A seventy-five-year-old man wanted to talk about his past, especially his childhood and early teen years, because his past felt so present. Like many of us, he wanted to be less controlled by his past and jettison its haunting episodes.
Scripture does help us with our painful pasts, but it does more than that. It tells us to forget things we want to remember and remember things we are likely to forget. Consider what Paul says in Philippians.
But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:13–14)
In the verses just before these, Paul gives us a succinct autobiography that is intended to shape our own. True to form, Paul puts a curious twist on his story. He begins not by recounting his failures and sins but rather by remembering his successes. He essentially says, “I was born into the right tribe, and I did all the right things. My resume is, in fact, quite impressive.” Paul’s story also includes being the “worst of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15), but in this retelling he identifies something that is even more important—he had a growing reputation before he came to Jesus, and he liked it. He had, in short, trusted in his successes.
It raises some obvious questions. What good things were we trusting in before we knew Jesus? Where did we rest for personal reputation? Was there any accomplishment or personal characteristic in which you took special pride? These questions shape the first part of our story. One reason they are worth identifying is that those props to our identity probably still linger. They were ways that we were (and still are) looking for righteousness in ourselves.
It is this “good” history that Paul forcibly discards from his memory. It turns out that he was talking about past sins, but they were located more in his good deeds than bad.
If we continue to follow Scripture on forgetting the past, we learn that whereas Paul wants us to forget our past achievements, Peter wants us to not forget our past forgiveness of sins.
For whoever lacks these qualities [the fruits of the Spirit] is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. (2 Peter 1:9)
Here too we might be taken by surprise. Peter asks if we have stalled in our spiritual growth due to hard times. Have we cooled in our passion for Christ, our love for brothers and sisters, or our battle with unwieldy desires? Peter is not asking us to consider past hurts or regrets; at least he isn’t focusing on such things in this passage. Instead, if we are not looking like transformed people in the present, Peter says that we should consider that everything changed when we were forgiven in Christ.
We have forgotten, Peter says, the very foundation of life. It is not so much that we still feel guilty for past sins; it is that we are indifferent to the cleansing and regenerating work of Jesus.
Scripture does speak to the past pain, shame, and regret that the seventy-five-year-old man experiences, but it also offers an unexpected way forward. As we consider Scripture’s broader teaching about our pasts, it includes not just leaving behind the bad experiences, it also tells us to forget our good deeds and exhorts us to remember past forgiveness as a way to be growing today.