Shame, guilt, and sorrow often define our past. When we consider our former deeds and how we handled our lives, it causes significant regret. We wish we could be a time-traveler and return to those critical moments so we could have another opportunity to make things right, yet we know that is impossible. Perhaps it was an angry word spoken that could not be unspoken or neglect we wish we could change into action. Whether we like it or not, our past is part of what makes us who we are, but we cannot allow it to define us in the present, nor can its impact be so great that it hinders our future. However, that is precisely what many people are doing. They have no prospects for the present or the future because they are so busy looking behind them. Even Christians become weighed down with these thoughts. Is it God’s will for His people to think this way?
Throughout the Bible, God uses the term “remember” in a positive sense. Memory should not always be that which we view poorly. Consider how God wanted Israel to remember Him and His commandments (Deuteronomy 8:1-20). Through their remembrance of the Lord, they would call to mind His mighty deeds on their behalf. In addition, they would recall His commandments and seek to carry them out. The apostle Peter understood that remembrances had a place in the lives of God’s people, for when he wrote his second letter, it was to remind them of what they already knew (2 Peter 1:12-15). Our view of the past—whether our own or from the history the Lord has taught us in His word—should bring us gladness when we consider who the Lord is, what He has done for us, and what He has taught us. Without calling the past to mind, how will we know the path to travel in the future? We are not imprisoned in the past when we use it the way the Lord intends through remembrance of Him and His ways. The past becomes that from which we grow and learn rather than something we regret.
We all know that this positive perspective on memory is often not the way the past is seen. One troubling problem we have with the past is paralysis. Put simply, we are overwhelmed with shame and guilt to the point we believe we can never do what is right. Let us be honest with ourselves, friends: this is often an excuse to refuse change. Even if it is not an excuse, it is a self-imposed obstacle. Scripture repeatedly affirms that we can change our ways to align with God (Ephesians 4:20-24). To deny this in our lives is a denial of what God has taught, which we cannot abide. We do not have to allow the past to imprison us to the point that we never grow, mature, or abound in what is good. There remain opportunities to carry out God’s will so long as we draw breath. The challenge is whether we will seize upon them.
Another common problem we find with the past is nostalgia. In an era where responsibility and obligation are routinely avoided, it is not surprising that people both young and old would see the past through rose-colored glasses. That is, to them, what came before is better than what exists now. They feel this way because the past brings them more comfort than the present. The past did not challenge them to improve, nor did it call them to do better. This is not to suggest that all nostalgia is problematic but that some of its motivations are. Solomon wrote that those who see the old days as better are unwise (Ecclesiastes 7:10). Friends, we cannot be imprisoned in the past to the point that we always think it was so much better. When we look to the past with such delusions, we miss out on what is available to us in the here and now. We also neglect to press forward into the future. The apostle Paul reminds us that we need to neglect what is behind and focus on what is ahead in God’s service (Philippians 3:13-14).
When we focus on the past at the expense of the present and the future, then we have made it into a prison. We have enabled ourselves to suffer at our own hands rather than press forward to what God has in store for us. The Lord Jesus Christ holds the key to that prison door we have created, and the key is remembering Him and His commandments. Surely, we can all appreciate a Savior who, though He knows all that we have done, still offers a path forward in His service. Will you accept the key He provides through His word?