My last post was about living in the present moment so that we can maximize our enjoyment of the Lord and can give ourselves away for the blessing of others. If I am dwelling in the past and lamenting things that cannot be changed, or if I am fearing the future and fixating on the threats that might come, then I am not living in the present. And the present is the only place where I can live and be faithful to my calling (Ephesians 4:1) and accomplish the works the Lord has given me to do (Ephesians 2:10).
In this post I wanted to further explore this idea of living in the present by looking at some biblical pictures of this and asking, “So, what do I do with my past? How do I handle thoughts and feelings about my past? Do I just pretend those things never happened?”
TWO ASPECTS OF THE PAST: MY OWN SINS AND THOSE OF OTHERS
It occurs to me that there are two aspects of our past that can prevent us from living fully in the present. First, there are my own sins and failures. There are the things that I have said and done in violation and rebellion against God’s moral Law and have thus wounded others, and these things now bring me the pain of shame and guilt and regret. How can I ever remove these black marks from my past when the sins are committed, and the words are said and cannot be taken back and are etched in history’s stone? Who will set me free from this guilt and shame (Romans 7:24)? The good news of Jesus Christ answers this question, because most of what the Bible has to say about our past and about how we are to deal with our past is focused on this aspect of our past. The Bible declares that, “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool (Isaiah 1:18).” The Bible proclaims that, because the Lord Jesus Christ died on Calvary’s cross, your sins can be forgiven and your guilt and shame can be removed if you will place your faith in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. The gospel, and only the gospel, offers forgiveness, full and free, from all your sins and failures (John 8:36).
But the second aspect of our past that can prevent us from living in the present is the things that have been done to us by others. This second aspect has to do with dealing with how others have wounded and harmed us. People can often be thoughtless, and they can be intentionally cruel, and they can inflict deep and long-lasting damage to us. But regardless of who or how the damage is done, we are the ones who must mend and forgive and untangle and resolve and defang these deep pains from our past. These kinds of wounds can stay with us a long time and can leave us trapped in the wreckage of the past. How do we deal with this part of our past? How are we able to bury these specters from the past so that we can live and flourish in the present?
JOSEPH RECEIVED CRUEL AND EVIL TREATMENT, AND YET . . .
Joseph was the favorite son of his father, Jacob. Then one day, while obeying his father’s instructions to find his ten older brothers (Genesis 37), his brothers conspired together to strip off his special coat and to throw him into a pit to die. Before they could kill Joseph, however, some slave traders come along, and the ten older brothers decide to sell Joseph to the slave traders heading to Egypt. When Joseph is gone, they dip his robe into goat’s blood and tell his father that he is dead. Meanwhile, as a slave in Egypt, Joseph is falsely accused and thrown into an Egyptian prison. Here is a man who should have been trapped by his past and by the evil that was done to him by others. Here is a man whose major hope for the future would be to get out of prison so he can take revenge on his brothers.
But that is not what we find. Through God’s providence and God’s plan, Joseph is dramatically promoted from prison to the palace and is made second in charge to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. And what does he do with the pain of his past?
MANASSEH AND EPHRAIM
Pharaoh gives Joseph a wife and through her, Joseph has two sons. He names the firstborn Manasseh, for “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house (Genesis 41:51).” The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction (41:52).” Joseph is able to break free of the poison of his past because he focuses on what God is doing, and he focuses on God’s goodness. It is as if he says, “Yes, people can be cruel and evil, but God is good and I will rejoice in Him and I will trust Him to run His universe as He sees fit.” Joseph could have remained trapped in the past, bitter and vengeful and blaming others for his pain, but he chooses instead to trust the Lord and to live in the present and to do today what God has commanded him to do today.
RECONCILES WITH HIS BROTHERS
What will Joseph do with his feelings toward his brothers? How can he ignore the hateful evil that they did to him, throwing their own brother in a pit and then selling him off to slave traders? But even in this Joseph will not be a slave to his past. He will not be trapped in the pit of self-pity or in the chains of revenge. Instead, when he finally confronts his brothers, the men who robbed him of his home and of the peacefulness of his youth, he says, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life (Genesis 45:5).” Joseph knows the God is the one who used the evil deeds of his brothers to preserve life in Egypt. God is the one in control. and God is good. God has made Joseph lord of all Egypt (45:9). Joseph focuses on God and is thus able to escape the slavery to his past. So, Joseph chooses to forgive his brothers and not to hold them under his judgment, and thus is able to live and love in the present. At the end of this scene, Joseph “kissed his brothers and wept on them, and afterward his brothers talked with him (45:15).”
CONFESSION OF SIN AND FORGIVENESS AT LAST
Joseph has been freed from his past, and he has forgiven his brothers’ sins against him, but because his brothers have never admitted (confessed) their evil to Joseph and have never asked for his forgiveness, they remained trapped in the past. They remain fearful that Joseph may some day remember the evil that they have done to him and may take revenge. But finally, the brothers, too, are set free from the evil that they did to Joseph. “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, for they did you wrong (Genesis 50:17).” Joseph responds to their request for forgiveness by weeping, as all the evil of the past and its pain finally rolls away, and he says, “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good to preserve many people alive (Genesis 50:19-20).”
FORGETTING THE PAST SO WE CAN FULLY LIVE IN THE PRESENT
By fixing his focus on God, and not on the evil deeds of men, Joseph is able to move past his past, so that he can fully live in the present. The Lord has given him the ability to forgive his brothers so he can forget their cruelty to him. He thus forgets what lies behind, so that he can be free to embrace what lies ahead (Philippians 3:12-14). When we focus on the Lord and His goodness, we remove from our past the power to enslave us and we can joyfully live in the present.
SDG rmb 10/1/2020