The subject I’ll address here is the matter of handling the past biblically—or putting your past in its place.
Why is this subject so important? I think there are at least three answers to that question.
The World’s Emphasis
The world is placing major emphasis on the subject of the power of an individual’s past. It’s amazing how soon after a person does something that society would deem to be bad, people are asking, “Well, how were they abused?” “What is it that happened in their past that drove them to do what they did today?”
For example, remember the Menendez case from the Los Angeles area. Two young men who were raised in the lap of luxury, as young adult men went into the home of their elderly parents with semi-automatic weapons and literally blew their parents away, reloaded and did it again.
The plea at their trial was “not guilty,” on the basis of what? They said that they were acting in self-defense. They claimed that they could not be held guilty for that crime because they were practicing self-defense. When? Was the argument that they went to visit their elderly parents, and this elderly father gets up and starts beating them, and thankfully they had their semi-automatic weapons with them? And so they backed up and blew their parents away before they could abuse them additionally.
That wasn’t the argument. The argument was that their father had abused them sometime in the past. Therefore, they were acting in self-defense on that particular day. Because of what had happened in their past, it was so powerful that they could not be held responsible for what was obviously premeditated, cold-blooded murder. You might say, “Well that’s bad.” I haven’t told you the bad part yet.
The bad part was the verdict of the first trial. It was a hung jury. They could not find 12 of their peers who were willing to suggest that regardless of what happened in their past, they were still responsible for the crimes they committed on that particular day.
You might ask me, “Are you taking a position on whether or not the Menendez brothers were abused as children?” Absolutely not, and I’m not going to minimize that kind of abuse in any way, shape, or form. I’ve totaled somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 hours of biblical counseling for people in our community. I’ve spent a lot of time working with individuals who were abused, and I don’t want to minimize that in any way.
What I do believe is regardless of what might have taken place in those young men’s lives prior to that particular day, they still should have been held responsible for the murder they committed. Thankfully, the result of the second trial was that they were convicted. The fact that it took that long tells you something about our culture, suggesting that the past is everything. The past is incredibly powerful.
Take Roseanne Barr for example, who would suggest that the reason she smokes 5 packs of cigarettes a day, cusses like a sailor, and drinks like a fish, is because of what happened in her past. It’s not her fault. She claims that she was abused sexually by her father in the past. Never mind the fact that that her parents both vehemently deny that to this day. And never mind the fact that Roseanne never had any recollection of that abuse until she went into therapy. Roseanne’s position is that she cannot change. That’s a powerful statement, which is, by the way, an attack on the gospel. She cannot change because of something that happened in her past. Now again, if you’re wondering, “Well, are you saying that Roseanne was or was not abused in the past?” Absolutely not—I couldn’t possibly know that. But I believe that the suggestion that Roseanne has no ability to make right choices today is treating a person like an animal, instead of what the gospel would suggest—that we have been made in the image of God and therefore are morally responsible for the choices that we make.
We had some young men in our town who graduated from high school, and they did not want to become successful the normal way—by maybe going to college, getting a job, earning money, saving it, and then having something to spend. That was way too hard and way too long for these two young men. Right after high school graduation, late at night, they went down to their neighbor’s home. They robbed the man of a gun and his car and headed out West. Every time they needed gas, they would they would pull off the interstate, rob whatever gas station convenience store was there, get their gas, get their food, and head right back on the same interstate. They didn’t even have enough smarts to vary their route.
After a period of time, the police could pretty much anticipate where they would probably stop next. They set up an ambush. These young men drove the stolen car off the interstate, saw the police there waiting for them, got back on the interstate. They’re now being chased by a couple of patrolman at a high rate of speed. While one of the young men is driving that stolen car as fast as he could down the interstate, the other young man rolls down the passenger side window, scoots himself up on that passenger side door, points the stolen rifle back at the police car. He pulls the trigger, it’s a perfect shot that goes right through the windshield and hits that trooper right between the eyes—immediately ushering that trooper into eternity, leaving his wife a young widow and his little baby without a daddy.
