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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Haunting of the Past

“Fuggedaboutit.”

Ah, that most New York-ese of all New York expressions!

There are things you can sort out, and things you can’t. Go back and fix your mistakes if you can; but if you can’t, there’s only one thing you can do.

Learn how to forget about it.

Christian Forgetfulness

I was listening to Ravi Zacharias this weekend … to a talk he gave to some young people years ago. And in it he said something that struck me with great force.

“One thing that Christians must learn to do,” he said, “is to forget.”

“What?” I thought, “Why would he say that? I would think that Christians had more need to remember things.” If he’d said “forgive”, I’d have understood; but “forget”?

Christians are the last people who should ever be covering up or ignoring the past. If we’ve done wrong, we have a God-given duty to go back and make reparations to anyone we’ve hurt or harmed. And though we don’t insist upon it, we also have a God-given right to expect that other Christians, in particular, will do the same to us. “Whoever conceals his transgressions,” says the scripture, “will not prosper.” And, on the other hand, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Getting the past sorted out, seeking and bestowing forgiveness for past hurts, is a sacred Christian obligation and privilege, a privilege about which the world knows little: for it cannot really forgive or heal, and finds the admitting the past fatal. But Christians are blessedly free from the terror of repenting, and can correct the faults of the past, since we are ultimately forgiven.

We can deal with the past: why then would Ravi say we should learn to forget?

But he went on to speak of how the past can cripple us for the future. We can become convinced that because something happened back there that our lives henceforth can never be healthy, normal, happy or fulfilled. Yet often, the situations that produced that sorrow, the people who were involved, and the situations in which it appeared have all slipped away from us; we could not go back and see things put right even if we tried.

And when that happens, the chief thing we really need to do is this: to learn the grace of forgetting.

Bitterness kills.

Keeping Misery Alive

Some years ago, I listened to a speaker talk about his Christian counseling practice. He said, “As a counselor, my chief job is to help people to give up the hope of having a better past.”

Wow. That’s interesting. “The hope of a better past.” How many of us are living with a grief or sorrow over something that happened or was done to us years ago, or perhaps some mistake we ourselves made, some way we mishandled a thing or failed ourselves, or some opportunity that we missed? We’re living the hope that somehow, against all odds and reason, if we grieve long and hard enough, and if we hold on tenaciously enough, justice will somehow come to us. That person who harmed us will repent, confess and apologize. That chance we missed will return us, despite the years that have passed. That one who never loved us will change and become loving.

On the other hand, we feel that if we just “let it go”, then we’ll be writing off the whole experience, picking up the emotional cheque ourselves and dismissing any chance of justice or return. So we cling to it, we rehearse it in our minds, we obsess over it, and we refuse to move ahead.

After all, we were really wounded. We were really sad. We really felt loss. And we just cannot accept that the story ended that way.

Hopeless Remembering

I remember talking with a young lady some years ago. She was tearfully pouring out her heart to my wife and I about how cold, unfeeling and negligent her own mother had been. She said, “I would just once like to hear my mom acknowledge that she wanted me.”

Ouch. Sadly, everybody who knew this girl and her mother knew this: that her mother was not capable of love. She was a hard, unbalanced and terminally-selfish person who treated everyone else with flat contempt. It was pretty clear that apart from a miracle of God, this woman was going to play out that same hand to the last miserable card, and her daughter would never have the comfort of a single gesture of repentance. But even if her mother had repented, it would be impossible to restore all the years of loneliness, neglect and shame that she had heaped on her daughter. This side of heaven, it was very probably not going to be sorted out.

But some people just cannot hear that. They hold out and hold out, in the hope of having a better past.

Burying the Past

Paul knew better.

And he told us how to handle such things:
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.”
“Forgetting?” How could that be a good thing?

It could be a good thing because sometimes you cannot change the past. Whatever good things happened back there, they were back there, not now. And whatever bad things were back there, some of them just cannot be fixed now.

Paul had been a great and successful Hebrew — a “Hebrew of Hebrews”, he could truthfully say — educated by the great Gamaliel, a Pharisee, a memorizer of Torah, an exemplary zealot, and a pillar of the Jewish community, and so far as the law was concerned, “found blameless”.

That was the good stuff.

