Ecclesiastes 3:6 tells us there is “a time to throw away.” In modern culture, we throw away things in our homes to have more space or more freedom to pursue goals. We throw away things that are past their usefulness. But why don’t we throw away things in our past that hinder us?
For many, allowing the past to stay in the past is difficult. Hurtful memories or bad choices churn in our brains and affect present behaviors.
Worst of all, people allow the past to define them.
Some change can be accomplished with the world’s insights about altering negative thoughts, but how much better to know Christ and God’s Word! It’s His truth that gives us a new identity and enables transformation.
We can live like our past no longer defines us anymore!
1. As a Christian, your past doesn’t define you.
Allowing guilt over the past to define you leads to spiritual crippling. It’s helpful to understand the difference between guilt and conviction. Guilt over past (or present) sins weigh you down, disables you, and leads to shame.
Why would you then allow your past to tell you who you are? Jesus said when you know the truth, you are set free (John 8:32).
2. Your past circumstances can’t be changed, but you can change.
Famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden often told his players, “Don’t live in the past; you can’t do anything about the past. It will never change whether it’s yesterday or last year. The future is yet to be determined and can be influenced by what you do today. Today is the only day that really matters.”
Your past can’t be changed, but you can change. Even the consequences of past choices can be used for the glory of God when you ask Him to transform your mind and heart. In fact, your difficult past might be the very tool God uses to help you encourage others not to walk your painful journey.
Jesus told the demon-possessed man, restored to his right mind by the Savior (Luke 8:26-35), to tell people what God had done for him (Luke 3:39). God wants to use the story of your painful past and your redeemed life for His glory.
How will you cooperate with Him?
3. Your past of shame is forgiven in Christ.
Consider Christians who still struggle over past sexual sins or adultery. Those who are brokenhearted over a past abortion. Believers who sliced people to shreds with malicious gossip, and now feel ashamed about that prideful lack of love.
We all have sinful pasts, but none are out of reach of God’s mercy. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 speaks to a shameful past: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified….” God’s forgiveness changes everything! “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Think of Peter who failed the Lord miserably just before the Savior’s torture and death (Luke 22:54-62). No doubt he felt unworthy to even be in Jesus’ resurrected presence. But forgiven in Christ, Peter became a mighty leader in the church, feeding the Lord’s sheep (John 21:15-17).
4. Your past shapes you, but you’re not to dwell there.
It’s been said, “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.” The Lord doesn’t want you to play a victim role or blame others. He doesn’t want you to wallow in past failures or become enslaved to bitterness and regret.
Instead, He wants you to move forward and make wise, biblical decisions. It all begins with a renewed mind (Romans 12:2) because your thoughts direct your choices.
Your past unquestionably shapes your character and reputation. But you’re not to dwell there. You’re not even to reside in good past achievements, “resting on our laurels” instead of considering fresh opportunities.
The Lord reminded Israel He was their only merciful Savior in their unfaithfulness (Isaiah 43:1-17), and He wanted God’s people to move forward with Him. He said, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19a).
5. Your past only has the power you give it.
An old Arab proverb says, “Write bad things that are done to you in the sand, but write good things that happen to you on a piece of marble.” Most of us do the opposite. We engrave bad things that happen to us in marble, and these painful memories perpetuate.
It’s healthy to choose to release hurt and fear. Your past can’t hurt you anymore unless you allow it to rule your thoughts and emotions.
It’s wise to ask, “What do I believe about my past?” Determine what present thoughts and beliefs are products of your past. Then make a conscious choice to let go of past circumstances that still control you—thoughts and beliefs that lead to self-condemnation and slavery.
6. Your past is not a matter of others’ opinions of you.
People may try to categorize you based on your past. Sometimes you cooperate in their opinions because you still feel reactive to your past. If you live in defeat or shame, people will see you as a defeated or weak person.