What was fascinating to me was what the mother of the young man who pulled the trigger said about that particular event within two days on our local radio station. She said, “You have to understand my son is not a bad boy. He just had a rough upbringing.”
This issue has changed in one generation. What would a person in this culture have to do before we would say, “You are a bad boy. What you did was bad and there is no possible excuse that you could give to justify that kind of behavior.” How much has that changed in one generation? My mom used to call me bad boy all the time and I never shot anybody. (Except that one time with a BB gun and my sister, but she had it coming).
Even when I was just messing around at the dinner table and I knocked over the milk, my mom’s response was, “Bad boy!” It never dawned on me to to blame my choice on something my mom did to me in the past. “Mom, the reason I just knocked over that milk was because you fed me my cereal in a square bowl instead of a round one.” It never dawned on me to blame my misdeeds on her or on my past. And, by the way, my mom had a cure for my badness, and she applied it liberally to my backside. That was the way that worked, and I would suggest that was a very good thing.
The Church’s Neglect
Why do we need to talk about this issue of our past? Well, it’s because the world is placing major emphasis here. We could illustrate that all day long. On the other side of that equation, we need to talk about this because many people in evangelical churches and even in the biblical counseling world are saying practically nothing about the past. For those of you who actually are doing biblical counseling right now, you might want to ask yourself, “How much time in an average counseling case do I spend on a person’s past?” Does that ever come up in counseling and should it ever come up in counseling? It’s amazing how infrequently that subject is addressed in the church. It’s amazing how infrequently that subject is addressed even in biblical counseling.
We have a world that many times seems to believe that the past is everything, and we have a church that seems to believe that the past is nothing. Well, who’s right?
Troubled Pasts are Common
The third reason we need to talk about this is because you don’t have to be involved in biblical counseling very long before you start coming across people with very troubled pasts. Would that be the understatement of the day? So you’re just asking yourself, “Now should I be talking about this a little? Should I be talking about this a lot? Should I ignore it?”
A Biblical Theology of the Past
What we really need is a biblical theology of the past. That’s what I’ll try to do with the remainder of our time, at least to get us going on what God’s Word says on this topic. If God’s Word is sufficient, if it’s all we need for life and godliness, then we can look to it to answer our question, “Is the past everything? Is the past nothing? Is there some sort of a biblical balance, and if so, what does that balance look like?”
I would suggest to you that when we turn to the pages of Scripture, one of the lessons that comes through loud and clear is that the past is very powerful. I do not think you can take the position that the past is nothing if we’re going to be open and honest with the Word of God. However, and I would want to quickly throw this caveat in, many times it’s powerfully good. In fact, we start thinking about this topic through the lens of Scripture, what we find out is that God created us with the ability to remember. He had to do all sorts of things in His creation in order for us even to have a past, like create time in a linear fashion and then give us the ability to remember. He created us with a past and it would appear from the lens of Scripture that can be a very powerful thing—a thing that is powerfully good. Your past can be one of your best friends.
Your Past as Your Best Friend
You might say, “Well, how could that be?” Your past can be one of your best friends when you need strength and confidence. You remember this story, don’t you? When the children of Israel were fighting the Philistines, and the Philistines had a big, ugly giant named Goliath. He would come down and he would taunt the armies of the living God. He said, “Let’s not get all messy with a battle between all of us. We’ll just choose one from our side (and I guess that’ll be me) and you choose one from your side. Just the two of us will fight will and we’ll settle it right here, right now.”
Of course, none of the so-called soldiers of the army of God wanted anything to do with that mess. Then David, the little shepherd boy, comes to the battle because his father said, “I want you to take this gift to the king, and take this gift to the to your older brothers, and bring me back a report of how the battle is going.”
