will each of us do with the truth that we have learned?