Past failure can haunt our present thinking like a plague and cripple us for serving and loving others. D. Martyn Lloyd Jones gave this reflection after a long pastoral ministry:
“The problem here is the case of those who are miserable or who are suffering from spiritual depression because of their past – either because of some particular sin in their past, or because of the particular form which sin happened to take in their case. I would say that in my experience in the ministry extending now over many years, there is no more common difficulty. It is constantly recurring and I think that I have had to deal with more people over this particular thing than over anything else.” (from Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure, p. 66).
Have you ever said to yourself, “I just want to forget the past. I wish it would all go away, I’m so ashamed, I have so many regrets”? Some turn to drug and alcohol abuse or some other addiction to dull the pain of past failures, and some make normal ordinary things like eating, shopping, and hobbies into inordinate comforts or discomforts to ease the pain of the past. Overindulgence even in honest things like work, play, and rest are used to suppress sorrow.
How can God redeem recurring memories of past sin, regrets, and shame?
Listen to Paul as he allows the gospel to inform and shape his evaluation of an ugly past:
“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”1 Timothy 1:12-17
Notice that Paul does not hide his sinful past nor does he have a flippant attitude that says, “so what”? Rather, he presents a biblical interpretation of it. He doesn’t avoid, hide, revise, or forget his past; he doesn’t smirk, sneer, or joke about the past. He looks at it through God’s lens.
1. By honestly looking at our past, God deepens our gratitude for His grace.
Can you say with Paul, “although I did . . ., and was . . ., I was shown mercy and grace”?
Viewed with the lens of redemption, our sin displays God’s mercy like a night sky displays the stars! How great would God’s mercy and grace be magnified if Paul had merely said, “Although I chewed gum in class, forgot to hang my coat up, and burped at the table, I was shown mercy and grace”? That’s right: not much.
2. By honestly looking at our past, God humbles us and cancels pride.
Paul’s sinful past is redeemed because he sees that God was there and yet God called him. (See also Luke 7:36-50 – The woman’s honesty about her sinful past and Jesus’ forgiveness of her deep sins is what brings forth great humility and love for Jesus).
The Apostle does not wallow in the past, he lets his past highlight God’s grace. When Paul says that he is presently the worst of sinners, it is because he sees his past failure and sins in light of God’s grace – and he is thrilled to give glory to God (verse 17). We don’t fixate on our shameful past but neither do we deny it or revise it.
3. By honestly looking at our past, God Expands our Sphere of Influence.
If you sugarcoat, deny, or revise your past failures and sins, you steal hope away from others. We are to hold out our lives as evidence of God’s redeeming love. We don’t dredge up the past to minimize the sorrow of it, but neither do we permit the past to have a strangle-hold on our present and future. Our sins did not end our lives. There are no throw-away lives, not at the cross of Christ.
Use your ugly past to show others that there is hope in Christ.