Closing Chapters – Living free from the past (part 3 of 4)

To confidently, hopefully walk into a new year we need to wrap up the previous year. In the previous two posts we considers why to Close a life chapter and how to Ground our past experience in the presence and providence of God, breeding security and grace for the years to come.

Most people who get stuck in some past life cycle find their hearts and minds dwell on unresolved disappointing or painful situations. In this post we will focus on finding freedom from negative experiences in the past year.

Release and Own (dealing with disappointments and pain)

After a challenging year, settling your heart requires us to reflect on the disappointing and painful moments.  Ignoring these negative emotions will not make them magically disappear.  These negative emotions are like panel lights on an alarm or dashboard, inviting us to resolve the situation: “What happened?  How did it make you feel?  Why?”

a. Own your share – stop the blame game!

Domenichino, The Rebuke of Adam and Eve, Italian, 1581 – 1641, 1626, oil on canvas, Patrons’ Permanent Fund

Our human nature tends to first look to others to assign guilt for our disappointment and pain.  We see it in Adam and Eve’s replies after the Lord called them out of hiding in fear in shame.

Genesis 3:11-13  “God said: Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

In most cases, we are partially responsible for our own disappointments and pain. Own it!

We struggle to admit and own our (small) contribution to our loss and suffering.  But NOT OWNING UP prevents us from growth, because denying mistakes presumes perfection. Denying my contribution to my pain makes me a victim in this situation, rendering me powerless in similar future events.  Such denial prevents growth and might lead to a devastating cycle of relational breakdown, workplace conflict, financial failure or whatever resulted from this crisis.  In contrast, ownership of my (small) contribution in this situation allows me to take responsibility and control for my own life, spurring growth through this pain.

David demonstrated beautiful humility and great confidence in God’s mercy after his grave sins.  He confessed and pleaded: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned… cleanse me… wash me… create in me a clean heart, renew my spirit… my joy!” (Psalm 51:3-4).  By taking responsibility for his own sins, David’s life chapter was closed, preparing a clean slate for his future with room for growth. Indeed, “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)

b. Forgive the debt – Release it!

Forgiveness is the most critical action required to let go of the past and close a life chapter properly. The inability (or unwillingness) to forgive an offender is the number one reason why people are stuck in the past, poisoned in anger and bitterness which displaces all their peace and joy from life.  The natural response to being hurt, being wronged.  These strong emotions caused by insults and injustice do not simply fade away.  In the words of Amanda Palmer, you must “deal with your demons, or they will move into the cellar of your soul and lift weights.” 

Paul also articulated this urgency to deal with hurts and offences before they overtake you when addressing the culturally divided Ephesian church. “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”  Note how Paul does not condemn anger when you are hurt but instead gives a proper response to the justified emotions: urgently deal with the pain and passion in the presence of God, and follow Christ’s example to relinquish all rights to vengeance. 

Andy Stanley helps to clarify the sometimes fuzzy concept of forgiveness in practical terms.  Forgiveness means to clear the debt someone owes you (see Matthew 18:21-33).

Therefore, to properly close a life chapter and forgive someone who hurt you in this season, he prescribes the following:

  • State who wronged you.  For every painful experience, name the person(s) who hurt you or took something from you. This is often someone very close to you, or at times it might even be God or yourself you need to forgive.
  • What debt does he/she owe you?  Articulating what debt is owed is often the most challenging part in the process of forgiveness.  The anger and pain are caused by an (often subconscious) awareness of loss. But to be set someone free, you must be able to say from which debt you set them free.  What have you suffered or lost because of this offence?  Was it money, time (with someone), opportunities, innocence, confidence, or a type of life you could no longer have perhaps?

A question that might help with this is “What/who/where would I have been if he/she/they did not do this to me?”  Imagine this, see the life that was lost, and allow the mourning to flood your heart.  Describe the loss in words or images.

  • Declare him/her/them free of that debt. Forgiveness is a decision and declaration to clear the debt of an offender. In no way does forgiveness justify what was done; forgiveness means you forgo the right to claim back what was stolen (from someone who generally cannot replace what was taken). 

To be set free from anger and bitterness, one often has to verbalise who you forgive and for what you forgive him/her/them. It might help to make this declaration in the presence of a trusted friend as witness.  Rarely do you need to go to the offender(s) and say this to them.  The goal of forgiveness is to make you free from the grudge and hurt you carry, which is the root of your anger and bitterness.

