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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’s script comes from the hand of God. He is the author, and you are a participant in His story. Whether you spent the more significant part of your past rebelling against God or trying to follow Him, the Lord was there. 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).
For some Christians, the good news of Christ is more theoretical than functional. 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 reality is how the past can control the present for a few folks, which has a determining impact on their futures. Being born a second time is supposed to have a practical and transformative reality. God adopted and declared you not guilty of all past, present, and future sins, as well as releasing you from the evil of others.
This work is a passive operation that the Lord does to you (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 8:1). Your sanctification is different from this. It is not as passive. After salvation, God requires you to cooperate with Him in the works He has previously prepared for you. The Lord wants you to participate while enjoying your new relationship with Him. (See Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 2:12-13.)
There is work to do after regeneration (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 juncture is where your past can be a problem, even crippling your experience with God and others, which is why they need a new theology of the past. Part of that theology should include these eight ideas.
To put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires (Ephesians 4:22).
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 tactic makes no theological sense.
Contrariwise, the Christian culture has too easily dismissed the past as though it does not matter, which is also a mistake. Of course, you do not want to be the continual backward-looking Christian who never gains forward momentum in their progressive sanctification. We can live in this tension easily because Christ binds the quality of our sanctification in who we are in Christ, not in who we were in Adam.
You have a former manner of life that affects your “current manner of life.” Paul told the Ephesian Christians that they had a former way of living that impacted their current way of living. He did not ignore what they were before the Lord saved them, and he did not want them to dismiss it lightly.
There is a measure of significance to your past, but it should not have 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, and your thinking needs to change.
There is a way you are supposed to think about your past, which was Paul’s point. He was concerned about how a Gentile worldview shaped their thinking. Paul was aware of this, so he told the Ephesians to be careful about how their past may corrupt their thinking. 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).
Paul was concerned that their thinking might not change. He appealed to the Ephesian converts to no longer walk like the Gentiles, who did so in the futility of their minds. They did this due to ignorance, which meant the Ephesians had not learned Christ the way they should have. Their understanding was darkened and alienated from the life found in God.
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). 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.)
This snag is where it gets interesting for “past-dominated” Christians. 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. They have arguments that their past has shaped. These arguments rise against the knowledge of God. These thought arguments control them.
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).
The irony is that no person perfectly interprets or reproduces what has happened to them; because of finiteness and fallenness, every person practices a little bit of reconstruction. It happens all the time in counseling. I will meet with a couple, and one of them will rehearse the weekend’s events. Typically, during this time of discussing the weekend, the other spouse jumps in and says, “That’s not exactly how it happened.”
They cannot reconstruct their weekend accurately. Their presuppositions and fine-tuned filters will not allow them to see current events exactly like the person experiencing the same event with them. They have a skewed interpretive grid tilting toward finite and fallen tendencies. This perspective, in itself, should cause anyone to be suspicious of how they think about what has happened to them.
The safer way to go is to see our pasts as coming from the Lord for His glory. This thought has been controlling me when I think 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 brought me into this world through two particular sinners.
He was carving a path through my past that led to the cross. It did not matter what kind of sinners my parents would be. 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).
Unbelievers will try to change your past because that is the only thing they can do. They have an altered presuppositional lens shaped by a godless worldview. How could they possibly view your past any other way? Their starting point, like ours, determines their ending point.
Too many Christians have culturally convoluted thinking about their pasts. They have received their training and shaping influences by worldviews that have little to do with Scripture. If the culture begins by denying God, there is no way they can come to God-centered solutions.
While I do not fault the world for doing what they do because that is all they can do, it flummoxes me that some Christians continue to drink from wells that cannot hold water (Jeremiah 2:13). Nearly all of this confusion about the past is because believers have submitted their thoughts to theologies devoid of God and His Word.
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 what has happened to us. This perspective is not negative. It is humble self-awareness and wisdom. We cannot be fully aware of our assumptions, values, influences, habits, and blind spots that shape our former manner of life.
Paul told the Ephesians—their “former manner of life” was corrupted through deceitful desires. So is ours. We must hold our pasts loosely as far as how we think about it, and we should not believe what happened to us is our identities. We are to no longer walk as the Gentiles.
We are a new creation, made and shaped by God. Rather than spending our days thinking about what has happened to us, it would be more productive to reflect on how God wants to work in our lives today. Backward fixations will keep us fixated on our pasts. Forward fixations will change our lives. If we’re going to change our past, we must change the only thing we can manage today.
As you incrementally alter your present, you will stand at some future day with a Christ-centered past. 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 transformation was my story. Over twenty-five years of progressive sanctification have given me a reconstructed identity 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. Read through this list and examine your life and relationship with Christ. Take the time to reflect and discuss with a friend what you should do to begin changing your past by changing your present, which will give you a God-honoring future.
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