David went and in the providence of God, he got there right when Goliath was taunting the armies of the living God. He found out pretty quickly that there wasn’t a whole lot of battle and going on at all. Saul wasn’t doing anything, David’s older brothers weren’t doing anything. David asked, “Why isn’t one of you going out and fighting this uncircumcised Philistine?” David’s brother spoke to him in a very condescending way: “Why don’t you go back with your few sheep in the wilderness?”
He is the older guy. He was the bigger one. He should have been out fighting, but instead of owning that, he mocks his own brother. Then Saul tries to talk David out of it, and then eventually gives him the whole armor. But what they’re both saying is this: “Listen, there’s no way that you can go fight this uncircumcised Philistine.”
It was at that point that young David introduced his king and his older brother to one of his good friends. And who was that? It was his past. He said, “There was a time when I was out with a sheep, and a bear came to the try to harm the sheep. And God delivered me from that bear. In the past, when a lion tried to attack my sheep, God delivered me from that lion. The same God who delivered me from the paw of the bear and the paw of the lion will give me the strength and confidence to deliver me from this uncircumcised Philistine today.”
This demonstrates that those who think that the past is nothing, or who only want to talk about the past in a negative way—as our toxic past or our wounded inner child—need to be reminded theologically that God made you with a past. Your past can be one of your best friends.
Your past can be one of your best friends when you need encouragement and balance. Job and his wife went through unspeakable trial. Then Job’s wife had some counsel for him: “Curse God and die.”
What did Job as a loving husband shepherding his wife at that moment do? He pointed her and he pointed his own heart back to their past. He said, “Should we receive good at the hand of God in the past and not evil today?” One of the reasons some of us tend to depression is because we’re looking what God has given us in the last five minutes instead of benefiting from our past when we need encouragement or balance.
Here’s another time your past can be one of your best friends: When you need to forgive. In Matthew 18 after the great admonition about church discipline, then there’s the discussion about forgiving. That’s what Peter was most concerned about—not confronting someone or going and getting someone else or telling it to the church—what Peter was most concerned about is, “What am I going to do if somebody repents? Do I have to forgive him?” And Jesus told the parable of the 10,000 talents.
There was a servant who owed his king 10,000 talents—the equivalent of millions of dollars. He was going to be sold in order to pay that debt, and the servant went to the king and made this outrageous claim, “Be patient with me and I’ll repay you all.” He could never have done that in a dozen lifetimes, and yet out of grace the king chose to forgive servant number one. Then Jesus explained that servant number one went and found a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii.
This is a third of a year’s wages, that’s not a little amount. In fact, if you owed me that much money, I’d want it back. Can we just make that straight? It’s not that it was a little amount, but it was a little amount in comparison to what he had already been forgiven.
Even though his fellow servant asked the same thing, “Be patient with me and I’ll repay you all,” the first servant would not do that. He had that man cast into prison. What was wrong with servant number one? He had a really bad memory. He didn’t make the past one of his best friends. What that means is when you and I have trouble forgiving another human being in our life, we’re not benefiting from our past.
The past can be one of your best friends when you’re struggling with pride.
Deuteronomy 9:7 is a very interesting text on this particular topic, where Moses told the children of Israel, “Remember and do not forget” twice in the same verse. “Remember and do not forget how you provoked God in the wilderness.” I’ll elaborate more on how we’re not supposed to wallow around in our past, but the truth of the matter is there are some things that we’ve done that were so dumb, so bad, so evil that we’ll probably always remember them from time to time. We’ll drive by someplace, or we’ll smell a particular aroma, or something will remind us about that, and that is not necessarily bad. Many of us struggle with pride, and rightly recalling the times that we failed and had to be forgiven by God can be a great friend.
Your Past as Your Worst Enemy
Here’s the other side of that—clearly Scripture teaches that your past can be one of your worst enemies. If it’s not handled well, it can impact you and it can impact your counselees in all sorts of ways. Here’s a quick list of how that may look.