Since forgiveness is an action following a decision to clear a debt owed, you don’t have to feel that you forgive them beforehand – you simply need to decide it and do it.  Emotions will follow your decision.  Even after you have declared the offender(s) free from the wrong he/she/they caused you, the emotions might occasionally flare up.  Then you simply remind yourself that you have cleared that debt in the way Christ has cleared your debt, and ask the Lord to fill your heart with peace and love.  This healing might take time, but the Spirit of Christ will fill our hearts with love and peace (Romans 5:5). 

Over the years I have seen that knowing about forgiveness and actually forgiving someone are two different things. Take the time today to review your year, own your own part in your pain, and forgive the other for how you have been wronged. You will taste the freedom soon!

Closing Chapters: Wrapping up 2020 (part 1 of 4)

2020 was a surprisingly rough year.  It still is.  How do you muster hope and confidence for a new year after one so tumultuous as this?

From discovering a new Coronavirus strain far away in Wuhan City, China, 12 months ago a global pandemic culminated in the simultaneous lockdown of more than 200 countries just six months later. The lockdowns confined people to their homes, shutting down schools, businesses and all social gatherings.  Governments banned all travel, calling for a state of disaster, restricting countries under martial law.  And now a second wave is in full swing.

The global pandemic pressure exposed the fault lines in vulnerable economies, politics, and social fibres worldwide.  Newsfeeds flooded with reports of large-scale corruption, election rigging, racial tension and wild conspiracy theories.    These compounding disruptions also highlighted the vulnerabilities in societies’ emotional-spiritual wellness, resulting in heightened anxieties, widespread domestic violence and unhealthy coping mechanisms.  No-one escaped the sting of this pandemic.

At several moments during this year, I hoped for someone to call an end to the year, to reset the calendar and start afresh.  I waited for some referee to recognize our fatigue, to throw in the towel or count us out.  At long last, the year is over, but now the entrance into 2021 looks very similar to the exit of 2020.  The difference is: (a) now we know what to expect, and (b) 2020 has had a significant physical, emotional and spiritual impact on each of us.  For that reason, many of us face the new year with a sense of dread.  

Why bother with the past ?

There is a need to properly wrap up the old year and bring meaning to a particular season before starting afresh.  Failure to conclude a life chapter can cause one to get stuck in a destructive cycle.  Trying to move on with unresolved disappointments, hurts, trauma or even blind spots and character flaws will likely cause one to live reactively to past events.  The past will repeat itself like a bad nightmare. There has to be some resolve, some closure before your story can continue in a new chapter.

Biblical books at the end of seasons

It is noteworthy to consider that all the history books in the Bible – from Genesis to Ester in the OT and the Gospels to Acts in the NT – were recorded at critical moments in God’s people’s history.  These records are not merely cold recordings of history.  Each history book is a prophetic reinterpretation of the events God’s people went through, written to help make sense of God’s redemptive purposes through these periods.  It aims to affirm the first readers’ identity and purpose as God’s covenant people.  As such, each of these books is a means to “close a chapter” in a particular people’s history, giving God’s people resolve to move on, helping them understand why they had to endure this.  

What is a life chapter?

Consider every memorable story, and you will conclude that hard times shaped the character and beautify his/her account. Samuel anointed David to be king, but many difficult chapters fill the years before becoming Israel’s beloved king. Yet his story is memorable because these middle chapters tell of familial rejection, battle with a giant, fleeing a vengeful monarch, harsh years in exile, uniting a divided Israel, and later attempted patricide and exile again, to name a few highlights.  God’s journey with him through valleys of shadows of death makes his story beautiful and inspirational.

God promised Joseph prominence and power, and the fulfilment thereof was beyond his wildest imagination.  His story brings encouragement 3800 years later because God’s promise prevailed despite familial betrayal, enslavement, wrongful imprisonment, and neglect of a companion. In particular, his story endures because he could look his brothers loving in the eyes and declare “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20) That is why and how you close a life chapter: make sense of a season to affirm your identity and purpose in the light of God’s presence and providence.

A life chapter brings a conclusion to a season characterized in some unique way.  Some chapters close naturally, like when you progress from primary school to high school or graduate from college or end an internship.  Other life chapters might require help to resolve, due to an unfair dismissal from work, an abrupt end to a long relationship, or a sudden relocating with the family.  Especially after a season of hardship, we struggle to move on because these tend to impact us emotionally and spiritually – leaving lasting scars on our identity (affecting our self-view), relationships and confidence (impacting our purpose and potential).  Such seasons have the power to hold us back or alter the course of our lives – for the good or the bad.  As such, reflection and resolve is paramount. Closing life chapters means making memories and finding meaning in it. Our challenge is to do a personal, prophetic reinterpretation of our experience to discern God’s presence and work in, through and for us.  In particular, it affirms our identity, reforms our relationships and refines our purpose in life. 