The bad stuff was this: that he’d also been “a persecutor of the church”. He’d been the guy who stood guard over the cloaks to allow the mob that stoned Stephen to death to swing their arms with vengeance, and he’d approved of every little thing they did that day. After that, he’d become a dedicated persecutor of all Christians; and not just any persecutor: he’d been the chief figure in the whole thing, so that the Christians referred to him as “HE who used to persecute us” and Paul could say, “I did it.” Worse still, the One at whom Paul had actually been venting his spleen was none other than the Son of God, Jesus Christ himself: as he said to Saul on the Damascus road, “Saul, Saul; why are you persecuting ME.”

Good and bad, both were in the past. What was done was done, and it could not now be changed. So Paul took a new attitude. He squared up and faced the truth — that what he had done was just as evil, horrible and stupid as it really was. Knowing that would keep him humble. But it was also not the end of the story, not the totality of his life, and not something that should be allowed to continue to fetter him.

He turned his back on it, wrote it off, and dedicated himself with renewed fervor to a better future. He’d given up all hope of having a better past.

Facing It Frankly

All this reminded me of something I once read from the Jewish psychologist Victor Frankl. He speaks of the what-could-have-been in the past and the tragic transitory nature of all human choice-making. The regrets these generate are enemies to our happiness today. But, he says, there is another way to look at the past: not as an affliction we must bear today, but rather as a “full granary”, wherein [a man has] “salvaged once and for all his deeds, his joys, and also his sufferings”, and in which “nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with.” He writes:
“I never tire of saying that the only real transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualized, they are rendered realities at that very moment; they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved from transitoriness. For, in the past, nothing is irretrievably lost but everything is irrevocably stored.”
In these “granaries” what’s done is done. For better or worse, the past is what it was, what it is: it may be ever so tragic, or its passing may be ever so lamentable; but whatever it was, it is now sealed off from any temptation we might have to anxiety by the fact that it cannot now be changed. We can — and ought to — treat that portion of life as salted away, and focus on how the narrative of the future can be better still than whatever was in the past.

And before you accuse Frankl of being glib, of not understanding just how hurt you might have been, remember that the thing of which he is writing is the Holocaust.

He survived it. And when all was done, he sought out a way to put it behind him and forge ahead.

So Must We

For the Christian, the past is not a wound that will not heal, a duty that cannot be shaken or cinder block hanging around the neck. It’s a fait accompli: a thing done and dusted. The granaries of the past hold all that has been done. The blessed hope we have is that justice will be restored in the future — that all losses will be recovered, all sorrows assuaged, all tears wiped away. All good things are kept forever in God, who is consummately good.

We need not grieve the past, as though the prolongation of our sorrow has magical power to restore what has gone by. We can release it into the keeping of the One who can bring our hearts to peace, and go on our way to make the most of the future.

The Power of Forgetting

Let me be clear: if we really still have opportunity to repent of a sin, to make restitution, to heal an old wound, or to set to right a lingering injustice, or to learn a valuable lesson in growth or humility, then that is what we must do as Christians. And this is never more true than when there is some way in which we ourselves have done something wrong, and have been avoiding addressing it and repenting for it. Forgetting is never a legitimate way of dismissing our own responsibility to deal with the sins we have committed.

But when we have no such opportunity, power or means, when the past has simply gotten away from us, we are called not to linger in paralyzing sorrow, but to commit that grief to the past and move forward. And especially when we have already repented of our part in whatever happened, and have done all we can to make it right; when time and time again, we’ve told God how sorry we are, and have begged him to forgive us and deliver us from our pain … when we’ve done all that, we have a sacred duty to respond with the right attitude.

We owe God, in faith, to forget about it. Let the pain, sorrow and guilt go. It served its purpose when it alerted you to what was wrong; but since then, it has become no longer your friend. Let it go.

The Things That Lie Ahead

We are not victims of our past. We are redeemed — lock, stock and barrel, we belong to the Lord, for now and forever. Our future, with all its potentialities, belongs exclusively to him. He has no stake in our lingering grief; only in a better future. “The sorrow that is according to the will of God,” writes Paul, “produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation. But the sorrow of this world produces death.”

If you’re struggling with some sadness or regret from the past and you can’t seem to shake its fatal grip on you, then you can be sure that the sorrow you are experiencing is not according to the will of God. The kind of sorrow he sponsors leads to salvation — to repentance, then to the reclamation of relationships, to the healing of wounds, the reparation of losses and the setting aside of old griefs. Ultimately it’s redemptive and restorative.

If whatever sorrow is weighing you down today is not like that, then maybe it’s just time to start praying for God to give you the grace — and the freedom — to forget.

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