I often take a philosophic view of life, especially if some event triggers certain thoughts and actions. I contemplate life and try to understand how our spiritual side and fleshly side direct our Christian path through our earthly journey. Anyway, remembering a short article I wrote years ago about only viewing life through memories of the past, I decided to update my thoughts a bit.
Several years ago, my wife and I went on a boat cruise out from Bellingham Bay through some areas of the San Juan Islands in the state of Washington. It was one of those cruises in the late afternoon where dinner is served and you can see the islands during the remaining day light while going out, and if you are lucky, you may even see a whale or two. But as dusk and darkness arrive, it allows you to see the coastal lights and night sky on your return.
We sat across from each other at a table — she seeing where we were going, me seeing from where we had been. She would point out something nice for me to see, but facing the wrong way, it was difficult, in my old age, to continually turn around to see things from her point-of-view. “That is all right,” I said, “my view of you is quite nice, too.” She rolled her eyes, as she usually does after my many corny comments.
But, the experience got me thinking that, although our boat may be moving forward into new waters, it was like I was looking in the rear view mirror only at what was, not what is. I’ve known many people stuck in a life like that; those who couldn’t see where they were headed, because they were still living in the past – they had no plans or ideas of what lay ahead. They made no progress, because they couldn’t move on. They were stuck in a place that no longer existed in reality.
Contemplating this idea of looking backward, my mind wandered to the Bible, as it often does, and reminded me of when one of Jesus’ would-be followers said to him, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:61-62, ESV).1
The reason of course, is if we look back while plowing land, we would wind up plowing a crooked row or worse. The lesson to learn is to give your life completely to your new mission and let go of the old, for Christ cannot accept conditional service. Other concerns, like home ties or old problems, would only delay following him. Likewise, in making personal progress in anything we do, we can’t drive straight down the road to enlightenment and to a better life, if we only have our eyes fixed on the past.
Everyone Looks Back Now and Then
Now, like everyone, I still look back on my life, occasionally. In fact it is fun for anyone to relive the memories they view as favorable, especially if was a big event, like a graduation, a birth, or a marriage. Or, maybe it was achieving some other important goal or winning an award. These are good things to remember, and we generally display various tokens of the events as reminders, such as certificates, trophies, and photographs.
But, sometimes we (or others) do or say things that trigger sad or bad memories and they slowly seep out to the front of our mind. And no matter how much we try to keep this from happening, they still surface now and then and they aren’t much fun to revisit. Maybe it was some major error in judgement, or some embarrassing circumstance, or it was doing something shameful for which we are not proud. If that has happened to you, just remember that it happens to all of us, and I know this from my own personal experiences. It is part of our ongoing learning process.
What do we do with these sad and bad things? We shouldn’t completely forget them, but if we are smart, we shroud them deep within ourselves where they are not in a constant loop, replaying our errors all the time. If that were to happen, we will never move forward with our lives, and remain living in the past, reviewing the bad stuff over and over again, living in a state of constant regret. But you know, many people do just that, and it really messes them up.
These regrets, embarrassments, and shameful experiences are sins committed by imperfect humans — for that is what we are. But Jesus came to cleanse us and make us new. We are forgiven for those errors in judgement. Although forgiven, we cannot forget those things we shouldn’t have done, and keeping the memories will help us not do them again. But how do we keep the bad stuff from stunting our Christian growth?
You will have to develop your own way of handling those unpleasant memories, but this is what I do. I have a make-believe box I visualize in my brain and this is where I store all the bad stuff I don’t want to constantly think about — you know, that baggage everyone carries with them. To me, it is as if those memories are historic events locked away in their own time period. When needed, I can open that box and sort through the ugly stuff and pick-out the necessary memory, otherwise the box stays shut and locked and the memories remain in the past, so I can continue moving my life forward.
All of us experience many facets of life, some good, and some bad. Regrets, hardships, tragedies, and shame are part of everyone’s life experiences, however if there is any reluctance to leaving those thoughts behind, you will drive a crooked road ahead. Your destination will never be in proper focus.
