LETTING GO OF YOUR PAINFUL PAST
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Neil Armstrong was the first man to set his foot on the moon, but long before that momentous event he was a dreamer. As early as age 2 he fell in love with airplanes, and for the rest of his life that was a focus for him. He made model planes as a child, and at age 14 he got a job at a small airport. He worked 22 hours to earn the 9 dollars he needed for one flying lesson. One day a 20 year old friend, who was also taking lessons, crashed in a field and Neil ran to help him out of the cockpit. He died in Neil's arms.
This was a challenge to the dream of his life. That night his mother came into his room and saw Neil with an old Sunday School notebook with a picture of Jesus on the cover. It was next to his model airplane. "What have you decided about flying?" she asked. He said, "With God's help I must go on flying." He went on to fulfill his dream even beyond his expectations. But he had to get beyond this painful experience to fulfill his dream.
There are no end to the painful experiences that become obstacles to the fulfilling of our dreams. Millions know the story of Joni Eareckson Toda, who as a teenager broke her neck in a diving accident. She became paralyzed and felt her life was over. Had she been able to do so she would have taken her own life. Her dreams were over, and she was forced to live a nightmare. But as you know, she has had a world wide ministry to the handicapped and to all of us by movies, books, songs, radio, and by art. She is one of the most creative people on the planet even though severely handicapped. She had to let go of a terribly painful past in order to be used of God, but she did it, and she proclaims to the handicapped of the world, "God's grace can overflow from a half-broken cup."
Some are broken in body, but others are broken in their spirit, and the cause for it is more directly related to their sinful behavior. This was the case with the Prodigal Son and his older brother. We don't think of the older brother as prodigal, because the word so clearly describes the younger brother who went off and wasted his fortune in riotous living. The extravagant wasteful use of resources is what a prodigal does. The older brother did the same thing in a different way. He wasted his fortune by not using it and enjoying it. He wasted his resources more like the miser, but the fact is, both boys blew it and created a painful past they had to let go of, or they would be enslaved to it.
The younger son created his painful past by rebellion, and the older son by resentment. These two barriers hold back millions of people from fulfilling God's dream for their life. But there is a third person in the story also with a painful past to overcome and that is the father. He had two boys who turned his hair gray prematurely. We don't know where his wife was, for she is not mentioned, and so he was likely a widower who had to raise these boys on his own. In the parable he represents God, and so we can assume he was a good father. He did not abuse his boys and treat them unfairly. He gave them love and all that adequate wealth could provide. But still they were both a pain in the neck and all parts lower. Here was a father who had the painful past of regret for the way his two boys turned out.
This text is very appropriate for looking at barriers that hold us back, for most of the barriers that create a painful past are like those in the parable. They are family related, and includes such things as broken families, dysfunctional families, parental abuse, parental conflict, sibling feuds, rebellion and resentment. There are literally millions in our culture and churches that have a painful past to overcome because of these factors in their lives. Some will break free and dream again, but others will be bound by their past. The goal is to be among those who break the barriers that hold them back and dare to dream again. This is in easy task for those who have a traumatic experience like the pastor who told this pathetic tale.
His father had been a politician and they lived in a large house and had everything, but no real family life. As a teen he came home late one night and heard a splash in the swimming pool. He went to see what it was, and he found his mother at the bottom of the pool. She had tied some of his barbells around her neck and thrown herself in seeking to take her own life. He was able to rescue her and call for help. Her life was spared, but he did not feel like a hero. His father said to him, "If you hadn't left your barbells out, this wouldn't have happened." Dad threw the responsibility onto him, and he had to fight his way through this load of guilt to get on with his own dream. He did it, but many do not. The pain hurt so bad that they become slaves to it and never break free.
The older brother of the Prodigal is an example of one who could not break free. He was so resentful of his younger brother that the logic of his father could not penetrate his heart. It was hardened by his bitter resentment that the younger brother was still loved by the father even after he lived the life of a fool. He represents the Pharisees who resented Jesus for loving the lost and sinful Gentiles. They were the good guys, but Jesus loved the bad guys too, and they despised Him for it. They could not break free from this self-erected prison of resentment.
This parable reveals that the family, which is the best thing God ever gave to mankind for their pleasure, is the key tool Satan uses for producing pain in the world. You have so much conflict between parents and children, and between the children themselves. Then you if go into the extended family and include the family of God, you have the arena where most of the pains of our past originate. Listen to the list that David Mains gives in his book Never Too Late To Dream.
A split of close friend within a church.
