West Valley Church AM 1/17/16
Forget the Former (No Regret, part 2) Two weeks ago I preached a message on how to deal with regret – about overcoming guilt and regret, and finding the freedom that forgiveness brings to our lives – both the forgiveness from God of our sins, and the forgiveness from ourselves of the things we regret. I’ve received a great deal of comments about that message from many of you. Some of you were greatly encouraged by the hope that it gave you; others had questions or comments about how to actually do it, or what comes next. I’m so glad that it struck a chord with so many of you, because I believe that way too many of us are stuck tied to the past, and we are living far below the spiritual poverty level because we are being kept from moving forward into the future that God has for us. I know – I’ve spent too much time there myself, stuck with regret, spending so much time going nowhere because I was looking back at what I wish was different instead of forgiving myself and moving forward in faith. God gives us grace for the past – for sins and mistakes, for guilt and regret. But we keep going back there, or keep committing those same sins or mistakes, so we live our spiritual lives in a constant state of low-level grace. God has grace for you that is more than just forgiveness for the past; God’s grace wants to take you into the future, to great heights with him. So I thought I would follow up today with a few more comments about that. For some of us, things are going pretty good and the coming year looks bright. For many of us, we are at a difficult place where the perspective isn’t all that great. But regardless of our situation, there is a positive perspective that each of us can have that is more than just optimism or wishful thinking. There is a great future for you – for every one of us – a future that is a reality; it is real. Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it’s not real; it is real - it’s just not yet. It is God’s reality. And it’s His intention that you—that each of us—would be able to move forward into it. But as long as we remain chained to the past, we can’t walk into God’s future. God sent His Son to die on a cross to set you free so that you could walk into your abundant future. Remember that we said that freedom comes in forgiveness; that forgiveness of guilt and sin is what God grants to us, and forgiveness of regret we have to grant to ourselves. There have been some powerful things going on here the last two weeks as we sought forgiveness and as we covenanted to walk with God this year. I sensed that God was working in some of your lives, and there were a great many powerful spiritual things taking place. I have heard from some of you that God really spoke to you about getting past your past. Several of you asked me if it really is possible to forgive yourself. The answer is yes, you can. But it does take time. God forgives us in an instant, but for us to forgive ourselves it usually takes time. So I want to follow up on what we learned before and give us the challenge, as well as the tools, to move us forward to what lies ahead. Remember what the Apostle Paul said in Philippians 3:13: “Brothers…this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what is ahead. I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14, niv)
To move ahead, we need to forget the past, and that means we need to ask God to forgive us and we need to forgive ourselves. Now, we all realize forgiveness is important to our spiritual, emotional, and even physical wellbeing. But you may not realize that it is a biblical command to forgive both others AND ourselves. And if we don’t obey it—if we don’t forgive ourselves or others—it can have dangerous results in our lives. So first, the Bible tells us to…
1. Stop Being an Over the Shoulder Beholder In other words, quit looking behind you. Whatever it is you may have done in the past, or whatever may have been done to you in the past, quit dwelling on your past. Stop living there. Dr. Fred Luskin is director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project. He has spent years studying the need for, the process of, and the health of, forgiveness and self-forgiveness. He has scientifically documented the effect that anger, guilt and regret have on our lives. If you Google him, you can find loads of articles and YouTube lectures and interviews that he’s done. I’m not sure that he would say he’s a Christian, but he has discovered biblical principals of forgiveness. Guilt and regret are dangerous to ourselves as well as those around us. For one thing, his research has shown that misery loves company. Dr. Luskin says, “If you keep beating yourself up, then the person who tries to love you is going to get beat up too.” What he is saying is that anyone who is wallowing in guilt or regret is going to be withdrawn, critical, and less open than a healthy person would be. So if you can’t forgive yourself, then whoever is around you – your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, even your dog – they are all going to suffer because of your miserable attitude. Your unforgiveness will spill over and spew on them. You know, the mind affects the body