Another jumbo-sized podcast episode!
This one is all about the necessity of healing our past, without which our future won’t be as good as we want it to be. Why? Because the past has a way of continuing to exert a harmful influence over our present and future. To help us find healing from our past, I reflect on some helpful resources related to forgiveness and providence from God’s Word.
Devotional Text: Philippians 3:8b-14
You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.
Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Tuesday, February 27, and this is Devotional Podcast number 17.
You’re listening to Pete Townshend’s song “Somebody Saved Me,” from his 1982 album All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. In the song, the singer is looking back on his life. And he sees that there were times in his life when he was rescued from decisions that he made—decisions that, ultimately, would have brought him great harm—if not killed him outright. Not that he saw it that way at the time—when he didn’t get what he wanted, when his plans fell through. No, he was often dragged kicking and screaming away from paths that would have led to his destruction. “But somebody saved me,” he sings. “It happened again/ Somebody saved me/ I thank you, my friend.”
He doesn’t know who this mysterious “friend” is. A guardian angel, perhaps? But notice it’s somebody, not some thing; it’s not an impersonal force; it’s not fate; it’s not luck; it’s a person. And of course we know that person’s name, even if Townshend doesn’t: his name is Jesus.
Townshend sings, “All I know is that I’ve been making it/ And there’ve been times that I didn’t deserve to.”
Who hasn’t been there? Who can’t relate to that?
For the last several weeks, I’ve been preaching a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer. I’ve benefited greatly from reading Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary on Matthew. In fact, every time I teach or preach anything from Matthew’s gospel, I benefit greatly from reading Bruner. Here’s what he had to say about the final three petitions in the Lord’s Prayer—what he calls the “Second Table” of the prayer. He writes:
In the Second Table of the Lord’s Prayer, we may say in summary so far, the petition for bread was a prayer for the present (“give us this day”), the petition for forgiveness was a prayer for the removal of a bad past, and now the prayer for leading is a prayer for the future. This petition follows naturally from the preceding prayer for forgiveness. For when we ask for forgiveness we almost instinctively ask also to be kept from the temptations and evil that made our prayer for forgiveness necessary at all. So the Sixth Petition follows the Fifth like wanting to be good follows sorrow for failing to be.
I like that! I’ve never thought of these petitions in terms of past, present, and future.
In today’s podcast, I want to focus on the fifth petition: “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” I’m reluctant to say that any of these three petitions is more or less important or necessary. But I will say this: the “prayer for the removal of a bad past,” as Bruner puts it, must be granted by God before the “prayer for the future” has any hope of coming to pass.
Why do I say that? Because the past has a way of haunting the present—and influencing the future. And if we haven’t made peace with the past, its influence can be harmful.
Stop and consider how many times even today you’ve ruminated over something in your past. Maybe it’s from your recent past: like some offhanded comment that someone made about you yesterday—“What did he mean by that? Was he criticizing me?” Or that witty riposte you wish you had said to your boss last week when she challenged the quality of your work.
Maybe, like me, you’re in the habit of replaying conversations in your head—and creating alternate endings to them? Ugh! I do this all the time! In my mind I continue to rewind and listen to conversations or arguments I’ve had with acquaintances, enemies, former friends, family members—often people I haven’t seen in years—some of whom aren’t even alive anymore! And I think, “What if I had said this instead? What if I had done that?”
Why do I do this? Because I want to explain myself. I want to justify myself. I want to restore the honor or dignity that I lost to that person. I want to restore that part of my reputation that was tarnished by that event. I want to go back in time and apologize—or better yet, do things differently to begin with, so I wouldn’t need to apologize. See what I mean?
I ruminate on a past that desperately needs God’s healing! You ruminate on a past that desperately needs God’s healing.
The theologian and Episcopal minister Paul Zahl, whose own podcast has helped me come to terms with my own past, described during one of his own podcasts the experience of being at the bedside of a dying friend. He asked his friend, “So what are you thinking about right now—you know, as you’re staring death in the face?” And his friend said, “I’m thinking about a girl who kissed me—out of the blue one time—at a frat party in college. But she just kissed me. I never found out her name. I never got her number. Why didn’t I do that? What if I had gotten to know her? What if she was the one?”
So this was what he was thinking about shortly before his death. Isn’t that funny—and a little sad?
But don’t we all think about stuff like this—don’t we all have these kinds of regrets? We play that game of “woulda coulda shoulda”: “What if my life had taken this different course?”
It’s not good for us! We need to make peace with our past!
