I had another dream last night related to my past. This has been happening more regularly in the past few weeks. At first, I wasn’t concerned about it since those kinds of dreams fill my unconscious mind from time to time. However, the number and vividness of these dreams got me wondering if there’s something I need to address. As I consider my current situation, I must admit I don’t prefer this location. Some might call me crazy since I live across the street from the beach in sunny Florida. However, I am a lover of mountains, forests and cool, dry air. I would trade every beach in the world for the banks of an icy stream winding through a canyon shaded by towering pines and granite monoliths. But I digress.
There are few, if any, of us who don’t think about the past from time to time. Some like to reminisce on “the good old days,” wishing things were more that again. Others think of the days gone by with regret or anger, and are sometimes unwilling to “let go of the past” and move on and/or forgive. Others read or write history books, or spend time unearthing artifacts and analyzing data that helps us learn from the past. There are various ways and varying degrees to which we are all retrospective and connect our minds to the past for diverse reasons.
I admit I have spent more time than I should have thinking about past events over the years – things I’ve said, things I’ve done, things I wish I’d said or done – but to what end? Regret? Thankfulness? To learn what to say or do, or what not to say or do in the future? Is the past a tutor or a tyrant, or both? Moreover, how does thinking about the yesterday make me more Christlike? What is a healthy theology of the past?
The first two ways in which dwelling too long in the past can easily lead to sin, or be the result of sin, are ungratefulness and discontentment (which often accompany each other). Both of these, as they relate to thinking about the past is almost like the chicken and the egg debate – which comes first? Am I ungrateful or discontent because I’m thinking about the past, or am I discontent or ungrateful and thus think about the past longingly? Either way, I am in danger of sinning, if not fully immersed in the act.
2 Timothy 3:2 includes ungratefulness in a list of very undesirable characteristics of sinful people in the latter days. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 10 about the Israelites who died in the desert because they “displeased” the Lord with their unbelief and grumbling (discontentment and ungratefulness). It’s not difficult to find verses in the Bible about thankfulness. There are hundreds. It’s abundantly clear that we are called to be thankful people, not those who wish we had more presently and think about what we had (as the Israelites did when they longed for the food they had in Egypt). The one verse that really sums it up is 1 Thessalonians 5:18 that says, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” In light of that verse and hundreds of others, I believe it’s okay to think about the past so long as the result is that we give thanks to God and remember all He has done for us. This is a common theme throughout the Bible. However, if our thinking about the past leads to discontentment (about the past, present or future), we need to refocus on something that point our thoughts back the Lord. The cross of Christ is ALWAYS the best place to start.
A third way in which an overly past-focused mindset can trip us up is that we neglect to consider the present and, especially, the future. Uncle Rico from the movie Napoleon Dynamite is an extreme example of someone who can’t live in the present because they are so caught up in the past (in his case, 1982). Our history has shaped us into who we are, and that history is important to remember insofar as it reminds us of God’s providential care and plan that has brought us to where we are. Conversely, dwelling on what could have been, or what we think should have been (here comes that discontentment again), can hinder our ability to live in the present and prepare for the future. Paul tells the church in Philippi that because of Christ, he considers all he once thought to be important and defining to be rubbish, and instead forgets what was so he can strain forward for what will be. We see in Philippians 3, as well as Colossians 3 among other places, that our focus needs to be on striving for the goal of Christlikeness and future glory with our risen Lord. If my thoughts about where I used to live, the friends I used to have, the place I used to work, or even the closeness of the relationship I once had with Jesus don’t help me become more holy, they are thoughts that need to be taken captive in obedience to Christ (2 Cor 10) and replaced with thoughts that point to where Christ is, seated at the right hand of the Father (Col 3).
The past is the past and it can’t be undone. Thoughts about it can be beneficial, but they can also easily become a hinderance to holiness. May our prayers be filled with thanksgiving for what the Lord has done, but even more so what He will do to conform us to the image of Christ in this life, and eventually gather us to Himself in the life to come.