I was juggling housework and a very energetic two-year-old yesterday morning when the phone rang. My friend on the other end, also dealing with a little one, had called with a very specific question about suffering and sin. As I’ve mulled it over, I decided to address her question publicly (with her permission).
She asked me, “Is it sinful to live in the past, even when the past wasn’t a result of poor choices but difficult circumstances not of our choosing?”
It’s a loaded question, really, and I told my friend that. When you dig into the root issues, you’re talking about God’s sovereignty and the problem of evil which are not easily explained in one blog post. And yet, there are some passages of Scripture that came to mind immediately when I considered whether or not it was sinful to dwell on a past marked by suffering. Specifically, I thought of Job and the apostle Paul.
If you’ve read my writing for very long, you know that I frequently address the topic of suffering. In one calendar year, we experienced a nearly failed adoption, the death of my grandmother, my persistent struggle with chronic illnesses, and my mother’s brain tumor and subsequent brain surgery. Because I’m a writer, I wrote about these difficulties as a way to both process and find hope. I shared them with you to help you connect the sufferings of your own life to what is true about God as revealed in Scripture. It’s the primary reason I write: to remind you to let Scripture inform your suffering, not the other way around. So often we work backwards, letting our circumstances dictate what is true about the character of God, which aids only in making God in our own image. What I hope to accomplish with my writing, speaking, and music is to point you to the Word of God first so that you can rightly view your hardships through a biblical lens that explains how God can be good, even in our suffering. Essentially, let’s let God tell us who He is. That said, I believe there are two thoughts to bear in mind when we consider our past sufferings.
The Past Can Serve Us
My years of living with chronic pain and infertility are the vehicles I use to tell the story about God’s kindness and sovereignty, but they are just that: vehicles. The main story I tell is the one about God that comes from His Word, and the truth of the gospel must pierce every part of my testimony or else I’m just a resounding gong bemoaning the hard things that have happened to me. I’m not that unique; hard things happen to everyone. So, here is where I believe that my past experiences can serve as a place of ministry. When I stand at a podium and talk about how difficult it was to rock a baby to sleep every night for months without knowing if I could keep him, I share the ways my heart felt like broken shards of glass so that I can highlight how the faithfulness of God put all those pieces back together. When I write about the years that I cried out to the Lord for healing because of the disastrous effects of physical pain, I do so to explain how the Lord’s presence and the ministry of His Word persevered me through even the darkest nights of body and soul. The past experiences are merely the touch points for liberally handing out the greatest comfort, which is the truth of God’s unchanging, purposeful nature as seen in Scripture.
“…for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstance I have learned the secret of being content–whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
I want to be able to say with Paul that I’ve learned contentment in every circumstance. I’m not there yet by a long shot, but with each round of small sufferings I’ve learned that when contentment is found in Christ, then the treasure is not so much the end of specific sufferings but rather His constancy in the midst of them. He is the treasure. In this way, our sufferings serve us as ways to recount God’s past faithfulness to us. You see this pattern in Scripture frequently. The psalmists often structured their songs about suffering by beginning with despair and ending in praise. How did they make this shift? The key is that they nearly always called to mind the past faithfulness of God in order to believe in His future faithfulness. The Psalms are rich with a beautifully relatable pattern of panicking about circumstances, lamenting what has happened, remembering God’s past faithfulness, and resolving to trust Him because of that past faithfulness. I don’t believe the psalmists are “living in the past,” but rather, are allowing the constancy of God’s goodness in the past help them to persevere through present and future sufferings.
The act of remembering God’s past faithfulness is one of the recurring themes of Scripture I’ve noticed in my Bible reading over the past few years, and I believe the practice is meant to remind us who God is as we are bent toward disbelief. Or, in the case of suffering or hardships, we’re bent to let those things tell us what is true about God. Remembering God’s past faithfulness must be done by knowing Him as He’s revealed Himself to us in Scripture and looking for the ways He’s kept His Word in our past difficulties. In this way, I believe we can safely allow our past hurts to highlight God’s goodness to us and give us a place of ministry to those who are currently suffering. It’s incredibly important to keep God as the hero of His story and yours to prevent what I believe can be the sinful aspect of “living in the past.”
The Past Can Enslave Us
There is nothing more annoying than listening to someone recount all the ways they’re victimized by their circumstances. Our culture feeds this self-entitled worldview by liberally spooning out the lies that we are basically good and therefore undeserving of anything bad that happens to us, even the consequences of poor or sinful choices. Here again, we must let Scripture inform the way we think about even the most basic of truths about humanity: the heart is desperately wicked and there is no one who is good or who seeks God (Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 3:10-12).
Sometimes we suffer at the hands of our own sinfulness or at the hands of others. Sometimes we suffer because of our commitment to Christ. And sometimes we suffer and never know why. It is this last one that my friend was addressing in her question. Suffering that seems arbitrary is hard to swallow. I think of Job, who never knew what was behind the catastrophes that shattered his life. And yet, I am thankful for the account of Job’s suffering in Scripture because we are taught how to process suffering that we cannot understand or categorize.
The Job replied to the Lord: “I know that You can do anything and no plan of Yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this who conceals My counsel with ignorance?’ Surely I spoke about things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know…Therefore I take back my words and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-3, 6)
What was most comforting to Job in the end was not the cessation of his suffering but the strong, bold statements about the character of God–His wisdom, His authority, His universal sovereignty, even and especially in Job’s suffering. I wouldn’t say that Job “lived in his past,” but he let his experiences serve as a vehicle to grapple with what was true about God.
“Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead. I pursue as my goal the prize promised by Go’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. Therefore, all who are mature should think this way.” (Philippians 3:12-15a)
Paul suffered a lot for his relentless preaching of the gospel, but I don’t see him as a victim of his past. Rather, I see a man who recounts them as a way to talk about the prize of pursuing Christ wholeheartedly. He presses forward for the treasure of Jesus, for maturity in the faith, for a citizenship anchored in heaven. The difference between living as a victim of your circumstances and rejoicing in them is again viewing God as the hero of the story. When we prop up ourselves as the heroes of our own stories, we count our sufferings as undeserved and unjust which puts us at odds with both God’s position of authority and sovereignty. Rather, I believe we should recognize that whatever God allows into our lives has first been filtered through fingers that are threading together a tapestry of redemption that we cannot fathom. Our sufferings may seem arbitrary at times, but what we don’t see is the way God may use them to display the power of the gospel to a watching a world. Avoiding self-victimization begins with trusting a good, sovereign God with our suffering. Maturity grows from the recognition that we’ve been taken hold of by Christ, not our sufferings.
Remembering God’s Faithfulness or Recounting My Miseries?
As people of the cross, the challenge lies in recounting God’s faithfulness in our past, rather than dwelling on how we felt about our suffering. Like most of our struggles as sojourners longing for our better country, we must challenge our feelings with the truth of Scripture. We miss the ways God has worked things for our good when we dwell on our miseries rather than His good purposes.We miss the ways God has worked things for our good when we dwell on our miseries rather than His good purposes. Click To Tweet
So is it sinful to live in the past? It can be if we allow ourselves to be enslaved to a victim mentality. In so doing, we miss the way our past sufferings can serve as a rich palette for painting a picture of the Scriptural truths about God’s unending, faithful goodness to us. But we must first endeavor to see Him as both the treasure and the hero of our past, present, and future.
Recommended reading: Future Grace: the Purifying Power of the Promises of God by John Piper