in a million different interconnected ways. Dr. Luskin’s research has proven that those guilty or angry feelings that you are nurturing are creating chemicals that are headed straight to your vital organs. They increase your heart rate, they raise your blood pressure, they disrupt your digestion, they tense your muscles, they dump cholesterol into your bloodstream, and they reduce your ability to think clearly. Every time you remember a bad past event and you wince, it gives your body a fresh dose of those corrosive chemicals. So those who cannot forgive themselves (or others, for that matter) are far more likely to suffer heart attacks, high blood pressure, migraines, ulcers, depression, and a host of other illnesses. Do you see why God commands us to forgive: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:13, esv) Listen: when God tells us something, it is always for our own good as well as the greater good of others. So even if you only take the evidence I just gave you, you can understand why it is so important to God that you forgive and quit looking back. Look at these examples from the Bible: In Genesis there is an account of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were two very wicked cities. One righteous family lived in those twin cities, and that was Lot’s family. Now God had judged those evil cities and determined that He was going to destroy them with a cataclysmic supernatural disaster of fire and brimstone. But Lot’s family didn’t deserve it, so God sent angels to get them out ahead of time. Among some other things that happened, the angels warned Lot’s family:
“Flee for your lives! Don’t look back and don’t stop anywhere on the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!” (Genesis 19:17, niv) Do you remember the story? Lot’s wife didn’t obey the warning; she looked back. And in so doing, she was frozen as a pillar of salt. And to this day, if you are traveling near the Dead Sea area where this happened, there are numerous grotesque salt pillars that remind us of the cost of looking back. There’s another example from God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt in the book of Exodus. The Jews cried out to God for deliverance of over 400 years of captivity and slavery. God heard their cries, and he raised up Moses to lead them out. After powerful and incredible miracle after miracle that overcame the Egyptian government and oppression, Pharaoh allowed the Jews their freedom. But no sooner than that, the Jews began to look back. At the edge of the Red Sea, the people began to complain that they wanted to go back to the past. And God told them in essence, “Stop crying out to me and start moving forward!” See, God is all about deliverance and moving ahead. Faith faces forward! Faith moves out of the slavery of guilt and regret and moves forward into the future. But the Israelites couldn’t seem to move on, in spite of all of God’s miracles. Later, after they crossed the Red Sea while it parted in front of them (they didn’t even get their shoes wet), they were miraculously on their way to God’s promise of a lush and abundant life in a wonderful new land. But they still complained and wanted to stay in the past; they claimed they liked life better back there. They seemed to forget they were slaves. Finally, because they refused to let go of the past and move forward, an entire generation of them had to die out before God could fulfill His promise. And it could be that God’s promises for you and for your life will have to be fulfilled in your children because you won’t let go of your past. God’s promises are intended for you, you know. But you have to let go and get free from your past so you can get into God’s future. Let’s look at what Jesus taught us about this issue. Jesus was calling people to be His followers, just like He does you and me. One man said He wanted to follow Jesus, but he wanted to first go back and say goodbye. He wanted to hang on to his past for a little while longer: “‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:61-62, niv) In other words, you’re no good moving forward if you keep looking backward. It’s like trying to drive forward in your car while you spend your time looking in the rearview mirror. You are only going to crash into something. You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep rereading the last one. That’s why, when talking about how to live until the end times, Jesus said: “No one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife!” (Luke 17:31-32, niv) I think you are getting the picture; you must quit looking behind you, you must let go of the past. You can’t change the past, and neither do you have to let it dictate your future. That’s why God plainly tells you: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a NEW thing!” (Isaiah 43:18-19, niv) He goes on to tell them “I’m making your future a fruitful place!” Hopefully you get the idea that what we’re talking about is not just some psychological suggestion, some kind of therapeutic 4
theology. God commands forgiveness, and for good reason. So to help you do what we talked about last week, I want to help you learn how to:
