In the counseling world, there is a lot made of a person’s past. Thinking about your past narrative can be a good thing. Your history is important because God was in your past. (cf. Jeremiah 1:5; Ephesians 1:3-11).
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The Lord did not show up in your life at the point of salvation. Omniscient and omnipresent God has always been aware of and involved in your life. He knows more about your past, present, and future than you do.
Whether you spent the greater part of your past rebelling against God or trying to follow Him, the Lord was there. Your life is one story–lost and saved–working out for your good and His glory (Romans 8:28).
From the beginning to the end, your life is scripted by God. He is the Author of, and you a participant in His story. The good and bad of your life, whether those things happened in your pre- or post-salvation experience, are part of the Lord’s sovereign care and design.
Becoming born again does not erase what has happened to you, but it does release you from the bondage of what happened to you (2 Corinthians 5:17). To be adopted by your heavenly Father is a radical change from what you used to be. God adorned you in the garments of redemption. You are eating at the King’s table, fully secure in your new lifestyle as God’s child–if you are born again (2 Samuel 9:11).
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- Now That I Want Forgiveness, How Do I Handle My Past Sins?
Let’s Get to Work
For some Christians, the good news of Christ is more theoretical than functional.1 Because of the horrendous events of their pasts, they struggle with what happened to them.
I fully understand this. As a two decade, physically and verbally abused son of an angry drunk, I am sympathetic to people who continue to struggle with what happened to them. (Read Rick’s bio.)
Your past can be like a dark shadow that never leaves your life. It is like living in a world where the sun never shines. This is how the past can control the present for some people, which has a determining impact on their future.
Being born a second time is supposed to have a practical and transformative reality to it. You are adopted by God and declared not guilty of all past, present, and future sin, as well as being released from the sin of others. This is a passive work that the Lord does to you (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 8:1).
Your sanctification is different though. It is not as passive. After salvation you are required to cooperate with God in the works He has previously prepared for you. The Lord wants you to participate in, while enjoying, your new relationship with Him. (See Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 2:12-13)
There is work to do after you are regenerated by the power of God (James 2:17). Though this cooperative activity with God is not a condition of salvation, it is an essential responsibility that affects the quality of your life on earth.
This is where your past can be a problem, even crippling your experience with God and others. For many Christians, they do not know how to work out their salvation and, thus, their walk with God is not a lot different from their walk prior to salvation.
This is where a thorough biblical understanding of the past would help them. They need a new theology of the past. Part of that theology should include these eight ideas.
1 – Your Past Is Significant
The psychological culture makes way too much of the past. They see the past as a mystery to be unlocked. There is no biblical warrant for this kind of thinking. The Lord would not lock up your past and then ask you to go on a mysterious field trip to find the secret to your future sanctification from your past.
This makes no theological sense. The quality of your sanctification is bound up in who you are in Christ, not in who you were in Adam. The continual backward looking Christian will gain no forward momentum in their progressive sanctification.
Contrariwise, the Christian culture has too easily dismissed the past as though it does not matter. This is also a mistake. You have a former manner of life that affects your “current manner of life.”
To put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires. – Ephesians 4:22 (ESV)
Paul told the Ephesian Christians that they had a former way of living that was impacting their current way of living. He did not ignore what they were before the Lord saved them and he did not want them to lightly dismiss it either.
2 – You Are Not a Victim
There is a measure of significance to your past, but it should not have a controlling importance. No person is a helpless victim whose present “manner of life” is determined by their past.
If your past has more power over you than the grace of God, your thinking about your past is not in line with the Gospel. Your thinking needs to change. Paul was aware of this, so he told the Ephesians to be careful about how their past may corrupt their thinking.
There is a way you are supposed to think about your past. This was Paul’s point. He was concerned how their thinking was shaped by a Gentile worldview. Carefully read how Paul talked about this.
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.
They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ! – Ephesians 4:17-20 (ESV)
3 – Your Past Affects Your Present
Paul was concerned that their thinking may not change. He was appealing to the Ephesian converts to no longer walk like the Gentiles, who did so in the futility of their minds.
Their understanding was darkened and alienated from the life found in God. The reason they did this was due to ignorance, which meant the Ephesians had not learned Christ this way.