The failure of a spiritual leader you trusted.
Betrayal by a Christian friend you went to for help.
An experience where you tried your best to serve, but failed.
Embarrassment by a harsh authority figure.
Criticism from class members you were teaching.
Having your best efforts sabotaged by a ruling board.
Being left for another by your mate.
Horrible memories of childhood abuse.
The Christian who has never been hurt by family, friends, or church leaders has led a charmed life. One of the leaders of the seminar I went to told of his sister who was hurt in church, and now never goes to church. She has been a Christian for years, but she is missing out on God's best because she is letting a painful past bind her. The world is full of Christians like this who are imprisoned by the past.
One of the reasons the Bible is full of the sins of its heroes is for this very reason-that God's people can see the past does not need to bind them. Moses blew it and became a murderer. He had to flee Egypt, but God dared him to dream again, and led him back to take his people out of Egypt. David blew it and fell into the sin of adultery and murder, but God led him to repent and to dare to dream again, and we now sing the praises of God by means of the Psalms of David.
The Prodigal is even a better example for he is a nobody. He doesn't even have a name. He is not a king or a leader in the community. He is just another kid on the block, and an average Joe. He blew it big time, but he had the good sense to dare to dream again, and he broke through the barrier of his painful past and got back into a life of pleasure with his father. He felt alienated from his family, and as out of place as a salmon in the Sahara, but he soon learned the problem was not dad after all. It was himself. When he finally told himself the truth that he was loved by his father, and that he had it made at home, he swallowed his pride and went back.
The paradox is, it is the kid who ran from home and blew it who ends up reconciled to his father, and the kid who stays home legalistically doing everything right ends up out of fellowship with the father. The bottom line is this: Get right with your father and you can break through the barrier of your painful past. This principle applies to a great deal more than just father and child conflicts.
Dr. Neil T. Anderson, the leading authority on Christians in bondage to a painful past, uses this principle in many situations. In his book Victory Over The Darkness he tells of counseling a couple who were active leaders in the church. They were in his office 2 minutes and he was already thinking they were hopeless. He could tell by their bitterness toward each other that he could not save their marriage. So he persuaded them to each just try to get away alone for a retreat where they could listen to his tapes on who we are in Christ. Each was to go their own way and reflect on their identity as Christians. They did it, and like hundreds of others of his clients they got right with their heavenly Father. They were then in a state where they could deal with other broken relationships. This marriage was saved and harmony was restored.
Dr. Anderson wrote, "This couple discovered that getting right with each other began with getting right with God. In getting right with God always begins with settling once for all the issue that God is your loving Father, and you are His accepted child." This is the essence of all of his excellent writing dealing with every kind of bondage. Get right with God and tell yourself the truth about how the Gospel applies to you. If the Gospel is true for you, and you are reconciled to God, then you have no business being kept in bondage to any sinful past. "If the Son shall make you free you shall be free indeed." The only thing that keeps a child of God in bondage is their own unbelief. The Prodigal said, "I'm a child of my father. I am not worthy and I'll tell him so, but I am going home." He did just that and gave the world another happy ending to a tragic story of human folly.
He could have spent the rest of his miserable life in the pig pen feeling shame and guilt, but he didn't do it. He dared to dream again, and he left the slop behind. Many a child of God gets locked into a pattern of going nowhere because they won't move on. Janette George, who played the role of Corrie Ten Boom in the movie The Hiding Place wrote a fascinating book called Travel Tips From A Reluctant Traveler. She tells of a Christian friend who went to every godly speaker who came to town. She made decision after decision for Christ. She wore herself out trying to be born again.
Finally Janette got sick of her complaining that nothing worked. She said to her, "Your trouble isn't a lack of salvation, its a lack of knowledge. Stop struggling for birth. You're born! Start growing up!" She held her breath as she awaited her friends response. Her friend just said that you may be right. In the next year she grew like a well-watered flower. She broke out of that bondage of a vicious circle of trying to feel something, and get on with her life by believing God's Word rather than her feelings.
Feelings are wonderful, but they can also be terrible when they are under the control of a painful experience. Dan and Cindy were a fine young couple preparing for ministry on the mission field. Then tragedy struck when Cindy was raped. The event tore the couple up inside. They moved away from the community where it happened, but Cindy could not break free from that past event. Six months after the rape they attended a church conference where Dr. Neil Anderson was speaking. Cindy came to him in tears and said, "I just can't get over this thing. I know God can turn everything into good, but how is He going to do that?" He told her that God will work for good, but He does not make a bad thing good. The good is coming through a bad crisis and becoming a better and wiser person for it.
