My son tells me I’m easily ‘guilted’. At a young age he learned that he could usually get his way if he could make me feel even a tiny bit bad about saying no!
It’s true that I struggle with letting go of real or imagined offenses from the past, a harsh word I said fifteen years ago or a thank you note I didn’t send. I’ve learned to tell myself that these thoughts are not from a forgiving God, but old mental tapes are hard to erase.
As I’m transitioning into retirement, I’m finding that the guilt baggage follows me. I wake up at night worrying about problems from my old job that are over and done with, things I should have done better or people I could have treated better. These demons love to cavort at night and to remind me of all my shortcomings and inadequacies.
The problem with these midnight accusers is that I start to believe them and then I become stuck. The reality is that we can’t go back and change our past. God may be calling us to do great things for Him but if we are too busy worrying about old failures, we may miss out. Letting go of the past is an important part of moving through transition times.
Paul in the New Testament is a great example of someone who overcame this self-defeating mindset. He knew something about guilt. In his former life as a proud Pharisee, he was not only instrumental in sending many people to prison — which was probably a death sentence in that day— but he stood by and held the coats of those who were stoning Stephen to death. Surely he had sleepless nights as that scene replayed in his mind.
Yet Paul never let his regrets or guilt over his former life keep him from carrying out what he believed God was calling him to do. His letter to the Philippians gives us insight into how he overcame his demons:
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)
Forgetting what is behind. Paul kept looking forward, not focusing on what he did before he knew Christ. He had been an important Pharisee and a big-wig teacher of the law before his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road. Earlier in the chapter, he gives us a look into what his previous life was like:
You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book. (Phil. 3:4-6)
When I read these lines, I wonder if he ever missed that old life. Did he think about his former students with whom he had shared his love of the Scriptures? Did he miss the discussions with his colleagues or the respect he received from the people at the synagogue? What about his family, with whom he presumably cut ties? Did he grieve for those relationships? Certainly, his misguided zeal to eradicate the dangerous Christians must have colored his memories.
Straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal. When I was a child, we moved several times with Daddy’s job. My mother, who didn’t work outside the home, was responsible for the move, getting the new house settled, making sure my sister and I were situated in school and finding new friends for herself. Mama looked at each new move as an adventure and never complained. If she pined for old friends, she never talked about it. She just did the work in front of her, always optimistic that it would be better than our previous home, and it was. This was true even when she sold her house and moved into an apartment after my father died.
Paul teaches us that at times in our lives, like my mother, we have to make the decision to let go of the past and focus on what is before us. We may have to allow ourselves time to grieve but there comes a point where we have to turn our heads and look at what is down the road. We still have the memories, especially the good ones, but we have to set them aside.
Letting go of the past, whether happy or painful, can be extremely difficult. We have to be patient with ourselves, keep persevering, and keep praying. God has promised we don’t have to do it by ourselves.
To win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Paul admits that he does not have it down perfectly, but he feels so strongly about the work of bringing others to Christ that none of the past even matters to him (v. 8) When we point our faces toward change, no telling what we can accomplish.