This is the fifth installment of things overheard or beliefs commonly held about the Christian life that, upon further reflection, are not as true as they first seem. Feel free to leave your own thoughts!
We should not dwell on the past
A ministry that I love recently posted the following quote on Facebook: “We do not go forward by looking backward. We are not called to fix an old life but find a new life.”
Despite my affinity for this ministry, I find this sentiment puzzling. It seems to imply that what each of us has experienced leading up to the present moment has no bearing at all on who we are today or on our growth in the Christian life. And further, that the true spiritual life is one in which we make a concerted effort not to acknowledge it.
But even the simplest events in our lives suggest this is not true, and following this course of action is a bad idea. Take for example, a recent event involving my son.
The other day, my son came home from school a bit down. He just did not seem his usual chipper self. And when I offered that we pray as we normally do, he did not seem as interested as he normally is.
Come to find out, earlier that day, a teacher at school, with all the authority we have entrusted to him as parents, declared before the class that it was an established fact that the Bible is full of contradictions and errors and is unreliable and certainly man-made. I was able to educate my son not only on the fact that the Bible in fact is the most historically reliable document we have but also on the fact that so-called contradictions skeptics often assert are not contradictions at all if we have a proper (and non-naive) understanding of Biblical texts. From that moment on, my son’s excitement returned and he was eager to pray.
Now this is a simple example. But the point is: My son’s spiritual life was being affected by something that took place in the past. And, quite honestly, the only conceivable way he was going to be liberated from that event, and what he came to believe through that event, was not continuing to charge forward but to look back.
Further, it makes little difference whether the event had takend place earlier that day or earlier that decade. As long as his teacher’s claim went unchallenged, his trust in the reliability of scripture and thus God would be compromised.
It also makes little difference what we have come to believe that is not true. In my son’s case, it was the reliability of scripture. But many of us have come to believe things about ourselves and about God that aren’t true, especially when we were younger and more vulnerable, and those around us, imperfect as they were, spoke into our lives and carried great authority. For those beliefs to change, it seems rather obvious that the events that precipitated those beliefs would come to mind and be addressed, just as they were with my son.
What we are talking about here is what the Bible calls the renewing of the mind. And the question we are really asking is: By what process is the mind renewed?
A culture that forbids any reflection on the past — that is, how we have come to believe what we now believe — would be forced to conclude that belief requires no reflection on our present belief or why we believe it. It would simply see renewal as a process of providing new information. In the case of my son, this would amount to me launching no inquiry into why he had come to believe the Bible was not trustworthy — for this would be looking back — but instead simply providing new information concerning, and encouraging him not to “fix “the old life but find a new one.” I would suggest: This would be extremely awkward at best, if not unproductive.
But the danger is seen when we we apply this manner of thinking to issues that are more weighty and personal (and, I would add, more common). Take for instance the man who as a child witnessed his drunken father terrorize his mother on a weekly basis, who now for some strange reason finds it difficult to connect with God, and under that difficulty is a belief that God will not protect him, just as he did not protect his own mother. If we allow for a moment that belief is the key to his breakthrough, but that he has been taught that his past is off limits, he can end up sabotaging the very breakthrough God desires to bring about.
Which leads to the question: Why is our past being forbidden or discouraged in the first place? Where on earth did we get this idea that “We cannot go forward by looking backward”?
Some quote the apostle Paul in Philippians who said, “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.” But Paul here is not talking about past experience; he is talking about past accomplishments. He is saying we should not grow complacent with our present state of intimacy with Christ but should further press on to know “Christ Jesus [our] Lord.” What he is not saying is that in the process we should be unaware of our hearts, including how our experience has shaped our present understanding.
Others may claim we are new creations in Christ, and so the past is irrelevant. It is true that we are new creatures; at the same time, this in no way suggests that our experience, past or present, does not shape our current knowledge and understanding of God, nor that it will not come into play as God transforms our minds. If this were so, in fact, then there would be no need of transformation in the first place. It would suggest that because we are new creations, we have already fully attained perfect knowledge of God, which is clearly not the case, nor is this a Biblical concept.
So why then are we forbidding God, or ourselves, to bring up the past? It seems today, especially in charismatic circles, that we are inclined to grant God great latitude in the way He works. But we draw the line on past experience. We forbid both God and ourselves to address anything that may be tied to our past.
I believe the real reason for our reluctance concerning the past is much simpler. We are simply afraid. We are afraid of what God (or we) might find if He does bring up the past, and perhaps more importantly, we are simply afraid that if understanding the past is vital, then the process of transformation is not as simple and as instantaneous as we had originally hoped.
I must admit: The idea that our past has no bearing on our spiritual journey, is appealing. I like the idea that I do not need to think about what has happened to me — or that it matters. Or that anything going on in my heart is relevant to my growth. I would much rather think of myself as a computer, and growth in the Christian life as more of a process of taking in new instruction and data. It has a simple, clean and orderly feel to it. Sort of like a perfectly orchestrated church service.
But if the history of spiritual revival has taught us anything, God is not exactly into clean and orderly. Instead, He is into permanent and meaningful transformation, even if that means a bit of messiness in the process. I would like to suggest this applies to not only to what takes place in the church service but also to what takes place in the interior of our own hearts. And — God forbid — it may just involve what we have come to believe in the past.
I welcome your thoughts 🙂