Letting Go

We Can’t Erase Our Past, But We Don’t Have to Let it Control Us

I have an area in my house where I store keepsakes, seasonal decorations, my children’s school awards, old records, miscellaneous items I think I may someday use, and boxes of assorted junk. This place is my attic.

Although we don’t all have physical attics, we each have an intangible attic where our past is stored. It’s called our memories, and within its recesses are storage bins that represent a virtual timeline of our past. There are bins we like to revisit—memories of joy and fulfillment. But there are also bins of failures, disappointments, rejection, and hurts. These can come back to haunt us to the point that we feel unacceptable and unusable.

Everyone has things in her past that she wishes had never happened. It may be abuse, secret sin, drugs, divorce, rejection, rape—the list could continue. Think of the attic as the timeline of your life. It’s all there, and there is no changing it—it’s already history.

But have you ever known someone who was controlled by her storage? She clings tightly to everything that comes into her life and refuses to part with it. Soon her treasures overflow her storage places and pile into the living places of her home, restricting everyday activities.

This is what some of us allow the memories of the past to do in our lives—we let them control us. While it is true we cannot change what has happened in the past, we can lessen the influence and control it has on our lives now.

If anyone in Scripture could have felt self-rejection because of his past, it was the Apostle Paul. Paul murdered Christians. He tore apart families, hauling men and women off to prison and torture (Acts 8:3; 22:4–5).

That guilt alone would be overwhelming for anyone to deal with, but Paul had an added burden in that his past was public. He had to deal with other people’s rejection of him as well as his own. His past was so openly known that when he came to Christ, other Christians had great difficulty trusting him or allowing him to participate in ministry (Acts 9:26).

Yet, Paul was greatly used of God. He was the human author of much of the New Testament, as well as being an incredibly effective church planting missionary throughout the Roman Empire.

How could one with such a past as Paul’s become one so used by God? Paul, in Philippians 3:13–14, shared the secret to freeing himself from the grasp of the past as he wrote, “This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”

Did you catch Paul’s secret? It was to forget the past—to purposefully make a decision to turn his attention from it.

As I’ve had opportunity to share this truth with ladies, many have expressed that the choice to forget is beyond their ability.

“How can I forget my past?” they question. “It’s part of who I am! There’s no way.”

When Paul said “forgetting those things which are behind,” he didn’t mean that he completely erased them from his memory. That would have been impossible. In fact, much of Paul’s past is recorded in Scripture for everyone to see. None of us can (or should) forget our past in the sense that we pretend it didn’t happen. It’s part of our lives, and it is unchangeable.

Forgetting in this context isn’t a memory lapse; it is a memory release. It is a deliberate choice to release the past’s grip on our present.

The most helpful illustration to me of how this works is that of childbirth. When I was in labor with each of my four children, I was in a great deal of pain. Each contraction was completely consuming. For someone to try to tell me to forget the pain would have been ridiculous—it was all I could think about!

My youngest child is now grown, and I still remember that pain. But there is a big difference between experiencing the pain and remembering the pain. The pain of childbirth no longer consumes me when I think about it. It has released its grip on me.

This is what God wants us to do with the hurts and pain of our past. We can’t erase them, but we can refuse to allow them to have control over our lives today.

This article is an excerpt from the book The Choice Is Yours, available through Striving Together Publications.

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