But you can change! A friend recently said to me, “Whenever I am with my sister, she brings up my past.” It caused her deep pain because my friend is a growing Christ-follower. But she has learned to say, “Yes, that is my past, but I don’t live there anymore because of Jesus!”
Others’ opinions of you are not as important as the Lord’s opinion (1 Samuel 16:7). In Christ, we create a new destiny, and others’ opinions can change as they see us grow and live in Him. Consequences from past mistakes cannot be avoided, but growing in Christ and being faithful to Him and the Word of God is our new pattern for transformation (Galatians 4:7; Matthew 5:16).
Let your actions now be an affirmation of your testimony. Define yourself by current beliefs and behaviors—by faith and obedience. Don’t be afraid to speak up for the Lord. If Satan reminds you of your past, remind him where he’s going!
If others remind you of your past, tell them about your life-changing Savior.
7. Your past likely includes patterns from past choices.
As you think about moving forward, it’s wise to take a little time to consider where you’ve been. One proactive activity that helped me was to create a life timeline with “markers” for key choices I regret or “unfair” circumstances that hurt me. I did this to see the big picture of my life—to place my past in proper perspective.
Creating the timeline, I also saw patterns that developed as reactions to my tough circumstances and past choices. I saw ongoing pride, judgmentalism, fear, and anxiety.
God wants you to develop new patterns based on the truth of scripture instead of your sinful responses. As you let Him reprogram your mind (Romans 12:1-2) you can ultimately create godly behavior.
Determine to make wise choices by trusting and submitting to the Lord and His Word, and not leaning on faulty understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6). Fix your eyes on new spiritual truths and give careful thought to daily choices (Proverbs 4:25-27).
8. Your past is part of your growth toward maturity.
Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wrote in A Place of Quiet Rest, “An evidence that our will has been broken is that we begin to thank God for that which once seemed so bitter, knowing that His will is good and that, in His time and in His way, He is able to make the most bitter waters sweet.” Your past is part of your growth toward maturity when you surrender it all to the Lord.
Don’t forget the lessons from your past; you don’t want to repeat mistakes. Instead, use memories of your past as motivators for change. Your difficulties and failings—not just your blessings and successes—have helped make you the person you are today. Learn from your experiences.
As a Christian, you are to become more like Christ. When you take time to meditate on mistakes and successes, your past can be an insightful teacher. You discover how God’s grace is sufficient and His strength is made perfect in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). You learn to press on, forgetting your past and pursuing with God’s grace what is ahead (Philippians 3:12-14).
9. Your past may call for forgiveness.
Dwight L Moody said, “The voice of sin is loud, but the voice of forgiveness is louder.” Your past may call you to forgive others before you can move on; and when you forgive, it is a powerful testimony of God working through you.
When you forgive those who have hurt or injured you—even if they never apologize—you can live in freedom instead of enslavement to your past. You can get rid of toxic bitterness and anger, and become more kind and compassionate. I recommend Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth’s book, Choosing Forgiveness, to help in this process.
10. Your past may suggest opportunities to encourage others.
Many want to keep their past a secret, yet God may be saying, “I want you to tell others how Jesus rescued you.” Consider new opportunities to reach out and make a difference. Allow lessons from your past to drive you toward greater God-planned (Ephesians 2:10) ministry and service.
A testimony has a powerful impact. People may dispute scripture and deny the Lord, but it’s hard to deny the transformation God makes in life. Stories of victory over the pain and hurt in your past are evidences of change. God has a great purpose in redeeming each one of us. What Satan means for evil in our lives, God wants to transform and use for His glory.
Hebrews 12:1 encourages you to throw off everything that hinders—including the controlling behaviors rooted in your past and the sins entangled in your heart—and run with perseverance the new race God has marked out for you. This “race” may involve teaching others what you’ve learned through hard experience and God’s grace. It might include comforting or encouraging hurting people, helping them understand God’s Word, or serving them.
Allowing your past to define you only leads to misery. But resting in the truth of scripture, you can allow the Holy Spirit to use you in powerful ways.
Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.