Dealing with the Past: Don't Look Back!
By Terry T. Lester
Friday, January 01, 1988
It was Satchel Paige, the great baseball player who paved the way for blacks to play in the major leagues, who made famous the saying, "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you!"Long before Satchel Paige ever gave his advice, the Apostle Paul was telling Christian folks, in so many words, "Don't look back!" Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, "Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."
God's word to us is, "Don't look back!" Like the Apostle Paul we must forget "what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead."
There is a natural, human tendency for us to look back. Life magazine has the "Year in Pictures," Sports Illustrated has the "Year in Sports." We have history books, yearbooks, photo albums, home movies and memories that allow us to look back.
And there can be great value in looking back. We look back to learn. We look back to affirm the places and faces and circumstances from whence we have come.
In The Sacred Journey, Frederick Buechner writes, "it is mainly for some clue to where I am going that I search through where I've been; for some hint as to whom I am becoming or failing to become that I delve into what used to be." So there is, indeed, a time for us to look back, if that looking back carries with it a positive purpose.
At the same time Paul tells us to "forget what lies behind." But Paul is saying don't look back in a way that will keep us from going forward. Don't look back in a way that makes us prisoners of our past, because looking back in the wrong way enslaves us or enslaves others to past mistakes and sins. Looking back in the wrong way does not allow the healing of old hurts and painful memories.
Even looking back at past accomplishments and successes can keep us from discovering what lies ahead. So the advice that's given to us is, "Don't look back!"
Imagine how miserable the Apostle Paul would have been if he had not put behind the sins and mistakes of his past. Think back on Paul's earlier years.
Before his conversion Paul was named Saul, and he was the number one enemy of the church. He was responsible for the gruesome persecution and even the murder of people who professed faith in Christ. When Stephen, the great witness for Christ, was stoned to death, Luke tells us that "Saul was consenting to his death."
In Acts, Luke goes on to say "that a great persecution arose against the church" and "Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison." Paul's past was cluttered with atrocious acts of evil. And he wasn't perfect after he became a Christian. He, like us, continually struggled with his sinfulness.
Yet he was forgiven. Through the grace of God Paul was forgiven. He affirmed in his letter to the Colossians, "He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."
Paul was able to forget the awfulness of his past because God had forgotten and forgiven Paul's past. In Hebrews the Lord tells us that He will "remember our sins and misdeeds no more."
There's no reason for us to remain enslaved to the mistakes and sins and shortcomings of our past. We don't have to continually feel guilty and "second rate" because of something we did years ago or even yesterday. God in Christ has forgiven us, and all we do is accept His forgiveness and say "thank you." It's as simple as that. Don't look back at past mistakes!
Neither should we look back at the past mistakes and sins of other people. Just as God has forgiven us we are to forgive one another. In his excellent book, Healing for Damaged Emotions, David Seamands says, "Many years ago I was driven to the conclusion that the two major causes of most emotional problems among ... Christians are these: the failure to understand, receive, and live out God's unconditional grace and forgiveness; and the failure to give out that unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace to other people."
Remember Hester in Hawthorne's classic, The Scarlet Letter? Because she was an adultress she was made to wear a big scarlet "A" whenever she was in public. She was branded because of a mistake she had made in her past. The townspeople kept looking back.
When I was a young boy living back in Mackville, Kentucky, there was a man named Homer who came to town one day. Homer was old and stooped and he always wore a flannel shirt, faded bibbed overalls and a straw hat. Homer spent his days mowing yards and doing odd jobs.
What I remember most about Homer wasn't his clothes, or his kind smile. What I remember most is that folks told me that Homer had killed a man and spent most of his life in prison. Our little community never forgot Homer's past and they never let him forget it.
We can never build any lasting relationships, we can never relate to one another like Christ wants us to, unless we are willing to "forget what lies behind."
At our best we are all sinners. We all make mistakes. We hurt one another. But God helps us forget what's behind us and He can help us forget what lies behind our neighbors and friends and family.