2. Practice Follow Through Forgiveness I’ve had enough questions from you that we need to address this. Remember Dr. Luskin that I mentioned earlier? He says that “forgiveness is the tool with which we face what we’ve done in the past, acknowledge our mistakes, and move on. It does not mean that you condone or excuse what happened. It does not mean that you forget.” Then, quoting Ecclesiastes chapter three, he goes on to say, “There is a saying, ‘For everything there is a season.’ Well, there’s a season for our suffering and regret. We have to have that. But the season ends, the world moves on. And we need to move on with it.” Once we’ve made the choice to forgive ourselves, though, it’s not like flipping a switch; most of the time we can’t just walk away. Forgiveness takes time and is something we must practice. It really is follow-through forgiveness; something you have to continue to appropriate in our lives if you are going to fully forgive yourself. Luskin’s research has found several practical steps that we can practice in order to forgive ourselves. I’ve aligned them with Biblical principles, starting with the need to:
Reprogram …our minds, or the way we think, and the way you do that is through the Word of God. When you’ve lived with guilt and regret, it taints how you see everything. You have gotten used to that way of thinking. If you were a computer, you could say that regretful thinking is like a virus that has infected your operating system. What you need to do is reprogram the way you think, and that is why God has given you His Word. Through regular input from the Bible, your way of thinking and your life will become reprogrammed with the truth about God’s forgiveness, instead of the tainted lies that you have been telling yourself. By the way, the enemy of your soul is Satan, and he’s been continually playing those tapes in your mind too. But God’s Word is Truth; it overcomes the lies you’ve believed, and it reprograms you correctly. God says in his Word: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.” (Romans 12:1-2, tmt) Let me give you an example: It’s highly possible that your self-blame has led you to believe that you are a failure; to say to yourself, “I can’t succeed in any new thing.” Then you read the Bible and it says: “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength…” (Philippians 4:13, niv) One of you is wrong; is it you, or is it God’s Word? Do you see? Any forward movement in self-forgiveness has to start with reprogramming. The next step then goes right along with that, which is to:
Respond, not React Here’s what I mean by that: your old way of thinking, your feelings of failure because of sin or regrets, come naturally to you; you do it without thinking. You simply react. It’s your default. So the self-condemnation comes quickly and easily to you. You don’t like it, but you’ve come to believe it so it’s your first reaction. But instead of that programmed reaction, you need to choose to respond, which means you stop and think about what you are doing, and take the time to recognize that wrong thinking, consider where it is coming from, and then choose a different self-response. Your first reaction is probably not the best, at least not until you’ve fully changed your programming. And remember I mentioned this before – it’s not just you that is giving yourself wrong information. It’s your enemy, the devil, too, that is constantly giving you bad information. Revelation 12:10-11 says that the devil is the accuser, who accuses you day and night. That’s because the devil wants to keep you pinned to the past, where you are an ineffective Christian. But Revelation 12 goes on to say: “They (that’s Christ’s followers) gained the victory over him (the devil) on account of the blood of the Lamb and the word of their witness. Love for their own lives didn’t make them afraid to die.” (Revelation 12:11, ceb) That says that you overcome the devil and his lies by 1) the blood of the Lamb, which is through Christ’s work on the cross for you, (God’s forgiveness) and 2) by the Word of your testimony, which is what you have to say, meaning whether your talk and self-talk is consistent with God’s Word, and 3) by not living selfishly but allowing your life to align with God’s Word. So don’t default react with the same old lies; respond: stop, think, and act according to God’s Word, not according to your first reaction, which is the old way. The next step is to:
Resist Ruminating Dr. Luskin points out that replaying what you did over and over again in your head isn’t going to help you. It just makes you feel bad. So every time you feel yourself ruminating on your regret, stop and refocus on something positive. That’s why the Bible instructs us this way: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - - think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9, niv) Dr. Luskin calls it PERT – “Positive Emotion Refocusing Technique,” but the Bible calls it prayer and meditating on the Word of God. Next is:
Reconcile and Restitute If your regret comes from something you did to someone else, or from something you didn’t do for someone but should have, then if at all possible, seek to reconcile with that person. That takes away a major reason for you to beat yourself up.