The real issue for a person who has been affected by their past is how they are thinking about their past. To be in Christ is a worldview shift. You have come out of darkness and are now a child of the light (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Key Idea – The number one problem I experience with people who are still affected by their past is they continue to think like unbelievers. They do not have a stabilized and maturing faith in God (See 2 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 5:11-14).
4 – You’ve Reconstructed Your Past
What happened to them, by those in their past, has more power over them than what is going on with them by God (John 17:17). They live more like fleshly Christians than spiritual Christians.
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. – 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 (ESV)
This is where it gets interesting for “past-dominated” Christians. They have arguments that have been shaped by their past. These arguments are raised up against the knowledge of God. These thought-arguments control them.
The irony here is that no person perfectly interprets or reproduces what has happened to them; every person, because of finiteness and fallenness, practices a little bit of reconstruction.
You cannot even interpret your present correctly. This happens all the time in counseling. I will meet with a couple and one of them will rehearse the events of the weekend.
Typically, during this time of discussing the past (weekend), the other spouse jumps in and says, “That’s not exactly how it happened.” Not only are you unable to accurately reconstruct your past, but your presuppositions and fine-tuned filters will not allow you to see current events exactly like the person who is experiencing the same event with you.
You have an interpretive grid that is skewed toward your finite and fallen tendencies, whatever they may be. This, in itself, should cause you to be suspicious of how you think about what has happened to you.
5 – The Lord Was In Your Past
The safer way to go is to see your past as coming from the Lord for His glory. This has been the controlling thought about my past. I am not a victim of my past, but a particular person made in the image of God, who has been given a past for God’s glory and the benefit of humanity.
God knew me before I was born. He allowed me to be brought into this world through two particular sinners. He was carving a path through my past that led to the cross.
It really did not matter what kind of sinners were going to be my parents. How could I get from my first birth to my second birth and not be affected by those in my life? It is like we are all walking through the world in semi-clean clothes. By the time we get to Jesus our clothes are filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).
The good news is that God was there, making a path where no road existed, bringing us to His dear Son so we could be born a second time. God was and is with us (Genesis 39:2).
6 – The World Distorts Your Past
Unbelievers will try to change your past because that is the only thing they can do. Their presuppositional lens is altered by a godless worldview. How could they possibly view your past any other way?
Remember This: your starting point will determine your ending point.
If your culture begins by denying God, there is no way they can possibly come to God-centered solutions. This is where too many Christians have convoluted their thinking about the past.
They have been trained and shaped by worldviews that have nothing to do with Scripture. While I do not fault the world for doing this because that is all they can do, I am flummoxed by Christians who continue to drink from wells that cannot hold water (Jeremiah 2:13).
There is a lot of confusion in the Christian community about the past and nearly all of this confusion is because they have been trained by theologies that are devoid of God and His Word.
7 – You May Have Distorted Your Past
None of us are trustworthy enough to come to correct conclusions about our pasts. We all should hold a healthy suspicion of ourselves, especially about how we think about the past. This is not a negative. It is humble self-awareness.
You cannot be fully aware of your assumptions, values, influences, habits, and blind spots that bring shape to your former manner of life. This is what Paul told the Ephesians—their “former manner of life” was corrupted through deceitful desires. So is ours.
You should hold your past loosely as far as how you think about it and you should not believe that what happened to you is your identity. You are to no longer walk as the Gentiles.
You are a new creation, made and shaped by God. Rather than spending your days thinking about what has happened to you, it would be more productive to reflect on how God wants to work in your life today.
8 – Rewrite Your Future
Backward fixations will keep you fixated on your past. Forward fixations will change your life. If you want to change your past, change your present.
As you incrementally alter your present, you will stand at some future day with a past that is Christ-centered. Today, you look at your past and see the darkness. In the future, you will look backward and see a beautiful life with God. This was my story.
Over twenty-five years of progressive sanctification has given me a reconstructed identity that is situated in Christ, not in Adam. What happened to me in my past was real and powerful, but it is not who I am. I am a Christian—a Christ follower. My past serves redemptive purposes today. Here are a few.
- My past was a path to Jesus.
- My past is a blessing from the Lord.
- My past helps me to relate to strugglers.
- My past motivates me to keep changing.
- My past encourages me to tell others how they can change.
- My past allows me to warn those who won’t change.
- My past makes me appreciate the grace of God.
- My past gives me a greater hatred for sin.
- My past stirs me to long for heaven.
- My past fills my soul with the transformative hope found in the gospel.
Also published on Medium.