How do we do it? How does the gospel enable us to do it?
First, we recognize that through Christ, all the mistakes of our past—no, that’s too mild of a word—all of the sins of our past—are forgiven by God. Listen to God’s Word:
“As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:12. Have you ever thought about why the psalmist didn’t say “as far as the north is from the south”? Because our world is a sphere. If you travel north, you will eventually be going south and vice versa. Whereas, if you travel east or west, you would continue in the same direction forever! East and west are infinitely separated from one another in a way that north and south aren’t.
My point is, when our sins are forgiven by God, they are gone… disappeared… forever. Never to be held against us again. There is no guilt! The prophet Isaiah speaks for God and says, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” Isaiah 43:25.
Now, I don’t believe an omniscient God who transcends time can literally forget anything—I believe this scripture uses hyperbole—but the point is, when our sins are forgiven, God is not going to bring them up again; even in final judgment, God is not going to call to mind any sin, which has already been repented of and forgiven. It’s gone… forgotten. At least as far as God is concerned.
In the wake of Billy Graham’s death last week, I read about Graham’ conversion when he was 15 or 16. Graham attended a revival led by evangelist Mordecai Ham. After he “walked the aisle” and made a decision to accept Christ as his Savior and Lord, he knew he was saved—forever. He told friends and family at the time, “This means I can commit murder, and I’ll still go to heaven.” While I wouldn’t put it quite that way—as I’m sure the older, more mature Graham wouldn’t put it that way, either—there is a sense in which it’s true—so long as we continue to repent and believe in Christ. As I’ve said before, even the most heinous sin is no match for the blood of Christ.
And you might say, “Yes, but God will often let us suffer the consequences for our sin, even after they’re forgiven. And that’s true. But when he lets us suffer consequences, he does so, not on account of his wrath, but on account of his loving discipline. See Hebrews 12:4-12. But this discipline is good for us. God is using it to transform us into the people he wants us to be.
So God’s forgiveness, through Christ alone, helps us deal with the guilt of our past. And that’s amazing, and we should praise God for it every day!
But there’s something else I want to talk about that enables us to be healed from our past. And this is God’s providence. As I said at the top of this episode, that’s what the Pete Townshend song is all about (whether he knows it or not).
Listen to this scripture: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” Proverbs 16:9. “A man’s steps are from the Lord; how then can man understand his way?” Proverbs 20:24. “I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.” Jeremiah 10:23.
No, this doesn’t mean that we have no free will to do what we want—that God is our puppet-master who “determines” our steps. It doesn’t mean that we don’t make terrible missteps, that we don’t sin terribly. Obviously we do—and God holds us accountable for it. It doesn’t mean that we won’t be far happier in the long-run having lived a life characterized by faithfulness to God rather than unfaithfulness, even if we are nevertheless saved.
But it does mean that God foreknows all our steps in life—both good and bad. And he works through our “steps”—he even works around our steps when necessary—to ensure that his will for us will be done. In other words, as Billy Graham liked to say, God has a wonderful plan for our life—and even we sinners who are in Christ don’t have the power to derail God’s plan for our lives.
So, to get back to where we started… What does all this mean for you… What does it mean for your checkered past, which desperately needs to be healed?
It means that for your whole life, God has been shaping you into the person he wants you to be. He wants you to be the person you are right now—and the person you’re becoming. And he’s used everything in your past—all the pain, all the suffering, all the heartache, all the loss, indeed, even all of your sin, because he’s disciplined you for it, and you’ve learned from it—to make you into the person you are today—and the person you’ll be tomorrow, and the person you’ll be in eternity. God is infinitely resourceful; he’s used everything in your past for your good. In other words, he is redeeming your past even as I speak these words.
Does that make sense?
Let me put it in the most practical terms possible: I am not proud of many things in my past. I often grieve over my sins—and especially the way I’ve hurt others. I often regret my failures. But you know what? In spite of my past, I mostly like the person I am today. I like the person I’m becoming, by God’s grace. And if anything had gone differently in my past, it’s no exaggeration to say that I would be somebody else—rather than the person that I am right now, which is the person that God wants me to be.
That’s what it comes down to.
So there’s no sense in ruminating over some “path not taken” in life; there’s no sense wondering “what if”; there’s no sense being overwhelmed with regrets. It is God who has established your steps… in such a way to bring you to exactly the place you are right now.
And if you understand that—if we understand that (because I’m talking to myself, too)—then let’s say, with the apostle Paul,
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 312.
2. Philippians 3:8b-14 ESV