How about when you or a counselee has unanswered questions. Biblical counseling is not simply confronting people who are sinning, we spend at least an equal amount of time comforting people who are sorrowing. So what about persons who went through a particular hard time in their life and they had all sorts of questions, but somewhere along the line they were taught that it’s wrong to ask questions of God, or it’s wrong to ask hard questions in church. And so that became a negative part of their past because they had questions and they were never answered. They chose to not live like Habakkuk. Habakkuk in chapter 1 is a fascinating story of a man who lays it out there, who has the trust in God to actually throw out his question. The book starts with Habakkuk saying to the Lord, “How is it that you can allow your people to live in such sinful ways and you’re not doing anything about it?”
If you honestly read Habakkuk 1, it sounds really close to complaining to God. What’s amazing is Habakkuk is not chided for asking that particular question of his God. In fact, God answers the question. Remember the answer? “You are exactly right. My people are living in incredible disobedience, which is exactly why I am going to judge them at the hand of the Babylonians.” And then what did Habakkuk do with that news? Now he’s got more questions: “How could you use the evil Babylonians to judge your people?”
It’s a conversation with God that is incredibly authentic. I like what one commentator said about that. He said, “God is the friend of the honest doubter.” I really believe that. God is the friend of the honest doubter who dares to talk to God rather than about Him. Prayer that includes an element of questioning God may be a means of increasing one’s faith. Expressing doubts and crying out about unfair situations in the universe shows one’s trust in God, one’s confidence that God should and does have an answer to humanity’s insoluble problems. I agree with that. If we have people that we are counseling who had questions about something that happened to them and they believed the lie that you cannot present those kinds of questions to your God, I believe that’s going to become a negative part of their past.
Here’s one I think is very clear on this particular point. Unwise choices can make your past your worst enemy. Galatians 6:7 says, “Be not deceived. God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man sows [in what becomes his past] that shall he also reap [today and in the days ahead].” Your past can be one of your worst enemies if you are sowing to the flesh.
Another one is unaddressed hurts (Psalm 42:3-5). I’m going to talk a little bit later about the issue of sufferology. If a person has hurts that they’ve not taken the time to study the Scripture in order to learn how to handle them well, that is going to become a negative aspect of their past. That phrase, “Time heals all wounds,” is simply not true. I either handle what God has given me today well, or it very well could impact me in negative ways in the days ahead.
Another way your past can become you worst enemy is through unsolved problems. Ephesians 4:26-27 says, “Be angry and do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down upon your wrath.” And if you do let the sun go down on your wrath, you are giving the devil a foothold. In other words, solve today’s problems today. We all know that if we don’t solve today’s problems today, that is going to become a negative aspect of our past and according to Paul. It’s so powerful that you’re actually giving the devil a foothold.
Another one is unconfessed sin. Proverbs 28:13 says, “He who covers his sin shall not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy.”
Here’s one more. Proverbs 26:11 says, “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool returns to his folly.” Have you ever seen your dog do that in the backyard. You want to go out there and exclaim, “What are you doing?! Don’t do that!”
God says you and I do that when we sin in a particular way and don’t learn lessons—that’s going to habituate me to probably do that again in the days ahead. My past has become one of my worst friends, like a dog eating its own vomit.
Now one other truth we learn from the Word of God about the power of the past is that you can learn to put your past in its place. This is not a hopeless discussion. If the Word of God says so much about this, then you can learn to put your past in its place. However, one of the mistakes I believe that we make in counseling when we’re helping a person think about their past is to consider it like one big lump.
The Bible is much more specific than that. I really believe God’s a precise God. I believe the Bible is a specific book, and I think we can’t talk about the past as if it’s one big lump. It’s not all good. It’s not all bad. You weren’t all innocent. You’re not all guilty. It’s got to be categorized biblically.
For example, later on this week I’m going to have the privilege of being out on the East Coast at Baptist Bible College where I went to school. I’m going to be preaching in their College Chapel Bible Conference. I’m looking forward to that, but I’m sure it will remind me of a lot of things I did that weren’t so smart back at that time of my life. One of them was when I was a sophomore, I had just gotten a car. I took it back for my sophomore year and my sister who’s 10 months younger than me was a freshman at school. We’re from Indiana and we were going to school in northeast Pennsylvania, 700 miles away. We got out there in August and we had not been home until Thanksgiving.
