Breaking Free From the Past

As we prepare for a new year, the mystery of time–past, present, and future–presents itself with pomp and circumstance. While most of the activities around New Years’ Day celebrate the new vista ahead, regrettable episodes of the past often cast their shadow on our mind and conscience.

Let’s consider how to break free from negative memories of the past. Admittedly, we cannot change yesterday, nor yesteryear, yet we can change how those past events affect us today.

When Paul met Christ on the road to Damascus, “Saul” had much to regret (Acts 9:1-19). Instead of gaining credit with God for persecuting Christians, he had been persecuting God’s people![1] He didn’t eat or drink for three days while he sought to adjust himself to the radical implications of meeting the living Messiah–Jesus Himself. Although he had been physically blinded by the light, he gained spiritual sight by believing the gospel.

In Galatians 1:13-16 Paul referred to his persecution of the church:

“For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood…”

The extensive harm he inflicted could have bound Paul in remorse and shame, robbing him of effective ministry. He could have accepted Satan’s delusion that the only way to show true remorse was to punish himself with continual guilt, sorrow, and depression. Thankfully, Paul knew better; he was not ignorant of the devil’s strategy (2 Cor. 2:11).

Paul revealed his strategy for life in Philippians 3:12-14:

“Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Here we learn how Paul let go of painful past memories.[2] This does not mean that he could erase them from his memory banks; he mentioned his former life when it served a beneficial purpose (Cf. 1 Tim. 1:12-17: Acts 22:1-21: 26:1-23). Instead,

1) Paul accepted the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement,

2) Paul forgave himself,

3) Paul learned from the past, and

4) Paul trusted in God’s overruling providence.

These four steps show how you can be released from the past also.

1. Accept the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement.

For how many sins did Christ die? Colossians proclaims:

“And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you ALL trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13,14). And in Titus we read, “[Christ] gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from EVERY lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).

Christ declared in His final moments on the Cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30; Cf. 1 John 2:1-2).

Paul depended on God’s gift of righteousness which blotted out his mistreatment of the early Christians, “[being] found in Him [Christ], not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:9). Are you taking refuge in Christ’s finished work on Calvary?

2. Forgive yourself.

We are familiar with our responsibility to forgive others: “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Yet, aren’t you a person too? Then, forgiving yourself is also required! The second greatest commandment is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).[3]

To ensure that there is no valid basis for conviction of sin, ask God to search your heart (Psalm 139:23,24).[4] He may remind you of a debt you have outstanding. Since we are to “Owe no man anything,” repay the debt (Romans 13:8). If there is a legal claim against you, fulfill any required penalty. Zacchaeus knew the importance of restitution for those he had wronged. He confessed to his Savior, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold” (Luke 19:8). For example, if you have shoplifted (before or after you were saved), give the store a donation for the equivalent amount.[5] This will prevent the Enemy from having a “foothold” in your life (Eph. 4:27).

Is there any reason for you as a child of God to carry a burden of guilt? No.

If God the Father looked on His Son’s perfect sacrifice and was satisfied and, because of His grace–and does not condemn the believer–who are we to withhold forgiveness for ourselves (Isaiah 53:11)? Paul proclaimed,

“Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us” (Rom. 8:33,34).

If we think that doing penance is pleasing to God, we are mistaken. After confession and repentance, we are just siding with the Enemy if we keep rejecting ourselves, because the devil iis the “accuser of the brethren” (Rev. 12:10,11; Zech. 3:1-5).

Have you forgiven yourself for past failures? Claim the promise of 1 John 1:9 and move on: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Express your gratitude in worship.

3. Learn from your failures.

If we learn from our sins and mistakes, they are not totally wasted![6] What can you learn from your disappointments? Squeeze some juice from that “lemon” and leave it behind you.

4. Trust in God’s providence.

How comforting it is that God will overrule our failures and even others’ sins against us! The example of Joseph is so relevant at this point. Although his brothers had considered murdering him, then sold him into slavery, Joseph–through the eyes of faith–saw God’s plan being accomplished in spite of it all. Instead of taking revenge or allowing bitterness to take root, he declared to his repentant brothers,

“Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:19,20).

A friend of mine gained some freedom by reading a devotional book about Joseph. The gist of author’s counsel was: “If you cannot accept that God can and will use everything in your past to contribute to His ultimate purpose for your life, then you’re calling Him a liar.” Strong words, but true.

Scripture does not promise in vain, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Will you accept God’s promise of overruling affliction in your life? As you humble yourself, He faithfully provides all-sufficient grace (James 4:6).

Friend, isn’t it time to accept the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, forgive yourself, learn from the past, and trust in God’s overruling providence? Do so, and enter the new year freed from the shackles of your past.

“Forgetting ills behind me, the sorrows past and gone,

Forgetting all my wanderings, too sad to dwell upon;
Remembering God’s great goodness, in times of stress and strain,
Remembering His great restorings, I praise God again.

“Forgetting all unkindness which friends and foes have shown,

Forgetting and forgiving the wrongs that I have known;
Remembering God provided, unsought, each faithful friend,
Remembering love’s devotion, I’ll praise Him to the end.”[7]

[1] “Saul” had guarded the coats of those who stoned to death Stephen, the Spirit-filled deacon and witness – Acts 7:58.

[2] Paul also “forgot” attainments for the kingdom, not being satisfied with previous ministry as an apostle (Rom. 15:20-29).

[3] Technically, this is not a command to “love self”; healthy self-concern is assumed.

[4] This is not morbid introspection; when the Holy Spirit convicts, it has a biblical basis and is constructive (Eph. 4:30).

[5] Being fully pardoned by God does not exempt us from accountability to human authorities (1 Peter 2:13-17). This isn’t legalism. Obedience should spring from acceptance and grateful love (John 14:15).

[6] I recall one of my keen disappointments. I was to drive my parents’ big, fancy sedan to chauffeur my best friend and his bride from their wedding to their reception. One of the car’s drawbacks was its incredible thirst for gasoline. When the big day came, I busied myself with washing the car. Time slipped away and I hurriedly got dressed and left fore the church were the wedding was to be held. Not wanting to be late, I thought I’d stop and get gas after the ceremony; surely the almost-empty gage showed enough fuel. Oh the horror I felt as I ran out of gas a couple of miles from the church! By the time I found a gas can, got some gas and drove to the church, I arrived to see them walking up the aisle after the ceremony. Ugh! A painful lesson I’ve hopefully learned from…

[7] Mrs. Charles Cowman, Streams in the Desert, vol. 2, by (Zondervan). Poem by “A. G.”; author’s name not identified.

Copyright by John B. Woodward 2001. Second edition, 2009. Permission is granted to reprint (with credit given) for non-commercial use. Bible quotations are from the New King James Version. Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson.

See GFI’s online videos at

John’s father “graduated” from the in-patient program at Atlanta’s Shepherd Clinic Dec. 29th. We are grateful for answered prayers. John Sr. will continue rehab in their day program. Here are some photos:

We wish all Grace Note readers a joyous new year!

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Copyright, John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Scripture quotations (unless indicated otherwise) are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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