In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the main character, Winston Smith, worked at a government organization called the Ministry of Truth (or “Minitrue” in the “Newspeak” of the novel.) Smith’s job was to revise history to fit the ever changing needs of the socialist party that ruled the nation. If a former hero or party official was denounced by the party, that person became an “unperson” and Winston Smith erased their good deeds and accomplishments and made sure all prior newspaper accounts and speeches that mentioned them were changed to reflect their new status. The person either ceased to exist or their past deeds became uniformly evil in keeping with their new status. The memories of people like Smith were also expected to change, so that former friends and allies were now remembered as enemies.
That this kind of radical historical revision actually took place in socialist and communist nations doesn’t surprise most people, but what sometimes surprises me is the level to which everyone – even sincere Christians – can be guilty of operating their own version of 1984’s “Ministry of Truth” in their minds by which they change their memories to conform to their present feelings about individuals or institutions. For instance, in marriage counseling one of the most difficult problems to overcome is what I call the “I can’t remember why I married Hitler” syndrome. A person suffering from this syndrome has usually been deeply hurt by their spouse, and there is a high level of animosity between both of them, in fact they are usually teetering on the brink of divorce. At this point, their own private Minitrue is hard at work justifying their current feelings about that individual by removing any memories of good things, pleasant experiences, positive events and just about anything that doesn’t make the other person seem like a monster. In place of these good memories, every bad thing that ever happened between them is magnified and often times memories that were either good or at least neutral are rewritten so that they become bad and unpleasant. Once a person is suffering from this syndrome it often becomes difficult or even impossible for a counselor or pastor to remind them that they were once head over heels in love with this person and couldn’t stand to be apart from them for even a moment. All they know is that they are married to someone who has always been the spousal equivalent of Adolf Hitler, and they are usually looking for a way to end the nightmare as soon as possible.
The same is often true of what happens when a friendship between Christians ends due to an argument, misunderstanding, disagreement or painful circumstance. As a general rule, those Christians will never want to see each other again, and will entirely disregard any notion that they are supposed to be spending eternity together in heaven. Instead they will set about eradicating any memory of anything helpful or sacrificial the other person did, or worse they will impute bad motives to their good deeds: “They only helped me because…” I’ve actually had the experience of talking to a Christian who has so thoroughly erased another individual from their lives that they either can’t remember the person in the circumstance you are discussing or they’ve actually replaced them with someone else in the same way that Soviet photo editors diligently erased Leon Trotsky from old party photos and replace him with Josef Stalin. Even worse, they will often become active propagandists actively spreading their own narrative of their former friend’s misdeeds amongst their other friends. We do this in an attempt to discredit the person we no longer like and make sure they are removed from our circle of friends, as well as to justify our decision to make them into “unpersons” in the eyes of those friends. Sadly, we will often even make believing our propaganda and taking our side the test of our friendship with other people. If they will not join us in making the discredited friend into an “unperson” then we view that as a sign they are our enemies as well and should probably also be turned into “unpersons.”
We can also put our personal Minitrue to work on revising the history of institutions such as churches. Often people have good reasons for leaving a church, such as a change of location or a genuine change in their own theological beliefs. Sometimes people will leave a church because the doctrinal positions of the church itself or its approach to something central like worship have changed, but often it is simply the same kind of issues that separate Christian friends that cause us to leave our church. A pastor friend once pointed out to me that, “no one leaves a good church.” If you left the church, it must have been because it was bad. Sometimes the sign that it was bad was that they had started the process of church discipline against you, which indicated that the church was either legalistic or that they always hated you, at that moment in time the idea that the reason for church discipline might lie with you or that it might actually be intended for your good becomes impossible. This is often the moment when you suddenly decide that the church discipline that was applied to someone else that seemed like the right thing to do at the time, wasn’t such a good thing after all. In fact, your memories of the individuals who went through church discipline might well change at that point and go through a drastic rehabilitation. More often though, you are leaving because there was a disagreement, or you were bored, or your feelings were hurt, or you wanted a change, or there was another church you wanted to attend more. At that point the guilt involved in breaking membership vows usually means that you will need some series of grave failures on the part of your church in order to justify your decision to leave or some theological issue that seemed minor at one time will now become a critical part of your beliefs. You don’t remember how it happened, but one day you realized that you were part of a legalistic cult that had always been guilty of spiritual malpractice. The helpful sermons and bible studies, the counseling, the caseroles when you were sick, the baptisms, the funerals, the hospital visits, and so on are gradually erased, and every negative event grows in size and seriousness.