It’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and we’re fired up about getting back home and being with our family, being with our church family, and all that sort of thing. Frankly, I was driving pretty fast. We were on one of those roads out in eastern Pennsylvania that was an interstate on a mountain where the bank was so steep that when you looked over the guardrail you didn’t see land, you saw air. We’re driving down one of those interstates at a high rate of speed, and I’m driving, my sister’s sitting right next to me. I said to her, “Hey, I’m getting a little tired, you want to switch drivers?”
Now everybody understands what that means, right? I’m not talking about pulling the car over and stopping and then switching drivers. That would take way too much time. I was talking about switching drivers while we’re driving. I had done that with my college roommate a bunch of times, and it all worked fine. The way it works—you’re driving at a high rate of speed and then the person who you’re going to switch with moves over close to you, and then it gets a little tricky. That person has to get up on your lap and when they get up on your lap they have to take control of the wheel. The person underneath is still operating the pedals, and then you slide the person underneath over to the right and then the new person takes up on the pedals. We’re doing that and it was working out fine, until right at the center part of the transition, we hit a bump.
And all of a sudden her knee smacked the steering wheel and immediately turned us into a spin. We actually spun three complete times around. On the third time, we slammed into the guardrail. By God’s grace, we didn’t go over. Instead, we were flung back out into the interstate—going perpendicular against the two lanes. Our car died, which was really bad because there was a couple of semis who were trailing us. Now, by God’s grace, they were able to actually get their semis stop before they plowed into us. They actually came to help us and one guy was really mad. I didn’t have the presence of mind to lie about what had happened, and so I told him what we were doing and he could not believe what a goof I was. But anyway, now I got this car and believe it or not, I could still drive it. I drove it home all dented up. I had three problems. I had some engine problems. I had some transmission problems. And then I had a ton of body work.
Here’s the point of this: It would have been very unwise for me to take that car to one guy and expect him to handle those three kinds of problems. You can’t have a generalist work on a car that’s in that condition. You need an engine guy to deal with the engine stuff. You need a transmission guy to deal with the transmission stuff. You need a body guy to deal with the body stuff. It’s a multi-faceted problem and I’m suggesting that exact same thing is true of our past—it’s true for mine, it’s true for yours, it’s true for all of our counselees. It is a multi-faceted problem and we need to learn to categorize the various events in our counselee’s past and then apply the appropriate principles—just like the transmission guys going to take his transmission principles on the transmission. You’re going to apply the appropriate biblical principles to the appropriate aspects of a person’s past.
So we’ve got to ask some clarifying questions. Here are the two clarifying questions that I think are most helpful for us.
Was the event that we’re talking about initiated by our own sin, or by the sin of a particular person, or simply the pain of living in a sin-cursed world? In other words, are we talking about sinning or are we talking about suffering? Are we talking about your guilty past or are we talking about your innocent past? God’s Word has plenty to say on both sides of that ledger, but to cross the principles can be very confusing for our counselees.
The second clarifying question, regardless of how they would answer the first, is how did you respond? If it was a matter of somebody sinning against you, how did you respond? That’s a different category. If it was a matter of you sinning, how did you respond to that? I would suggest to you that we can now organize a person’s past in what you might want to call four different buckets.
Thinking about the events from our past from four different perspectives. In what occurred, you were either innocent or you were guilty. And you also responded either poorly or you responded well. Our four buckets are these:
1. Innocent past where you responded well
2. Innocent past where you responded poorly
3. Guilty past where you responded well
4. Guilty past where you responded poorly
I realize there’s a lot of information. Now we’ll take some biblical examples and sort them into these different buckets.