Don’t get me wrong, the things we leave behind, good or bad, still add value to our life, because they got us to where we are today, but take them just for the memories they are and move forward. You can let your past events, pleasant and unpleasant, be teaching tools to reflect upon your previous path, just don’t linger by dwelling on them for too long, or let them become a road block. If you get permanently stuck in the past, you can lose your present and/or eternal life.
Think of Lot’s wife when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. He provided escape for Lot and his wife and instructed them not to look back. “But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” (Genesis 19:26).
She dallied and her looking back was an inclination to go back — she didn’t want to leave and go forward. As the Benson Bible Commentary states so very well, she “hankered after her house and goods in Sodom” and was hesitant in moving forward on a new path.2 Lot also resisted leaving Sodom (Genesis 19:16), but angels encouraged him to move on and he did. (For an expanded and fascinating study, as well as a somewhat scientific one on this event, see the article titled “Lot & His Daughters: Homosexuals, Brimstone, Incest”, listed in References & Notes.)3
If I’m having trouble keeping everything in perspective, I ask God for help and he always comes through for me. Remember, if God can forgive you for making errors, you should be able to forgive yourself, too. This reminds me of a song by famous New Orleans rhythm and blues vocalist Aaron Neville titled “To Make Me Who I Am.” He vents about his past life filled with hard times and many regrets, but with God’s assurance, he accepted his past but moved on to better times.
Neville has a very unique voice. CBS News once called it ‘blessed’ and one of the most distinctive voices in American music.4 This song is about his own life — it is a confession. His rough exterior features show his physical scars; his song expresses his psychological ones. Many people wonder about his face tattoo and there was an interesting story about it in Billboard Magazine.
Neville got his facial tattoo of a cross when he was only 16 years old. He said, “My dad made me scrub it with Brillo Pads and Octagon Soap. The skin came off, but the tattoo stayed. But some years later, I had an album out called The Tattooed Heart, and we were doing a special thing in a tattoo parlor, so I let them go over it and outline it — freshen it up.”4
I could not locate any live performance video recording, so I’ve picked a presentation of his song and story which uses still photos from his personal life. Selected lyrics are below and the music video is listed in References & Notes.5
I’ve walked through this world, sometimes without a friend,
My life has been up and down, been close to an end.
I’ve been through the fire and I’ve walked in the rain,
I’ve felt the joy and endured the pain.
God said, “I forgive you, wipe away the scars,
‘Cause I know it took who you were,
And where you came from, to make you who you are.”
Yes, good or bad, our past has helped forge who we are today and who we will be tomorrow. Temporary reflection is one thing, as it helps keep us on track, but focus attention on what lies ahead. We must set our goals and move on.
Copyright © 2020, Dr. Ray Hermann
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Reference & Notes
- All scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV), ©2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. The text has been used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Notes for Genesis 19:26, Joseph Benson’s Commentary of the Old and New Testaments, (Bible Hub, retrieved 12 September 2017), https://biblehub.com/commentaries/genesis/19-26.htm
- Hermann, Ray, “Lot & His Daughters: Homosexuals, Brimstone, Incest”, (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 22 July 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/lot-his-daughters-homosexuals-brimstone-incest/
- “Aaron Neville: A Blessed Voice”, (CBS News Sunday Morning, 5 March 2013), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/aaron-neville-a-blessed-voice/
- Prato, Greg, “Aaron Neville on Upcoming Crawfish Fest Appearance, His Musical Family and the Rise of Face Tattoos”, (Billboard Magazine, 13 March 2019), https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/rock/8502346/aaron-neville-interview-crawfish-fest-appearance
- “To Make Me Who I Am”, Artist: Aaron Neville; Authors: Aaron Neville, Gordon Chambers, Robbie Nevil, Bradley Spalter; Album: To Make Me Who I Am, Label: A&M, 1997, (UMG Recordings, released 1997, [uploaded by Hopenjoy1963 YouTube channel, 2013]) – MUSIC VIDEO: https://youtu.be/B5B6N7pM7Dk