Living in the Past

by Larry Barber


God is the maker of all created reality, including the reality of our personal lives. God is a God of truth, who knows, understands, and can make statements that correspond to the reality of our personal lives. Since God is the God of all truth, an authentic follower of Jesus Christ will love not only God but also all truth that God knows and understands. Thus an authentic believer of Jesus will welcome all truth relevant to his personal life—be it regarding his mind and heart, his emotions, his thoughts, or his choices—that will help him live more obediently and more wisely before God.

Some Christians, however, are reluctant to look closely at their past. Frequently they interpret references to “being a new creature in Christ” and “forgetting what lies behind” as meaning that their personal past is in no way relevant to their new lives as believers. Consequently, they conclude that to explore their personal past would demonstrate a lack of faith in God.

However, a closer look at the context of the passages in which these references occur reveals that the apostle Paul is not excluding the relevance and importance of understanding both our individual histories and our internal beliefs. In the “new creature” passage (II Corinthians 5:11-19), Paul is making the case for the ongoing transformation of his motives, mindset, and actions that began at his conversion. He is not saying that his pre-conversion experiences are irrelevant. In the “forgetting what lies behind” passage of Philippians 3:1-21, Paul is discounting his past religious and moral achievements as well as his physical lineage as means of making himself worthy of God’s approval and justification, but he is not suggesting there is nothing helpful about learning from his past. In fact, in Philippians 3:6-9 and Galatians 1:13-14 Paul describes his past in not-so-glowing terms in order to explain more clearly the miraculous and radical effect the gospel and the work of God has had on him. The truth of his past helps him better understand his present, and the truth of his present helps him better understand his past.

If, in these passages, Paul, the divinely inspired author, is not discouraging his readers from looking at or learning from their past, why have some people interpreted them this way? One possible explanation is because exploring one’s past can be a very uncomfortable process, so much so that sincere Christians have used a misinterpretation of the Bible to substantiate the belief that their personal past is irrelevant.

As uncomfortable as the process of looking at our past might be, however, exploring and understanding the truth regarding our past may help us accurately interpret the present and live wisely in the future. All truth is God’s truth and worth knowing and understanding in an appropriate manner, especially as it relates to our personal lives and destinies.

The metaphor of a lens can help us think through the value of this process. We all perceive our personal lives through an internal lens, which is the set of beliefs we use to interpret reality. We construct this lens as we proceed through our lives, gathering data about ourselves and about the world around us. As Christians, we use two main sources of data to construct our lenses: (1) our life experiences with people (going back to childhood) and (2) the Bible. Both play significant roles in determining what we have come to believe about ourselves and the world around us. Through this set of beliefs, this lens, we interpret our current experiences and make choices that develop into our future.

The biggest problem with our personal lens is sin. Sin inextricably distorts our lens such that our perception of ourselves and the world around us can be severely blurred. Consequently, we can make very self-destructive choices that lead not only to considerable frustration and pain but, if unchecked by God’s grace, to divine condemnation in the next life. For example, in Luke 18:9-14 Jesus tells a parable “to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were justified” before God. The parable describes a Pharisee whose sin has distorted his lens. Looking at himself through his corrupted lens wrongly informs him that he can make himself worthy of God’s blessing by his religious and moral pursuits. As a result, the Pharisee thanks God because he believes he is not sinful like other people. However, Jesus declares him arrogant and condemned before God. The Pharisee’s internal lens has distorted his perception such that he has viewed himself and his relationship to God inaccurately.

Sin can also blind us to the fact that our lens is distorted. Our natural rebelliousness against truth and reality often prevents us from closely examining our lens and challenging our beliefs. Even after becoming a Christian, when God has begun to reshape our lens by “opening our eyes” to the fact that we are sinners who desperately need His grace, we will still struggle with sin; sometimes we will still hide from the truth, especially the painful truth of seeing ourselves accurately. To know all relevant truth, we must not only study the Bible and examine the world around us, but we must also simultaneously examine our personal lives. Exploring the lens we use to interpret our experiences may involve an appropriate examination of our past in order to discover the specific nature and details of our beliefs. The more honestly and clearly we do so, the better able we will be to conform our lens to God’s truth from the Bible and to live more obediently and wisely before God.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes a hypocrite who is eager to remove the speck of dust from his brother’s eye but fails to notice the log that is in his own eye (Matthew 7:1-5). Because sin distorts the lens through which we interpret our life experiences, our sin can prevent us from viewing ourselves accurately while we think we see other people’s sin very accurately. The man with the log in his eye is self-deceived; the log of self-righteousness has distorted his perception of himself. Dealing with the log in our eyes can be very uncomfortable, and thus we naturally tend to avoid the internal conflict of seeing ourselves impartially. Fortunately though, God is gracious and committed not only to our noticing the log in our own eye, but also to our dealing with it in an honest and thorough manner; He is at work in our lives to give us “eyes to see” the truth about Him, about ourselves, and about others.