How do we properly close life chapters?

We say that “experience makes us wiser.”  But observation tells us that this is not true.  Experience often leaves us poorer, tired, hurt, or lonely. If we’re lucky, experience leaves us happy, enriched or loved.  We tend to repeat past mistakes, suffering the same painful results – unless we intentionally reflect and learn from our experience.  A more accurate statement reads, “evaluated experience makes us wiser.” 

In her book Rooted in Love Margaret Blackie sketches her life as a plant rooted in rich soil. The plant symbolizes her life, flourishing. The roots seek security and nourishment in the fertile soil. The ground, enriched by the processed plant matter, represents reflected past experiences.  Together, this image powerfully portrays how our lives flourish when anchored and nourished by our awareness of God’s presence and purpose with our everyday lives.  Therefore, closing a life chapter aims to root us securely in the rich soil of the previous season, ready to bloom in the next season.

We close the chapter on 2020 by making a memory and find its meaning in the light of our life’s trajectory as a whole.  First, we look back to review the highs and lows of the year.  Second, we look up to recognize and give thanks for God’s goodness in the past season.  Third, we reflect on the losses, hurts and disappointments by look inward; we own our share in the pain and release those who caused us harm.  Lastly, we look forward as we revision the next leg our of our journey with hope.  We will work through each of these points in subsequent blog posts.

So what do you expect to take with you out of 2020? You might be surprised at the insights and hopeful energy gained from such a reflection.

Connection Beyond Fear

Post by guest writer Joanne Eksteen.

I was recently reminded of someone that had lost a child and a parent in a short time. I was deeply struck by it and carefully wondered how something so tragic is processed by the psyche. Perhaps I could unpack it somehow. Instead I ended up asking God “why?’. That age old question. Why are we able to deeply connect with people if that connection can be lost so easily? It hurts and can be devastating. What’s the point? Why bother? The prospect of connection suddenly scared me. I have often seen how that fear prevents people from connecting vulnerably with others. How even in marriage, individuals are hurt and withdraw into simple friendships with their spouses.

A couple of days later I came across this photo on Facebook.


I felt God saying: “This is why…” I heard in my heart that without human connection, without relationship, life would be a fearful endeavour harder than what we would be able to imagine. It is a gift not only to enjoy but also to comfort us. It can be seen as an extension of God’s relationship with us and in many ways His hand at times. The process of connecting is so enriching, rewarding and supportive that it also creates in us, I believe, resilience. The ability to ‘bounce back’ after a challenge or hard time as an individual and as a couple. As a married person this is what one should hope for.

Because connecting with another human being puts us at risk of being hurt, pain from previous relationships in the form of loss, rejection, death, divorce or really anything else, can often stand in the way of deeply connecting with your spouse. It can stand in the way of trust and being able to give of yourself fully. Unresolved anger towards an ‘ex-partner’ or even parent or colleague may make you defensive and unable to be vulnerable with your spouse. Unforgiveness may have made your heart hard and therefore unable to connect. Shame may make you feel like you are unworthy and you may withdraw into a friendship with your spouse (a place where you may feel safe but where you miss out on the resilience, support and reward described above).

Often the answer is simple: forgiveness. In fact in most cases it is forgiveness. It is understanding that human beings including yourself are fallible but that God can heal and restore anything. Christ’s blood was shed for that very purpose. It is putting our faith in Him and not in her. It is a decision and then a process. You can learn to trust again. It may take time. It starts with an open discussion about that which you may have buried. It will probably be hard and uncomfortable but it WILL BE WORTH IT!

For reflection 

To help you grow in deeper connection with your spouse, discuss the following questions 

  1. Discuss the win your groups how previous relationships may be hindering the process of connecting with your spouse.
  2. Have you ‘shut’ anyone one out in your life promising yourself to never let that person or anyone else hurt you again? What do you feel towards that person? Have you forgiven them? Can you forgive them?
  3. Do you see yourself as worthy enough for your partner? Are you ashamed of anything?
  4. What do you think about self-forgiveness?  Is there anything you struggle to forgive yourself for?

*Bold words are themes to be discussed in this session (you don’t have to ask these exact questions)

Post and reflection questions by Joanne Eksteen.  Joanne is wife, a mother and a clinical psychologist with a passion to help people grow in healthy identity and relationships.