AVE YOU EVER wished your life had a do-over button so you could travel back in time? You could undo something you regret and make things right.
Missed opportunities, secret sins, and irreversible decisions can form a prison, locking us out of the present. We can romanticize the past and remember the glory of days gone by—like a 40-something woman who cherishes her memories of being on the high-school homecoming court.
William Wordsworth wrote, “The child is the father of the man.” We are definitely influenced by the past, but we don’t have to get stuck in it. The past should be an asset, not a liability.
The present is on standby when you live in the past. Sure, there are legitimate times to deal with past issues, but it should be done intentionally and with the goal of moving past the past. The only way your past can be an asset to you is if you use it as a teacher—a springboard to launch you into the future.
Let’s challenge the notion of “working through” the past. We tend to make a bigger deal about the influence of the past than is justified. The reason you think, or feel, or act a certain way is not always due to the past.
Contemporary logic says you have to explore your past to understand yourself. To change yourself, you have to resolve the past, often through therapy or inner healing, in order to move on in life. Such thinking leads us down the path of blaming the past instead of taking charge of the present.
Mark this down: Understanding your past will not change the present.
The past no longer exists. You can’t undo it, change it, or go back and relive it. The past is what it is—the past.
“What can I do with the past?” you may ask. You can . . .
• Be thankful for the past.
• Regret the past.
• Grieve over the past.
• Live in the past.
• Learn from the past.
• Romanticize the past.
• Forget the past.
• Blame the past.
• Celebrate the past.
But you can’t change the past.
Don’t Get Over It, Get On With It
We waste valuable time regretting the past and fretting the future. Life is right now, not yesterday and not tomorrow. Now! The key to getting past your past is to make the most of the moment.
Latch on to this truth: The past is resolved when the present is fulfilled.
When you are happy, you don’t waste time analyzing your past. You’re too busy enjoying life. It’s only when life comes to a grinding halt that you get preoccupied with the past. It is time for you to stop asking, How can I get over my past? and to start asking, How can I get on with my life?
My phone rang late one night during the Christmas season. The caller was distraught. Her husband had died about six months earlier. Although we had talked on several occasions as I tried to help her work through the grieving process, she was stuck in her bereavement and depression.
“How can I ever get over Ray’s death?” she cried. “I’m so alone. I’ve got nothing left to live for.”
Suddenly, I blurted out, “Don’t get over it, get on with it!”
My words hit her like a ton of bricks. She regained her composure. There was an awkward moment of silence. Then she asked, “What do you mean—get on with it?”
I thought to myself, What do I mean?
I told her that she would always love her husband and she would always miss him. No one could take away the pain and loss she felt. “Your pain,” I said, “is the measure of your love. Stop trying to get over Ray’s death. There are some things in life we never get over, and this is one of them. Keep your pain tucked away in your heart. Treasure your memories of Ray forever. But begin to live the rest of your life in spite of your pain.”
After our conversation, and several other subsequent ones, she began to understand the principle: Don’t get over it, get on with it. And she started to get on with it. She started to dream again. She thought about . . .
• Places to travel
• Career opportunities
• New skills to develop
• Educational challenges
• Volunteer opportunities
• Charitable causes
• A new place to live.
She rose to meet the challenge of getting on with life even when it hurts.
There are some things you’ll experience that are so painful you’ll never get over them. The good news is you don’t have to—you can get on with it even when you can’t get over it. The apostle Paul said:
But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13-14).*
When the Israelites were trapped in the desert after they had been delivered from Egypt, they were in a jam. Pharaoh’s army pursued them from behind. The Red Sea was in front. They were terrified and complained to Moses, “Let’s go back to Egypt!”
But Moses prayed, and God answered him, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on” (Ex. 14:15).
That’s exactly what God says when we’re stuck in the past and paralyzed by fear, resentment, failure, tragedy, or disappointment—Move on!
The Fine Art of Forgetting
Getting on with life begins by putting the past into perspective. Our problem is that we tend to remember the things we should forget, and forget the things we should remember.
1. Forget the accomplishments of the past. Don’t allow your life to become a museum. Don’t waste time reliving the glory of the past by polishing trophies and displaying blue ribbon awards.
Someone asked Rembrandt, “Of all your paintings, which one is the greatest?”
He said, “I don’t know. I haven’t painted it yet.”
2. Forget the analysis of the past. While it’s normal to wonder why certain things happen, or why things turned out the way they did, all our speculations are at best just that—speculations! Who can say for sure why things happen? Job’s comforters thought they knew all the answers after they analyzed Job’s sufferings. In the end, God told them they were all wrong.
Here’s an axiom to help you take charge of your life: Don’t ask why, ask what. Focus your energies on setting goals and solving problems instead of mulling over the past. What you can do today is more important than understanding why things happened yesterday.
3. Forget the agonies of the past. You vowed to say no to sin, only to say yes. You determined to stand firm, only to collapse under the pressure. You resolved to believe, only to end up doubting.
When you fail, it’s fairly easy to receive forgiveness from God, but forgiving yourself is tough. However, if God forgives you, who are you to not forgive yourself? Are you greater than God?
Pray Psalm 51:1 if you are stuck at a place of guilt: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.”
4. Forget the agony of suffering. Suffering is no respecter of persons. It comes in many forms—emotional scars . . . crushing disappointments . . . lost opportunities . . . personal losses . . . family tragedies . . . ruined relationships . . . shattered hopes.
The most common form of baggage from the past is resentment. “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Heb. 12:15).
Release your resentments and forgive those who have wronged you. God has a promise for you: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isa. 43:18-19).
Look Ahead, Not Behind
Two Buddhist monks were walking together in a thunderstorm when they came to a swollen stream. A beautiful young Japanese woman in a kimono stood there wanting to cross to the other side but afraid of the currents.
One of the monks said, “Can I help you?”
“I need to cross this stream,” replied the woman.
The monk picked her up, put her on his shoulders, carried her through the swirling waters, and put her down on the other side. He and his companion then went on to the monastery.
That night his companion said to him, “I have a bone to pick with you. As Buddhist monks, we have taken vows not to look on a woman, much less touch her body. Back there by the river you did both.”
“My brother,” answered the other monk, “I put that woman down on the other side of the river. You’re still carrying her in your mind.”
When Israel faced the challenges of the wilderness, they kept looking back to the comforts of Egypt, as if being a slave in Egypt constituted a comfortable life! Their reward for looking back was not a first-class ticket to Egypt but 40 years of wandering in the desert. Looking back will have the same effect in your life. You will miss your Promised Land if you don’t learn to look ahead instead of behind.
David C. Cooper is lead pastor of the Mount Paran Church of God in Atlanta. This article is excerpted from his book Repurposing Your Life.
From January, 2013