If you buckle under the weight of the past, if it weighs so heavily upon you that it is hard to get up in the morning, then let me assure you that you are not alone. It is far too common for those who suffer grief or shame or depression to feel incredibly isolated, even in the church. The temptation is to isolate even further, but God gave us fellowship and the practice of regular worship to comfort and strengthen. Together as brothers and sisters, we can remind each other that the time to cross into Emanuel’s land is not yet here. Only then will all our tears be wiped away. Together, we can remember with broken hearts because God is near to those who have a broken heart and saves such as have a contrite spirit (Psalm 34:18). Together, we can cast our burden on the Lord so that he can sustain us (Psalm 55:22). A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench (Matthew 12:20). Blessed, blessed are the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3).
It is the poor in spirit who remember their past and depend upon the Lord. The past forces us toward one of two crowning acts: either repent and run to Jesus or forgive and run to Jesus. The often neglected truth is that our past is a doorway into a deeper walk with God. If you have sinned, seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of those against whom you have sinned. If you have been sinned against, then forgive as Christ forgave you. Both of these acts are a redemptive response to the past, not wallowing in the past.
The shame we feel over what we have done or over what others have done to us is strong enough that we strain to keep those events private. Forgiveness is God’s favorite way to redeem and reclaim the past, especially those parts of the past that we would rather keep private. In fact, he sent his son to die so that the past, including its privatized shame and pain, could be meaningful again.
The very public nature of his execution and the public nature of his exposed nakedness is an important aspect of his work on the cross. A private execution would have sufficed; instead, he chose a public and shameful death. Stripped naked, he took our shame and revealed to God and to all the world the naked shame that belongs to us. He exposed who we really are and then he took that shame with him into the grave where it died with him. The Christ who rose from the dead left all of our sin and shame, our past, in the grave behind him. He carries the evidence of that execution on his resurrected body even today and we will see them on his body in Heaven someday. What more proof do we need of God’s lasting value of the past?
How does this good news impact our present and future? This incredible Gospel of grace changes the trajectory of our lives by reorienting our present in light of the past. Seeing the past in this Gospel light helps us to live humbly today and tomorrow; it prompts us to do everything we can to embody our gratefulness, setting our house in order as if eternity were already upon us. C.S. Lewis believed that eternity does not begin at death, but at birth, and our final destination of Heaven or Hell will color everything that came before. When we see our present and our past from that perspective, then our past begins to change and our remembered sin and pain take on the color and quality of Heaven. For the unforgiven and unredeemed, however, their past takes on the color and quality of Hell. “That is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say, ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly” (The Great Divorce).
That means our free time (which is actually God’s time), our home life, our relationships, our work, and our play are a suburb of either Heaven or Hell. How you treat your mother, your sister, your homework, your friends, and total strangers walking past is all practice for eternity. Another way to look at it is this: life is a rehearsal for Heaven or a rehearsal for Hell.
Today’s actions are tomorrows remembered past. What better cause do you have to live humbly, to repent every day, to depend on the Lord who is your strength (Psalm 62:7)? Lean into the unknowable future with hope, for Christ has redeemed the past and goes ahead of you into the future. And, if Colossians 1:17 is correct, then Christ is the one who holds everything–molecules, galaxies, and every living story that wanders upon the earth–together. He keeps the stories from disintegrating or flinging apart into chaos. Because he holds everything together, he is the one who gives meaning to all your days, the mundane and the miraculous. Even when embroiled in suffering, staggering beneath the bewildering weight of depressions, you can remember that not only does Christ understand your darkness and hold it all together, he has redeemed it all and given your life meaning. The consequences of forgetting this fact are great: if you ever leave Christ, you will face an unprecedented crisis of meaning. If you remember this fact, then your life–past, present, and future–remain meaningful. He is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6-7). He is the one who entered time and said, “I am the water of life. Drink my water and you will never thirst again” (John 4). The one who said, “I will never leave you. I will never send you away” (Hebrews 13). The one who said, “I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). The one who said, “Go. All of your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9). He is the one who died for you so that God could say, “I will put your sins behind my back and will tread your sins underfoot, hurling all your iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Isaiah 38:17). These are God’s words, not mine. These are the paragon promises of a reliable God.
[read more in Honey from the Lion’s Mouth: available at a bookstore near you]