Linda W. Perkins

Releasing the Ghosts of the Past - July 25, 2016

I hadn’t looked at my high school yearbooks in years. There was no need. That was then. This is now. I had moved on. Or so I thought.

As I reached up into the living room cabinet and took one down, I could feel the memories flooding back. Opening the cover, I could hear the spine crackling, as if the book was an ancient artifact, fragile from years of storage.

I felt a sense of dread come over me. Sure, there were some good times back then, but buried in that book were memories that haunted me right down to the core of my soul. These were not just a few bad moments. These were the kinds of ghosts that I had spent years trying to exorcise from my mind, the kinds that would keep me locked up in a prison of guilt and shame, remorse and regret.

There, in the pages of that yearbook, were reminders that my life had spun out of control that year. As I tried to deal with my teenage insecurities, I groped my way through life as in a dark tunnel…feeling my way around, not knowing where I was going. I was lost, and stumbled over and over again. One mistake led to another, and the consequences began to add up. On the outside, I was a bubbly cheerleader on her way to a bright future in college and beyond. Inside, I was a wreck.

I was led down the path of recollection by accident. A classmate had died, prompting me to think of other people I had known and cared about, and wondered where they were now. As I flipped through page after page of pictures and notes, I was saw the younger versions of people I still see on Facebook, who now have kids of their own.

I felt sad that I didn’t know many of them very well. I had been too caught up in my own mess of a life to share in their happy times with friends and family. I also felt sad about the one we had just lost. That was a big surprise to us all. Fit, happy, and the nicest guy you’d ever meet, we couldn’t imagine he would be one of the first to go.

But then I remembered. There was one who had left us long before now. She could have been me. Bubbly on the outside, but dying on the inside. Her mistakes caught up with her before she could stop the permanent damage. I was lucky. I too had run away from God, but He had caught up with me early on and I was willing to turn around while I still could.

As my eyes welled up in tears, remembering all that had transpired, I found a way to be grateful. I was grateful for my husband, who knew my past but welcomed me as his wife despite it; and I was grateful for the classmates who knew me before that last year or two. They knew me for long enough, well enough, to see and believe that I was not just the sum of my mistakes. They somehow found a way to see the good in me, even when I couldn’t see it in myself. For all that I was not, when they wrote in my yearbook, they still called me “friend.” Today, I was included in an email group whose title included the word “family.” Wow.

So often, it is easy to get so caught up with where we have been in the past that we have a hard time looking forward, an attitude that is referred to as “living in the rear view mirror.” For some of us, it’s about shame. We hold onto the pain of our mistakes, or of things done to us by others, and it is as if we are wearing a scarlet letter. We fear of being judged, and so we back away from anyone who might draw close. We are lonely, and yet we live in a prison of self-isolation. We are bound by the ghost of guilt.

For others, it isn’t the failures of the past, but the remembrance of joys we used to have that are holding us back. Perhaps we experienced great success in life, but an illness or other life situation has stripped away our freedom. When we live in the past, we allow bitterness to grow in our hearts and we are unable to take joy in what we have today. Our anger – over that which we can no longer do – fuels our self-pity. We are haunted by the ghost of resentment, chained to an attitude of unhappiness.

Perhaps you are struggling with ghosts of the past but don’t know what to do. You are not alone.

In the Bible, the spiritual life is often compared to training for a race. In Hebrews 12, we are told to strip off anything that holds us back. We can’t run if we are bound in shackles! And while that analogy is typically applied to sin in our lives that can weigh us down and prevent us from becoming all that God wants us to be, it is also applied to our past. God makes it clear – we can’t move forward if we are driving with our eyes focused in the rear view mirror!

When Moses released the Israelites from captivity in Egypt, he was trying to get them to the Promised Land. What continued to hold them back was their lack of faith in God’s promise for the future. When they took their eyes off the Lord, and focused instead on their fear and frustration, even their prior years of slavery looked good to them. They would grumble, stop and stagnate. In the end, it took them 40 years to go just 240 miles!

In another biblical example, God rescued Lot and his family from the sin-infested cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, before he destroyed them. The instructions were clear: don’t look back! And yet, Lot’s wife, unable to let go of the past, just had to turn around and take another look at what she was leaving behind. In an instant, she became a pillar of salt.

Letting go of the past is not easy. In fact, in one translation of Philippians 13:3, Paul says he strains toward what lies ahead. That implies effort. We can’t just stuff our feelings under the rug and hope they go away. We have to deal with the pain, grieve our loss, and make a conscious choice to move beyond it. We can do that best when we follow some simple guidelines set out in the Bible.

  1. Pray. Philippians 4:6 says not to worry, but rather to pray about everything. Tell God your needs. He hears your hurts. He can feel your fears. Don’t be afraid to be honest. He is there for you, anywhere and anytime.

  2. Cast Your Cares. Psalm 55:22 says that when you cast your cares on the Lord, He will sustain you. When you turn over your burdens, and “let go and let God,” there is healing in your heart. If there is shame, you can find forgiveness. If there is blame, you can forgive, knowing that God will be the ultimate judge and avenger of wrongs. And if there is anger, you can pray for peace and acceptance. As mama says, “there’s no use crying over spilled milk.” Let God take his big paper towels and clean up the mess. That’s His job. It’s your job to let Him do it.

  3. Trust in God’s Promises. Faith is believing what we cannot see. And yet, that’s what it takes to move on. Faith means we accept that all things – even our biggest mistakes and our greatest hurts – work towards our good (Romans 8:28). Faith also means believing that our past doesn’t define us, and that God has good plans for us (Jeremiah 29:11) in the future. And faith means choosing to believe in God’s very big, unconditional love for us (John 3:16) that can wash over our past, our present and our future…into eternity itself.

  4. Stay Focused on Him – By releasing the ghosts of the past, you have room in your heart for the Holy Spirit to fully dwell. Your past or even present struggles don’t just disappear, but you no longer have to focus on them. When your focus is on Jesus and the future He has promised you, that anger, shame and fear has no hold on you anymore. Instead, you can look confidently at the future with His peace, love and joy.

Are you haunted by ghosts from your past? Pray about the burdens you are carrying, and lay them at Jesus’ feet. Believe in God’s promises and be healed from your grief!

Releasing the Ghosts of the Past