Christians are often criticized for being stuck in the past. Every day we read an ancient document about ancient peoples, ancient times, and ancient cultures. Once of our sacraments commands us to remember the death of our founder some 2000 years ago. And we spend one day a week commemorating His resurrection. Remembering the ancient past is an essential part of being a Christian.

We also study Church History. We enjoy tracing God’s providential dealings with His worldwide Church through the years. We’re interested in individual histories too and love to read biographies of godly men and women.

But we not only trace God’s dealings with his people from ancient and more recent times, we love to track God’s hand in our own lives too. We look back on our unconverted days, amazed at God’s preserving grace in numerous dangerous situations. We often ponder the pit we were pulled from, and we meditate on how God’s goodness and mercy have followed us all our days. When together with other Christians we love to hear their stories about the old, old story of Jesus and His love.

So, yes, we plead guilty to our remembering the days of old. But our historical instincts are not academic and merely theoretical. And we look back, not just because we are commanded to (look up “remember” in a concordance if you doubt that). We do so because we sense that these memories help us to live now and to face the unknown future.

And what’s fascinating is that that is now being confirmed by science. Neuroimaging studies have identified areas of the brain that are activated when we are remembering the past. But the most  recent studies (pdf) have found a striking overlap between these areas and brain regions that are activated when we think about the future. At the Harvard Business Review Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske report:

According to scientists, the brain’s memory circuits are not merely for reflecting on the past but are also vital mechanisms for imagining, anticipating, and preparing for the future. In this new view, your brain is a proactive system that integrates past experience to help you navigate the future.

Of course, Jeff and Mark’s HBR article is interested largely in competitive advantage and commercial gain: 

In the business world, it’s a distinct advantage to have a brain that anticipates future demands and negotiates them well. Accurate predictions typically translate to success. Being able to envision future scenarios helps foster strategic planning and resist immediate rewards in favor of longer-term gains. The proactive brain flexibly recombines details from past experiences that, by analogy with your current surroundings, help you make sense of where you are, anticipate what will come next, and successfully navigate the transition.

However, surely the Christian can piggy-back on their research and apply their conclusions to our spiritual advantage and gain. For example, just look at the tips they give us to enhance our ability to benefit from the past:

  • Give your brain a rich bank of life experiences. Expose it to diverse environments and situations. Increasing the breadth of your experiences provides richer information for your brain to draw on as it helps you anticipate new situations.
  • Let it borrow from the experiences of others by communicating, reading, or interacting with or about others.
  • Think about what you want from the future. Take time to reflect on individual and team values and goals, both immediate and down the road. These will help guide your brain as it envisions future scenarios that may best help you achieve your objectives.
  • Actively ponder future rewards or accomplishments. Emphasize rich, detailed thinking about long-term outcomes. This reduces the lure (and the danger) of instant gratification.
  • Give yourself periods of relatively uninterrupted thought during which you let your mind wander. Doing this gives the brain’s memory system extra time to recombine your prior experiences in ways that can help you envision future possibilities.

Obviously, we can’t take all of this over to the Christian life. But you don’t need to be a scientist to see the spiritual benefits of using the past to imagine, anticipate, and prepare for the eternal future.