Hung up on the past?

One of the stereotypes about counselors is that we are obsessed with the past, or to put it positively, that we believe there’s something to be gained from retrospective, reflection, and storytelling. I think, in actuality, that many counselors are very much interested in the present, and sometimes the future, too. But I can’t deny that I’ve seen people find relief and also grow by talking about painful things from the past. 

This involves a whole lot more than venting, though sometimes people do seem to need to get things off their chest. Yet for Christians, there’s something powerful that happens when a story over time starts to sound like a testimony. It doesn’t mean making sad things into happy things. As the Bible says, it’s not good to sing happy songs to a heavy heart (Prov 25:20), and we always call good good and evil evil (Isa 5:20). It doesn’t sound real when we tidy up the story prematurely.

But the story does change over time in the telling, as we see God’s redemption, as he restores years that the locusts have eaten up (Joel 2:25). Or, we might say that we see God’s goodness when he turns the devil’s work on its head, and wrings good out of evil’s hands, when against all odds he forces things to work out for good (Rom 8:28). I like to think of this testimony-building process as taking up the pieces of shattered life, like broken glass, and working them into a stained glass picture that is so beautiful when the light shines through it. 

One of my former seminary professors, Vern Poythress, recently made a book of his available for free online, Redeeming Our Thinking about History: A God-Centered Approach (Crossway, 2022). And though he isn’t mostly talking about personal history-making, it’s relevant to what I’m getting at. The story is never complete, as we tell it. It’s always partial and incomplete in this life. We also don’t always see things tied up in a bow or resolved. Sometimes the testimony is of finding refuge while the storm is still going, and maybe not living long enough to see the storm end. Yet even here the storytelling matters, as we testify of what we see of the redemption and sustaining grace, even as we see through a glass darkly, and we know in part and speak in part. 

As David Powlison used to say, the goal in working through our many sufferings and struggles is not mostly a work of introspection, but extrospection–to see outward, to see and to love God and others. 

Much of what we hear about heaven in the Bible comes to us in pictures and metaphors, things that are hard to put into words that God has prepared–that no eye has seen, nor ear has heard, nor heart imagined. Perhaps God’s promise is less that we will know in fullness all the mysteries of this life or the next, but that the most important things are clear–that it will be a true homecoming, that we will never be more at home here than we will be there–that it everything may not even then be clear in the way that God knows it–what we are, or were, or will be. Except this much will be clear, that when we see him, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). 

Knowing how the story ends makes a difference for understanding all the details along the way. It does not magically illuminate the mysteries and dark times, but it does give a lamp for our feet and a light to our path. To know the past, in wisdom, points us to the future, and frees us to engage the present.

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