In bucket number one, we can place the Apostle Paul with his thorn in the flesh from 2 Corinthians 12. Everything we know from 2 Corinthians 12 tells us that he did not do something sinful that brought that thorn in the flesh on, but the way he responded to it from everything we know in Scripture was very well. He prayed, he asked God to remove it. God chose not to remove it, but instead to let that be an occasion where he could learn about His sufficient grace, and Paul went on to say, “I would rather glory in my infirmities if the power of God would rest on me in a new and fresh way.” As far as we know and Paul handled that particular aspect of what became his past very well.
In bucket number 2, we can place Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. She had an innocent past. In other words, she did not bring her trials on, but she certainly did not respond to them like Paul did. Naomi, her husband, and their two sons leave Bethlehem because of a famine, and they go to Moab. During that time the two sons marry Moabite women and then the father and the sons die. There was a crucial point in Ruth 1 where Naomi looks at her two daughters-in-law and says, “Go back to your family and to their gods.” That’s an incredible statement of unbelief. One of the daughters-in-law actually does that. But Ruth says, “No, I won’t do that. Your people are going to be my people and your God is going to be my God.”
As that story goes on, they get back to Bethlehem—the House of Bread, the place that they had left during a famine—and the women of the city ask, “Aren’t you Naomi?” Why would they ask that? Because if a person has been bitter long enough, it’ll change the way they look. Next, Naomi said, “Don’t call me Naomi, call me Mara [the Hebrew word for bitter]. I went out full and I’ve come back empty.” Who was standing right next to her? This godly daughter-in-law who is going to be used by God to bring about incredible provision for her family.
Some of our counselees think they’re in bucket number one, when in fact they’re in bucket number 2. If we confuse that, we’re never going to help them put their past in its place.
In bucket number 3, we can place Zacchaeus. He was a wicked man, but when he was confronted with the truth of the gospel, he placed his faith in Jesus Christ right away, and he was ready to make restitution.
In bucket number 4, we can place Achan from Joshua 7. He sinned and when he was confronted with it, sinned some more.
There’s nothing inspired about that conceptualization. What I’m trying to do is to develop a biblical theology of the past. You might say, “Hey, I think there ought to be six buckets.” Well, God bless you—develop them send them to me and I’ll use them too. It’s not like this is the end all, I’m just trying to develop a simple biblical theology about this, but you could organize this in different ways.
Helping Your Counselees
Now, let’s talk about helping persons like that. We’ll go through each one of the buckets and begin thinking about how to help.
We’ll start with bucket number one. With persons who had an innocent past where they responded well, they need authentic suffering. What does authentic suffering look like? Certainly this, honestly acknowledge what’s happening around you, to you, and in you. Psalm 73 is a great example, and I would encourage you to read the words of Asaph, a man who is suffering authentically. Those are the words of a man who is learning to suffer well.
Cry out to God as you suffer. Psalm 61 is one of my favorite counseling passages. It says, “Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” The reason some of us never learn what it is for God to be our Rock in that kind of an authentic way, is because we’re not willing to take the steps earlier in the text. I can’t get to God as the Rock who is higher than I, unless I’m willing to cry out to Him. “Hear my cry, O God.” If I’m not willing to cry out to God, if I’m not willing to acknowledge how overwhelmed I feel, how overwhelmed my heart is, then I’m not suffering well. I’m not suffering authentically. And it’s highly likely that I’m failing to understand and learn what it means for God to be my Rock.
Seek comfort in God, in His Word, and in His people. Another great text on comfort and suffering is 2 Corinthians 1. Comfort means co-fortitude: finding strength in the body. Finding strength in my brothers and sisters. Finding strength in people who will hold my arms up in prayer, and hold my arms up in counseling, and hold my arms up as I try to continue to walk through this episode of suffering in a way that would honor the Lord. If I’m not going to be authentic about what’s going on, if I’m not going to be honest about what I’m experiencing, then I’m not going to suffer well.
I’m not saying that we’re going to walk back through every episode of suffering with our counselees, but if there is something that is particularly troubling to them, we may have to work back through that event and talk about what authentic suffering should have looked like then, and what it can look like now.
