It can be easy to live in the past instead of focusing on the here and now. How many times have you replayed a decision or event over and over in your head, wondering if a different choice might have prevented a bad thing from happening, or given you the outcome you wanted? I’ve definitely done that before.
But living in the past is no way to live out today. It’s easy to play the “if only” game, Relevant contributor Rebekah Bell notes, but it’s not healthy. In her article, Stop Wondering What ‘Might Have Been,’ she gives us three important reasons why:
1. It causes discontentment. “We sometimes assume different circumstances would lead to more desirable outcomes,” Rebekah says, “but our perfect fantasies always omit the hardest realities.” When we play that mind game, we believe the lie that our hope is only in our circumstances, rather than in the God who pours meaning and significance into our lives, regardless of our situation.
2. It causes us to focus on the past rather than the present. Focusing too much on the past can keep us permanently stuck there, Rebekah cautions. Rather than spending too much time replaying how things ought to have gone, it’s much more fruitful to give our past over to God and allow Him to transform our present. “Let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,” the author of Hebrews wisely instructs. We can’t run for any stretch of time with the weight of our past on our shoulders. “Rather than replaying past scenarios in our minds and wishing we could create alternate outcomes, we should move into the future knowing our failures never determine our futures,” says Rebekah.
3. It can prevent us from fully trusting God. When we live in the past, we’re so focused on our own choices and actions that we fail to see how God is at work regardless of our dead ends and detours.
Whenever I need an example of how God used a horrible situation for someone’s good, I just think of Joseph. Sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and later imprisoned for a false crime, he was forgotten for a time by everyone who had the power to release him. If anyone had reason to live in the past, it was Joseph (I can imagine him thinking, “Why did I tell my brothers about my dreams!”). And yet, when Joseph was finally reunited with the brothers who has betrayed him, he had these words to say: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20). Joseph saw God’s providential hand on his past and present, and knew that even in a horrible situation, God had his best interests at heart.
Crosswalk contributor Debra Fileta echoes these thoughts in her article, 3 Keys to Contentment. “The enemy wants to use our past to fill us with regrets, doubts, and hopelessness, because he knows that this kind of guilt will keep us paralyzed. But God’s voice takes our should-have, could-have, and would-have’s, and invites us to live for the hope of the future, rather than to wallow in the regrets of the past.”
Another Crosswalk contributor, Cliff Young, shares how he learned to let go of the “what-ifs” after his brother died from cancer and his engagement to his fiancée was broken. “We can choose to live in the past, try to ‘make things right or fair’ (or at least understandable and justifiable in our own minds), and fight for ‘our way,’ or we can accept the outcome as part of God’s plan and look for opportunities within our ‘new normal.’”
So- what things in your past are you replaying over and over? What do you need to let go of and trust God in for the outcome? Learn to live in the present as Paul did, by forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead (Phil. 3:13).
Kelly Givens is the editor of iBelieve.com.