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How to Learn from, but Not Live in Your Past

Looking back is a double-edged sword. We run the risk of living in the past, neglecting the present and the future.

The one edge is sharp and clear, do not look back.

In Genesis 19: 26, Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt.” In Philippians 3:13-14, we read, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.”

Isaiah 43:18-19 reads, "Do not remember the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing, now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert."

And Luke 9:62 reminds us: "But Jesus said to him, ‘no one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’"

There’s even a story in Greek mythology about not looking back. Orpheus goes to the underworld to rescue his wife. With his music, he softens the hearts of gods in charge of Hades, but was told not to look back at her until they both reached earth. However, as soon as Orpheus reached earth, he turned to look back at her, and she vanished for the second time, this time forever. He looked back.

Living in the Past vs. Learning from It

Then there is the other side of the blade of this two-edge sword called the past. There is a distinct difference between living in the past and learning from the past, and not wasting it. Consider these scriptures.

In Genesis 50:18-21, Joseph confronts his brothers that have done him great harm. “But Joseph said to them, ‘don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’” Joseph remembered his painful past, but embraced it.

In Hebrews, chapter 12, we read, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Paul suggests we learn from the past faithful before him.

In Luke’s gospel he writes: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” Another reference to learning from the past.

Scripture Is Clear about Our Past

Scripture warns against living in the past. But it also is clear we must learn from the past. What does all this have to do with our daily Christian walk? Here are seven thoughts about what we can learn from the past.

1. Remembering our past can help us heal. When we look our past in the face, we can see through it with the help of the Holy Spirit, discerning God’s faithfulness, and not waste the experience, no matter how painful it is.

2. Reflecting on our past can help us explain why we behaved a certain way, and help us change that behavior if needed. We can look at our past as a test, one we can grade and learn from. We can learn from our past and renew our minds and behavior.

3. We learn much when we recall times when the Lord helped us through temptations, and provided a way out of them. If the past teaches us one thing, it’s that you and I will stumble and fall many times.

4. We learn we are forgiven. Luke writes about how Paul’s past was cluttered with acts of evil, and he wasn’t perfect after he became a Christian. Paul, like us, struggled with his sinfulness. Deliverance from our past requires that we repent, and turn ourselves around like Paul did.

5. Revisiting the past helps us look back to affirm and appreciate the places and faces that made us who we are. Parents and teachers who helped form us. Christian leaders and speakers who inspired us. The list goes on. It can help us have a deeper relationship with God as we better align ourselves with his purposes.

6. Learning from our past reminds us of what we are capable of doing, capable of overcoming, and what God is capable of doing with and for us. It helps us celebrate our successes and energizes us.

7. And how could you and I look at our past and not be down on our knees 24 hours a day expressing our praise and thanksgiving. One of the more challenging passages found in the Bible is 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, encouraging us to “give thanks in all circumstances.”

Use your past to draw you into a deeper relationship with the Lord, a relationship based on praise, thanksgiving, and recognition that after all you’ve done, you are still called for his purposes of service with love and joy.

No matter what you’ve done, you will always be welcomed into the Lord’s open arms and hands marked with how he dealt with your past on the Cross.

In God’s Words

“He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.” (Psalm 40:2)

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of god, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

In Your Words

Have you ever caught yourself “living” in the past, focusing much of the time on mistakes you made, successes you had, rather than living in the now? How do you feel about that?

Recall a time when you allowed the Lord to help you get past a temptation. How did he help you? What did you learn about yourself and the Lord from your experience?

Has your consideration of your past ever led you to deeper relationship with the Lord? Explain why and the changes you made in your life.

In the Words of Others

“You can't go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” C.S. Lewis

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana


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