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!