Before I am accused of special pleading, let me note that pastors are as prone to this practice as anyone else, particularly pastors leaving a church under poor circumstances. In that case, every good thing about the congregation disappears, and it becomes an assembly mostly composed of rabid wolves who were just looking for an opportunity to savage the shepherd and any “good sheep” who supported the pastor. Our own sins and pastoral failures are minimized and we gradually recraft history to make ourselves into yet another John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards. Like them, we were excellent pastors but we too were driven out by a worldly and ungrateful flock. So our own mistakes, impatience, laziness, deceit and selfishness are carefully erased, to be replaced by a record of unbroken sacrifice of truly biblical proportions. A pastor’s Minitrue is quite capable of writing a magnificent hagiography that sets him amongst the greatest of martyrs. The fact that friends, disciples, and family members will often support that view and circulate his own propaganda does nothing to help. Even when the issue that led to the break with the congregation was a grievous moral failure, there will always be people willing to believe the propaganda and blame the congregation for being “too harsh” and lament the lack of grace shown to their friend.
The truth is that we are all affected by the fall – all of us – and even in our redeemed state our sanctification (the process by which we are being made like Christ) remains incomplete and is, as chapter 13.2 of the Westminster Confession reminds us, “yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence arises a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.” Consequently, we should only expect to be without the sin of “historical revision” which we should simply call, “lying to ourselves”, in heaven. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t struggle to close down our own particular Minitrue, and to assist you in doing that I’d like to make the following recommendations:
1) When your current feelings don’t match the historical record, remember, its not the historical record that needs to be changed, it’s your feelings.
2) Remember that lies we tell ourselves in order to feel better about our decisions or smooth our troubled consciences are still lies and violations of the Ninth Commandment. Every lie we tell ourselves is a false witness, a deception, and it does the bidding of the deceiver. Remember, if we would be servants of the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) then we too must be people of the truth.
3) Avoid the urge to control history or surround yourself only with people who will support your own version of it. Often we consciously or unconsciously weed out friends and acquaintances who might contradict the official pronouncements of our Minitrue. We actually need these people in our lives to keep us accountable. Also, instead of helping your friends to revise history, keep them accountable. Often being that kind of friend will cost you, but we need to remember that the true friend is the one who isn’t afraid to hurt someone’s feelings if that is the cost of telling them the truth they need to hear: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” (Prov. 27:6).
4) Be willing to do the hard work of resolving a conflict with others, even if that requires a mediator rather than simply adjusting history and hoping to never see the person again. Be a peacemaker.
5) Remember that nothing can justify a lie, not even the fact that a person or group has hurt you, or that they have been guilty of sin. Also remember that one lie always requires others to support it. This is how people end up weaving their own web of self-deceit.
6) Fight the urge to make prior history the basis upon which you write yourself “a blank check” that will allow you to do whatever you want to. Often in marriage problems a spouse will justify their own unbiblical actions by pointing to bad things their spouse has done in the past. Often this habit will lead to an ever increasing tendency to generate, magnify, expand, embellish, or dwell upon every single sin their spouse has committed.
7) Fight the urge to justify your actions to others. Often the strongest impediment to setting up an active Minitrue will simply be not feeling the need to explain why every decision you made was right one. This also gives you an added impetus to make the right decision the first time, rather than revising history to cover up the wrong one.