Forgetting Those Things Which Are Behind


A newspaper editor, speaking to a college graduating class, asked, “How many of you have ever sawed wood? Let’s see your hands.”

Many hands went up.

Then he asked, “How many of you have ever sawed sawdust?”

No hands went up.

“Of course, you can’t saw sawdust!” he exclaimed. “It’s already sawed! And it’s the same with the past. When you start worrying about things that are over and done with, you’re merely trying to saw sawdust.”

Too many people make themselves miserable by dwelling needlessly on their past failures and mistakes. They lie awake at night agonizing over the mistakes they have made and what they should have done. Almost everyone occasionally does thoughtless, impulsive things that bring unpleasant consequences. Almost everyone occasionally misses golden opportunities through apathy or oversight. Almost everyone may be occasionally selfish or unkind.

We cannot help feeling despair over such occasions, but we should not feel as if we ought to be exiled from the human race simply because of them. In fact, mistakes are not only an acceptable part of life, but they may even be beneficial. The intelligent use of our mistakes helps us learn and grow; past failures may be guideposts to future successes. But our failures and mistakes can be constructive only if we analyze them, gain what profit we can from them, and then forget them.

Paul wrote, “… this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before.” (Philip. 3:13.) Many other people have recognized the fact that sometimes one of the best things we can do with the past is to forget it.

Will Rogers undoubtedly had this in mind when he said, “Never let yesterday use up too much of today.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson advised: “Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt creep in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense.”

Paul’s advice to forget those things which are past is psychologically sound. There are at least three ways in which dwelling on past failures and mistakes may be harmful to our personal adjustment and mental health.

1. Our sorrows, regrets, and anxieties may become so great that they get out of hand and interfere with successful daily living. For example, we may hesitate to try new things, and doubt and indecision may prevent us from trying wholeheartedly when we do try something new.

2. Sorrows, regrets, and anxieties may become so threatening that we flee from reality in order to avoid them. Severe depression has caused some people to retreat into a fantasy world to escape the unpleasantness of their real world.

3. The person who cannot tolerate himself as fallible is not likely to remain on good terms with himself. If we make too much of our failures, we are likely to have low self-esteem. For example, Bonaro W. Overstreet, in Understanding Fear, suggests that some parents may set impossibly high standards for their children. “They tell children so often that it will be a great disappointment if they do not measure up that they virtually force those children into an exaggerated fear of failure, and into an exaggerated self-dislike when failure occurs.”

We can see that it may be unwise to dwell too much on our past failures and mistakes. Sins may be viewed as moral mistakes. Would this same conclusion apply to dwelling on our past sins?

We are repeatedly told in the scriptures that if we do not repent of our sins, we may suffer anguish from a guilty conscience in this life (Alma 14:6; Alma 38:8; Rom. 2:9), and we will surely suffer anguish at the awareness of our own guilt before the Lord (Mosiah 2:38; Morm. 9:3–4). We will have such an awareness in the final judgment (Alma 5:18).

We can avoid the misery of a guilty conscience before the Lord in two ways: we can avoid sin and we can repent of our sins. The demands of mortality are such that it is difficult for most of us to go through life without sinning in some degree. Thus, if we do sin, we are to sincerely repent.

The Lord has promised us that he will forgive us if we repent, and that in fact he will remember our sins no more. (D&C 64:7; D&C 58:42.) Think for a moment about the significance of this promise. If we truly repent of a sin, then as far as the Lord is concerned we are as clean as if we had never committed that sin.

Just how to go about repenting has been expressed in many different ways, but an easy one to remember is the five “R’s” of repentance: (1) recognize you have done wrong; (2) feel remorse for the wrong; (3) resolve to change; (4) reform, or act on your resolve; and (5) make restitution for the wrong.

Two important points should be made regarding the second step, remorse. First, even though remorse is a part of repentance, it is not the major part. The Lord does not require us to grovel in remorse as part of repentance. Excessive remorse can lead to a morbid sense of guilt and inferiority and that can lead to a loss of self-respect and can drain a person of the moral energy necessary to complete the remaining steps of repentance.

Repentance involves turning back to living God’s commandments as well as feeling remorse for having broken his commandments. Let us not dwell on the latter at the expense of the former. Repentance should actually be a joyful act rather than a mournful one. After calling the people to repentance, Mosiah said, “And behold, I say unto you that if ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins. …” (Mosiah 4:12.) The Lord indicated that there is joy in heaven every time a sinner repents. (Luke 15:7.)

The second point regarding the role of remorse in repentance is that after we have repented, the sin should not cause the same remorse it caused before repentance. The Lord said that “every man must repent or suffer.” (D&C 19:4.) Notice that he did not say repent and suffer.

Unfortunately, although the Lord promised us that he would remember our sins no more after repentance, he did not promise us that we would remember them no more. Many people continue to remember them in remorse, tormenting themselves needlessly, going through the mental anguish they would need to go through if they had not repented. Although the Lord has promised to forgive us when we repent, many people cannot forgive themselves.

As with other failures, once we have repented of a sin, we should not dwell on it. The comparison has been made between a sin and a wound. Suppose that after a wound has been bandaged, we were to repeatedly take off the bandage to examine the wound, each time tearing it open again. Would this not be foolish? Yet this is what we sometimes do with our sins. How much better it would be to put the bandage on the wound and forget it until it heals. Likewise, once we have repented of a sin, let us follow Paul’s advice: forget it and look to the future. No matter what our past is like, our future is spotless.

One reason some people suffer unnecessary mental anguish and guilt over sins for which they have repented is that they lack a deep, true faith in the efficacy of our Savior’s atonement.

The assurance of complete forgiveness is what gives us the faith necessary to repent. If we do not really believe that we will be completely forgiven, then it will be hard for us to repent. We must believe that the Lord can and will forgive us before we can forgive ourselves. Perhaps this is another reason why faith precedes repentance as one of the first principles of the gospel.

As a result of this lack of faith in the Lord, some people believe that when they sin they should suffer—they should be punished. This is true only when we do not repent. The Lord has already suffered for our sins; what we must do is repent. The Lord has said, “And surely every man must repent or suffer. …

“For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;

“But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I.” (D&C 19:4, 16–17.)

Actually, every sin committed reaps its own harvest and in some way we punish and limit ourselves when we disobey the Lord’s counsel—even if the punishment is nothing more than denying ourselves the joy we would have known had we done otherwise.

Paul (Acts 23:1), King Benjamin (Mosiah 2:27), and Joseph Smith (D&C 135:4) all indicated that their consciences were clear, unburdened by regret or remorse. Why? Was it because they had never sinned? Rather, it was likely because they had repented of their sins and had faith that the Lord forgave them and paid for their sins through the atonement.

The Lord said, “If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?” (Ezek. 33:10.) One answer is, “Not very happily.”

It does more harm than good to keep reliving failures or embarrassing moments, to harbor grudges for past grievances, or to suffer many times over for sins of which we have repented. We must not try to saw sawdust. It is both psychologically and spiritually unhealthy to dwell too much on our past mistakes. Let us derive what benefit we can from them, then leave them, as Paul said, “forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before.”

Brother Higbee, high councilor in the Provo Stake, is assistant professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.