That’s what Jesus tells us to do. He says: “This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.” (Matthew 5:23-26) That includes making any kind of restitution necessary. If you’ve stolen, pay it back. If your actions resulted in some kind of loss, pay it back. Now, the relationship may not be restored to what it used to be; the other person may not choose to forgive you. But at least you know you have done all you can do to make it right, which allows you to move on. That’s why God’s Word says: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18, niv, italics added) I realize that it might be impossible to completely reconcile; perhaps it’s been a long time and the other person involved has passed away. Perhaps your regrets are over not loving a spouse or relative appropriately and now they are gone. Or your last words to that person were something you regret, or weren’t what you wish you would have said. So what do you do? Maybe you can make restitution to their nearest relative. Or maybe you can offer a “guilt offering” to your church. I’m not kidding about that. God doesn’t require it of you, but it might help you move forward. Hear me: you don’t need to give a guilt offering to receive God’s forgiveness, but it might help you gain your own forgiveness. Maybe a donation to that person’s favorite charity, or volunteer your time with some worthy cause, like here at your church or for Love, Inc., or the Union Gospel Mission. Lastly, take every opportunity to:
Recall …God’s blessings. This will really help you to put things into perspective. King David set the example in Psalms 77:11 – “I will remember the deeds of the Lord, yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.” Later the Psalmist says, “I will meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.” (vs. 12) Like the old chorus says, “Count your blessings, name them one by one, count your blessings see what God has done. So amid the conflict, whether great or small, do not be discouraged, God is over all.” Practice these steps over and over again. And each day, you will walk in more and more freedom, released from the guilt and regret of the past by God’s forgiveness and your own. You cannot be content to live and die chained to the past by guilt and regret. Two weeks ago, many of you were convinced how necessary this is; and there is no doubt that it was a major battle for you, and still is. Follow through on it, put it into practice. But that’s only part way. At the same time, you must turn:
3. Face your Future and Follow it!
Again, God has provided his Word to help you reprogram. He says: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11, niv) God has an incredible future for you, greater than you can imagine. In fact, in two places – one in the Old Testament and one in the New, the Bible says: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9, Isaiah 64:4) There are two important elements to your ability to walk into that future, and the first is:
What you can see (facts). This is why that last step in self forgiveness is so important; to recall the facts of God’s blessings. Consider the facts; look at how God has been and is working in your life. Even if right now things appear to be discouraging, look at what God has already done. King David, who walked into God’s future for himself, said during a difficult time, “My soul is downcast within me, therefore I will remember You.” (Psalm 42:6, niv) In another place he said: “My spirit grows faint within me, my heart within me is dismayed. So remember the days of long ago, I meditate on all your works, and consider what your hands have done.” (Psalm 143:4-5, niv) Instead of looking back at the bad, remind yourself of God’s blessings in the past. So look at what you can see (facts), then you can look at:
What you can’t see (faith). You have incredible promises in God’s Word to guide you, but if you are going to walk into God’s future for your life this year, you are going to have to decide whether you believe God’s promises or not – even if you can’t see them yet. That is faith. The Bible defines faith this way: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1, niv) Faith is more than believing. It’s one thing to say you believe, but real faith is when you believe enough to act on it. The Bible says: “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions?” (James 2:14, nlt) The Bible goes on to say: “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” (James 2:17, nlt) It’s not alive, it’s not moving. Real faith steps out, real faith acts on it, even if it can’t be seen yet. That’s exactly why in the Bible Abraham is a hero; he took what he could see about God 8
and then he acted on what he could not see. (Hebrews 11:8-12) So go forward confident that what God sees is what’s true. It’s time for you to get past the past; it’s time for you to accept God’s forgiveness, start forgiving yourself, then start walking into living the life that God has for you. Forget about the former – face your future!