Now, we’ll switch gears and think about those with an innocent past who responded poorly. I actually put this conceptualization up on my little white board that I use in counseling and try to help folks assign particular events to particular buckets. At some point this requires the wisdom of Solomon, this requires the power of the Holy Spirit, it requires guidance, because this is a very tender point, especially when you’re working with people who are suffering. At some point, we at least have to ask the question, “How did you respond?”
You’re not a passive victim, you are an active worshipper. The way you respond to being sinned against reveals the identity of your functional God. We have to bring the power of the gospel here, but that requires a person doing what I think we could call humble analysis. It’s not just authentic suffering, but it’s also asking some important questions—not taking responsibility for what was done to me, but taking responsibility for what I did next.
For example, did you return evil for evil? You’re not responsible for the evil that was done to you. But if you responded in an evil fashion, that has to be addressed with the sufficient blood of Christ. Forgiveness may need to be requested, even of the person who was evil to you first. The excuse, “Well they started it,” doesn’t hold water. That does not justify anything that I did in response that was evil. I’ve got to empty the bucket of my past of choices like that.
Or did you develop bitterness toward God? Again, we saw this illustrated in the Ruth and Naomi story, when Naomi says, “Don’t call me Naomi, call me Mara.” And how many persons come to see us for counseling, and the fact of the matter is they’re bitter. They’re bitter at God. They’re bitter at other people in their life. If a person’s been bitter long enough, you can start to tell it or at least suspect it on their face. You cannot cover that up, unless we’re going to cover it with the shed blood of Christ. Ephesians 4:31-32 says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Some of our counselees—maybe many—are stuck in the past in a particular way because they were sinned against, but they responded in a way that developed bitterness. Here’s another one. Did you develop an unbiblical view of people?
I grew up in Gary, Indiana, which was a melting pot of a number of races. There was a ton of racial tension, especially back in the 50s through the 70s when I was growing up. The way my family got to Gary was my grandfather had been a coal miner down in southwest Virginia. He and my grandma grew up in southwest Virginia. In order to find work at 40 years old my grandfather takes his family to northwest Indiana to work in the steel mills. I’ve always respected my grandfather for being willing to do that—doing whatever it took to feed his family. He was working midnights. My grandmother was a Southerner, so she’s showing Southern hospitality to all kinds of people up and down her street—teaching them how to cook, sharing the produce of her garden. One night of my grandfather was at work, a man of another nationality broke into their home and pistol-whipped my grandmother.
Now what was very interesting to me, even though I was a kid watching this unfold, was even though my grandmother was from the South, I had never heard her make a racial slur before that event, and I never heard her make a racial slur after that event.
Praise God for my grandmother who had the spiritual power to be able to do that. Many times when a person is abused in the past by another individual, they develop an unbiblical view of all people.
“All men are like that.” “All women are like that.” “All white people are like that.” “All black people are like that.”
That wrong view of people then becomes the grid through which we make decisions about how we’re going to treat individuals in that same category today. That is lying to ourselves and that has to be addressed. I have to do humble analysis of how I responded.
Did you develop an unbiblical view of yourself? Some people have grown up in homes where they are being told all sorts of wrong things. “You’re stupid. You’re dumb. You’re not going to amount to anything.” This is a hard statement, but I believe at some point when you get to a certain age you have to start choosing to think biblically about yourself, even if that dramatically contradicts what other people have said about you.
For example, I grew up in a home where my father was not a believer. He’s a moral man, he loved his family, but he was not a believer. When I told him that I thought God wanted me to be a pastor as a senior in high school, here’s exactly what he said: “You’d be wasting your life if you became a pastor.” Not long after that, I announced to him that I thought God wanted me to go to a Bible College. He said, “You’d be a fool if you went to Bible College, and if you do so you’re on your own.”