The word to husbands and wives, to brothers and sisters in Christ, to friends and family is, "Don't look back." Don't look back on those words that were spoken in a moment of anger. Don't look back on those actions that hurt us. Don't look back on those mistakes that we all make.
Instead, let us "be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." Don't look back! "Forget what lies behind."
Don't look back on painful memories. We all have those moments in life, those experiences in life, that haunt us. We have memories of these difficult times that have a tendency to be re-played over and over again in our minds. Our mind is sort of an internal video recorder that records our experiences, both good and back. Leaving behind our bad memories is necessary to experience what lies ahead.
Charles Dickens' pitiful character in Great Expectations, Miss Havisham, was a person who was never able to overcome her painful memories. Miss Havisham experienced the trauma of being jilted on her wedding day. Her fiancee left her waiting at the altar.
On that day Miss Havisham's life stopped. The clocks in her house stopped. Her wedding cake was decorated with cobwebs. And Miss Havisham never recovered because she couldn't keep from looking back. She resigned herself to living in a past so painfully filled with memories that she couldn't change.
No, we can't always turn off the re-runs of painful memories. But God helps us do what we can't do alone. God can bring healing to our painful memories. As we confess our helplessness to the Lord He works to free us from miserable memories. He helps us put our memories in perspective.
I once had a seminary class with a bright, attractive lady named Doris. A part of our class was sharing our life stories with one another and I was deeply moved by Doris' story.
Doris was born to a poor family in a little town in Georgia. During her childhood years she never knew her father. One day she discovered that a man she had been told was her uncle was really her father. Needless to say, Doris was crushed. For a long time Doris suffered in silence with her pain.
Eventually she has allowed the Lord to heal the painful memories of her past. In grace and with gracefulness, she is pressing forward!
The memory of a painful, unhappy childhood. The memory of a love that was lost. The memory of a traumatic happening in our lives. The memory of a tragedy that we've experienced. The memories may not be healed overnight, but they can be healed. We can leave them behind us and go on. As the Lord told Israel, which was suffering in captivity, "Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing." Don't look back!
We can't live in the past and still be fully alive. There is even the ever-present temptation for us to look back at our accomplishments without accepting new challenges that lie ahead.
It's good for us to celebrate our successes. It's right that we should pause and thank God for our blessings. But we can't be content with where we've come from; it's where we're going that's important!
Especially is this true for the church. We can never "rest upon our laurels," our past achievements. We never reach a point where we should be looking back. Our faith is an expectant faith, one that always points us to the future. As Christians we should never long for the "good old days," but for the new and exciting days yet to come. A church that looks back instead of ahead is a church that isn't going anywhere!
As individuals, as a church, God isn't most concerned with where we've been, with what we used to do. His concern is with what we're doing right now and what we're going to do tomorrow. Paul paints the picture of a runner straining and pushing to finish a race. He says, "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."
Paul's goal is to become more like Christ in every thought and action. He forgets the mistakes, the sins, the memories, the accomplishments, and focuses on the goal ahead. Even though he's in prison, in a predicament that would make most people look back to better days, Paul looks ahead. He doesn't look back. He keeps on looking to what lies in the future.
In the letter to the Hebrews we read, "Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."
What lies ahead for us? What lies ahead for our church? Are we willing and ready to press toward the goal of becoming the persons and the church God intends for us to be?
In the book of Genesis we find a story that vividly illustrates the danger of looking back. God has just pronounced judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah and they are about to be destroyed. In the meantime God sends some messengers to a good man named Lot and his family. The message is, "Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley; flee to the hills, lest you be consumed."
Lot and his wife and two daughters leave behind their home as fire and brimstone rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah. Then the unexpected happens. The Genesis writer says, "But Lot's wife behind him looked back, and she became a pillar of salt."
The message for us is not that we'll become a container of table salt if we look back. What the story says to us is that our journey ends when we look back. And our spiritual lives become just as dead and useless as a pillar of salt.
Jesus said, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
"Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."