Cindy responded, "But I can't separate myself from my experience. I am a rape victim, and will be so the rest of my life." Anderson said, "No, you are a child of God. The evil does not change your identity. You are a child of God and your tragedy does not change that." That is where healing begins. The second step after you establish who you are is forgiveness. This is a vital but complex step. Part of the problem is quoting texts that do not fit the situation. The Bible is loaded with the commands to forgive. The problem is, if the rapist does not repent and seek forgiveness for his evil, even God does not forgive him. So how are we to rise to a higher level and say, "Okay God, you won't do it, but here I go-I forgive the man that raped me." How superficial, for you are saying in the back of your mind, "I hope God never forgives and that he burns in hell for his wickedness."
Simply telling Christians they have to forgive terrible offenders only produces guilt and hypocrites. If she had a chance to put the guy behind bars, it would be a Christian obligation to do so. So what in the world does forgiveness mean? I haven't read anyone who has dealt with the subject to my satisfaction, and so I am sharing with you the best that I have learned from Scripture. Forgiveness in this situation means letting go of the past in the sense of relinquishing your right to revenge. It means saying to God, "I let go of this sinner and leave him in your hands. He may get by this evil in this life and never pay. I'll not grieve over this injustice, but leave him to your final judgement. I will refuse to let his evil dominate my mind or my time. I let go and move on to live my life for you, and make this only a memory."
You are not saying its okay, and I'll just forget it and never press charges if I find the man. You are just saying that you are letting go. If you hold on to it, it will dominate your life and you will be in bondage to his evil. If you cast this burden on Jesus, you will be free of it. Until you do you will be in bondage to your past, and not free in Christ. If you are holding on to any sort of revenge and desire to get even, you are hurting yourself, and you are still in their power. No matter what you are a victim of you need to let go of that painful past in order to move on to dream again.
Dr. Anderson writes, "In time you will be able to think about the people who offended you without feeling hurt, anger or resentment." If you still do after a long time, you have not let go, and it is no longer they who are your enemies, but you are holding yourself in bondage. Now you are adding your own sin to theirs, and you are a curse to yourself. You are a prisoner of your own jail. You have the key, but you won't let yourself go free. Dr. Anderson who has counseled thousands says that 95% of the people he has dealt with put down father and mother as the two people they have to forgive most.
What a tragic world it is where life's greatest enemies are parents and children. But facts are facts, and Christians need to deal with it. Forgive your parents and let go the pain they inflicted. If you don't, you will likely be as bad or even worse to your own children. Those who hold to the pain keep on feeling it, and then they keep on inflicting it. Abused children become abusive parents. Alcoholic parents produce alcoholic children. The vicious cycle can only be broken if somebody lets go.
The father in the parable of the Prodigal is the ideal example of letting go. If anybody had good reason to hold on and resent the past, it was him. He had been a good father, and yet his rebel son rejected his love and guidance, and he went off to waste what the father had labored so hard to provide. You talk about painful experiences. What parent would not be devastated by such rejection and rebellion? And yet, when his rebel son walked back into his life, he let go of that painful past as quickly as he would let go of a red hot iron.
The father did not say, "You hurt me so deeply son. It's going to take months of counseling and family therapy before I can accept you again." He just wrapped his arms around him and kissed him. If he felt embarrassed because the neighbors would all be talking about his rebel son, he let it go. If he grieved because all his love and care did not change his sons rebellion, he let it go. If he resented being taken advantage of, and his resources being used to promote evil in the world, he let it go. He let go all the negative and painful emotions of the past. He broke into the world of the positive immediately. It was the world of forgiveness, reconciliation, and celebration. He refused to let the painful past rob him of one more minute of his life. The father and the Prodigal both let go, and they are the heroes of the parable.
The elder brother held on to his painful past, and he became the fool who made his own life miserable, and added pain to the rest of the family. People who do not let go of their own painful past are the people who make life hard for others. There are millions of Christians in bondage to their past, and they are a pain themselves and to other believers. That is why the first step to a victorious Christian life is to let go of your painful past. Dr. Anderson has learned that this often takes a lot of patience and guidance, but he also has learned that it can happen instantly if Christians will believe God's Word and accept the completed work of Christ for them. Jesus died for all sin, and all sin can be forgiven and cleansed. All of life's negative experiences can be overcome, and peace with God and men can be achieved. Every Christians is either a pleasure or a pain in the body of Christ, and the key factor that makes the difference is letting go of a painful past.