Those were powerful words said to me at age 18, and I had to decide whether I was going to let what my father was saying about my identity become the way I thought about myself and my future, or whether I going to choose to think about myself through the lens of the Word of God. I wasn’t responsible for what was said, but I was responsible for what I did with what was said.
Did you confront the abuser if appropriate? These kind of situations have to be handled on a case-by-case basis. This is why wise individual counseling is so important. Sometimes in order to help a person put the past in its place, we’re going to have to go with that person and actually confront a person who may have abused them, in some cases long ago.
If you did confront them, and if they did request forgiveness, have you been willing to practice biblical forgiveness?
A number of people have been sinned against in some particular way and they’re still stuck. I realize I’m just reviewing biblical theology of which many of you are familiar. Do you realize many of our counselees have never heard these kind of things? That’s what I love about being a biblical counselor—you get to be the mailman and deliver truth that some people have never heard. And through the power of the gospel, they could be freed from these kinds of events that have plagued them for so long.
What do I do with bucket number 3? What do I do with the guilty past, where I appear to have handled it well? This is a time to practice joyful remembrance. I realize you might say, “Wait, why do we even have to have bucket number 3?”
Here’s one reason. It’s for those who say, “I did something really dumb. I asked God’s forgiveness, but I don’t feel forgiven.” There it’s time to say to a person, “It’s not a matter of how you feel. It’s a matter of whether or not you’re going to take God at His Word that if we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
It’s not a matter of if I feel forgiven, it’s a matter of choosing to believe God’s promise to forgive me the moment I ask His forgiveness. There’s also the issue of wallowing around, where I sinned and I asked forgiveness of God and the appropriate people, but then I relive that event over and over, saying “I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe I did that.” That’s a very short walk to, “I can’t believe a wonderful person like me did that.”
After you’ve asked forgiveness for the way that you sinned, it’s not time to be looking around at who might know, it’s not time to be looking inside, it’s time to look up. It’s time to take a front row seat in theology class and be amazed at the grace of our Savior who was willing to forgive us, even when we sin. Don’t think about the sin over and over, think about your Savior.
A joyful remembrance, isn’t that what we do in communion? “Do this in remembrance of me.” Believe God’s promise to forgive and avoid the tendency to wallow in past sins. Rejoice in your union with Christ’s resurrection. You have been raised to a new life in Him—preach the gospel to yourself instead of doubting His willingness to forgive or wallowing in your own sin.
Let’s think about the last bucket—helping those with a guilty past who responded poorly. This is the easiest one of all, but with some folks you have to be pretty tough with them. That’s when it’s time to practice honest self-confrontation. These are the kind of individuals who sinned in the past, and now they have been covering it up and blaming it on others, and they need someone to be honest with them. They need someone to speak truth to them, mirrored with the power of forgiveness and grace held out. “He who covers a sin shall not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). With honest self-confrontation you confess your sin right away.
For those of you who are doing biblical counseling already, don’t you love it when you’re working with a person or a couple who confess sin for the first time in their memory?
How many married people have you heard say, “I’ve never heard my husband ever admit he’s wrong.” “My wife has never asked my forgiveness.”
And they are so cold, it’s like ice in that room. But then on the day when God breaks through and His Word breaks through, and you see that man finally look at his wife and say, “Honey, I sinned against you. I was wrong. It was my fault. I own that. Would you please forgive me?”
Welcome to break through time. And then that same man looks to heaven and cries out for forgiveness from his Heavenly Father. Then many times, that wife is now going from ice queen to melting right there in the room, and she does the exact same thing as she begins owning some of the ways that she has sinned. She confesses that to God and to her husband. Then you have the beautiful oil of forgiveness because of the sufficient blood of Christ.
Make restitution right away, and then bask in the joy of God’s forgiveness.
I want to encourage you that God’s Word suggests the past is a powerful thing. It’s not all bad—it can be powerfully good, but it can be powerfully bad. And so the challenge here is to organize our past and organize the past of our counselees into biblical categories and then plug the appropriate truth from Scripture into each one of the appropriate categories.