Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

1 Mar 2023

Learning from History, not Reacting to It


It’s commonly said that hindsight is 20/20, but that simply isn’t the case. In fairness, most people use it not to claim that their interpretation of past events is perfect, but only that it is easier to see things more clearly after the fact. I agree with that. We should, though, be reflective in our “after-action” evaluations, making sure we learn the right lessons rather than reactive ones.

Mark Twain is credited with this insight: 

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

There is some wisdom in this—often people overreact to a past problem to avoid repeating it but actually create new ones. If adopting a “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” mindset makes you less susceptible to a bad actor, great. If it makes you universally suspicious and untrusting, not good.

The key to applying wisdom like Proverbs 20:3 (“The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.”) is to make certain that we are truly seeing the danger and not the danger plus an aura around it springing from our imagination. The difference here is between exercising wise caution and being controlled by fear.

Over the years I have seen reactions to a problem in one place or relationship spread like a poison that affects every place or every relationship: marriages, families, congregations, pastors, deacons, staff teams, etc. The breakdown of trust leads to damaged relationships and unresolved problems that grow into conflicts. Rather than solve problems they mushroom into conflicts under a blanket of suspicion.

“Here we go again!” If this is your first reaction to a problem, perhaps you should ask yourself if the stove is actually hot or if you are just reacting to a stove. It’s at least possible that you are making some assumptions based on past experience which need to be verified before acted upon (cf. Pro 18:13). 

Married person, your spouse may have stumbled on the road to change, not abandoned it.

Parent, this child is not the sibling who did whatever you are petrified about happening again.

Pastor, this member may be sincerely asking a question, not angling for ammunition like that one time you got burned.

Church member, this pastor may be genuinely concerned about your spiritual well-being, not looking for a way to manipulate you like the pastor in the church you left.

Pastor, these deacons may be concerned about the ramifications of possible decisions, not wanting to control you like the ones in your ministry three churches ago.

Deacons, this pastor may sincerely be questioning how the church has been governed so he can understand and lead well, not wanting to lord it over anybody like the last guy.

I could go on, but I think you can see my point. Biblical love calls us to both discernment (Phil 1:9-11) and charitable interpretations (1 Cor 13:7) as we work our way through problems (whether relational, organizational, or ministerial). We are never supposed to be naive, but we also must not be cynical and fearful.

In other words, don’t assume someone is trying to fool you; assess whether that is the case and then act accordingly. Every time you have been fooled should give you better insight into the assessment process, not fill you with negative assumptions. People who are full of negative assumptions always find “evidence” to confirm them. They carry forward with them the making of the next problem and it turns into a terrible, downward cycle of negative prediction and fulfillment.

Better would be to learn from the past so that you don’t repeat it. Break the cycle—don’t react in ways that perpetuate it.