Ready for a fresh start? That’s great. It’s never too late to make a change in your life. But here’s the tricky part: Our personal histories aren’t always pretty and to move forward, you’ll have to learn how to make peace with your past.
Making peace with the past isn’t easy. Sometimes it can be downright painful. But lasting change is worth the effort — and it starts with a spiritual strategy for coming to terms with the disappointments, hardships and losses you’ve experienced in the recent (or not-so-recent) past.
You can’t deny your past
If you think previous generations had it easier than you do, guess again. The Bible is filled with examples of people who struggled to overcome their personal histories. Some of these people offer nuggets of advice for those of us who are tired of letting our pasts cripple our present and future lives.
For example, the apostle Paul was a bonafide bad boy of the New Testament world. In Philippians 3:13-14, the persecutor-turned-preacher describes how he reconciled his checkered past with the call of God in his life:
… this 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.
On the surface, it sounds like Paul took the easy way out. Instead of facing his past, Paul appears to be in denial about the ugly reality of his life before the Damascus Road experience.
Frankly, it’s a tempting mindset. Why make peace with your past when you can just forget about it. Push it out of your mind. Choose to ignore the pain you inflicted on others as well as the hurt that has been inflicted on you.
But I think it’s more complicated than that. The approach Paul described is a theme that occurs over and over in scripture. Far from a denial of the past, it points toward a more spiritually authentic way to move forward.
Here’s how to make peace with your past
A fresh start isn’t a mental exercise. It’s a lived experience that requires spiritual discipline — a choice to move away from what is behind and move toward what lies ahead. Is it simple, neat and tidy? No way. In fact, it might require you to completely change the way you view God, yourself and other people.
1. Your past shapes you, but it doesn’t define you.
There’s no avoiding the fact that past events influence the people we are today. The pain and heartaches you have experienced have shaped your character and altered your outlook on life. Like Nietzsche said, if it didn’t kill you, it probably made you stronger.
But sometimes our past experiences become a box that limits our perspectives about the world and the people we can become. Left unchecked, that box becomes a cage — a prison that keeps us in a perpetual state of despair and hopelessness.
When you choose to leave the past in the past, you make a conscious decision to go beyond the boundaries of the box, to step out of the cage and allow God to do more with your life than you ever thought possible.
You can’t escape the reality of your past. But you can’t let it define you, either.
2. It’s pointless to focus on regrets and what-ifs.
Ever wondered how much time you spend dwelling on your regrets and failures? According to a 2010 study, we spend 46.9% of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing. And a sizable portion of that time is spent dwelling on the past.
Anyone who says they don’t have any regrets is flat out lying. We all have regrets. If given the chance, we all have things we would have done differently. Different actions. Different choices. Different directions in life.
But focusing on regrets is a recipe for spiritual disaster. When we spend our present moments thinking about mistakes and missed opportunities, we force ourselves to relive past pain and heartbreaks. Again and again and again.
To make peace with your past, you need to exercise a certain amount of mental discipline. By replacing thoughts about regrets and failures with thoughts about hopes and possibilities, it becomes much easier to see God at work in your life in the here and now.
3. Your future really is a blank page.
Remember when anything seemed possible? Somewhere along the way you lost that sense of wonder and excitement about the future. Through no fault of your own, dashed hopes, broken promises and hard knocks robbed you of the ability to dream new dreams.
It’s time to start dreaming again. In John 10:10, Jesus says:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they (i.e., you) may have life, and have it abundantly.
Life is hard. But hopes and dreams are gifts from God. Even during your darkest moments, the future is a blank page waiting to be written. By mustering the courage to dream again, you can begin to recapture the sense that anything is possible.
And isn’t that what the gospel is about? An alternative way of life that invites us to transform our past into a future without limits, a future where anything — even our most impossible dreams — suddenly seem possible.
I hope it is. For your sake, for my sake, for the world’s sake. I really hope it is.