Because the work (and indeed it can be arduous labor) of exploring and challenging the lens that affects our decisions can be painfully overwhelming, some Christians choose to continue living with an inaccurate lens. But as believers in the gospel committed to all relevant truth, our personal comfort must be secondary to truth, even the truth of our past and our uncomfortable emotions. Jesus confronted this kind of resistance to truth when He said to the Pharisees in Luke 5:33-39, “No one after drinking old wine wishes for new, for he says, ‘The old is good enough.’” Jesus could just as easily have said, “No one after looking through a misshapen lens wishes to reshape it, for he says, ‘The existing shape is good enough.’”

Let me give an example of how one’s misshapen lens can affect one’s life. My Christian friend John believes from his childhood experiences that he is wholly unlovable and not valuable. His study of the Bible seems to confirm that he is unlovable because he is fundamentally a sinful rebel against God. But John also believes from his study of the Bible that God loves him according to His grace and considers him valuable enough that Jesus Christ died for him as an instrument of His mercy. Of course, John’s belief that God loves him should overwhelm his belief that he is unlovable, thus appropriately reshaping his internal lens. Unconsciously, however, John continues to respond to his beliefs from his childhood by overachieving in his job, in his marriage, and in his relationships with others. He does this because he believes that if he works hard enough in all these areas and performs well enough, God will consider him lovable and valuable on the basis of his performance. In addition, he believes that if he performs well enough before God, God will reward him by (1) taking away his seemingly insatiable need for love and (2) relieving his depression and loneliness. But none of this has happened yet, and so John constantly redoubles his efforts and wonders why God has not fully rewarded him and why he still feels a lack of acceptance and approval from others and from himself.

John’s lens is distorted. He is unable to integrate his continued sinfulness with God’s constant love and grace towards him. His experientially-derived beliefs from childhood are colliding with his biblically-derived beliefs. In spite of his biblical belief in God’s gracious love, his internal belief that he is wholly unlovable and not valuable blurs his vision. He naturally responds to this belief by trying to prove himself valuable by working extra hard at being a good person. When he fails in any way to meet God’s standard of righteousness, he views himself as unlovable and not valuable and he descends into the depths of depression repeating the cycle over and over again.

John needs to seek the truth about himself. He may find it helpful to explore his past experiences and his present emotions as a means of discovering the genesis of his current blurred lens. Through this process, he may be able to challenge his false beliefs and compare them with what the Bible declares as true. Even though John may again act out of his false beliefs, this process may give him a better framework within which to understand himself and thereby take responsibility for his behavior as well as his motivations.

If, like John, we are unaware of our experientially-derived internal beliefs, then we may have difficulty knowing how these beliefs are interacting with our biblically-derived beliefs to shape our lens. For example, if I believe God is a loving and forgiving heavenly Father, but my childhood experience tells me fathers are hard and abusive, I might tend to relate to others and to myself on the basis of the latter and not the former. My experientially-derived beliefs may overwhelm my biblically-derived beliefs, especially when I relate to people in authority over me.

The past is relevant to the present and plays an important role in my building the lens through which I perceive and interpret life. Understanding the past and its effect on my lens can be a great help to me, not only in reshaping my lens, but also in living more obediently and wisely before God. Regrettably, some Christians believe that to explore in depth any painful past experiences is “living in the past” and an indicates a lack of faith in God. On the contrary, we live in the past when we resist understanding our experientially-derived beliefs and how they play themselves out in our lives. We can become stuck in destructive behaviors; for example, overachieving to gain God’s approval, which (1) leads to increased frustration and pain and (2) reinforces our erroneous belief that we are wholly unlovable and not valuable. With or without intention, we can fail to believe and trust God for what He is doing in our lives—namely, leading us away from being legalistic overachievers and towards being loving, biblical achievers.

Being open to the truth, including truth about our personal lives (past and present, inside and outside, experiential and biblical), is vital for our spiritual, mental, emotional, and psychological health now and our eternal well-being in the future. If our sin is preventing us from pursuing any aspect of this truth, we must repent, embrace God’s mercy, and forge ahead by His grace. No matter how difficult or painful any part of this truth-seeking process might be, whether with respect to our personal lives or to the Bible, seeking the truth is more important than our personal comfort and holding on to our preconceived notions. Constantly pursuing truth in order to reshape our lens ultimately leads to authentic love for God and others and to eternal life.

Copyright June 2001 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Larry Barber