Living with the Past

By Jon B. Fish

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    One of life’s choicest blessings is being worthy to attend the temple. As a former bishop and member of a stake presidency, I have had the opportunity to interview many members of the Church preparing for temple blessings.

    Sometimes people hesitate before answering the question concerning their feelings of worthiness to enter the temple because they are still struggling to deal with past problems.

    Each time I sense that one of my brothers or sisters is wrestling with something already past, I think of President Hugh B. Brown’s words, “No matter what your past has been, you have a spotless future” (Improvement Era, December 1969, page 95). I also think of the counsel given me many years ago by a wise stake president. “Don’t spend too much time looking back,” he said. “If your past is gaining on you and you keep looking back, one of these days it will run you over.”

    Dwelling on Past Mistakes

    It is not wrong to look back if we understand the purpose for doing so. The Lord wants us to learn from our mistakes. But we can learn from them only by keeping them in perspective and not dwelling on them. We fall into a deep pit of discouragement if we continually dwell on past mistakes. This is particularly true of sins.

    I once participated in a Church disciplinary council in which a brother said, “Once I had committed this awful sin, I knew there was no chance that I could ever get to heaven.” He had lost his way in the darkness. He had mistakenly thought that one sin would ruin forever his opportunity for eternal glory. This man needed to better understand that Jesus Christ died and atoned for our sins. His atonement allows us to overcome our past by repenting.

    Blaming Ourselves Excessively

    We can also become discouraged by blaming ourselves for sins we did not commit. For example, victims of abuse often feel responsible somehow for the abuse they received. They sometimes even feel guilty for having survived the abuse.

    I’m reminded of a war long ago in which three young men were hit by an enemy attack. One was slightly injured, one was critically injured, and the other was killed. For many years, the least injured of the three agonized over why he was spared. He argued with himself about it until he had convinced himself he had sinned somehow by surviving. His feelings of guilt nearly consumed him.

    Not until 40 years later, when his own son came home from another war seriously wounded, did the father accept and feel gratitude for having survived the earlier war. Because he was a survivor, he had experienced the same trauma his son was going through. Now he could empathize with and help his son.

    Serving his son in this unique way, he finally found peace. He said, “My only regret is that I have been looking backward all these years, instead of looking ahead to the future.” He had blamed himself for something he could not control. And that constant self-blame had prevented him from enjoying life as much as he might have. Now the past was a blessing to him and a great help to his son.

    In the same way, those who have been victimized by the sins of others continue to be victims if they blame themselves and dwell on the past. Healing comes when they seek the Lord’s help to rise above the sorrow and turn their pain into a blessing.

    Fear of Consequences

    Sometimes the fear of the consequences of confessing a sin keeps us living in the past.

    I once counseled an elderly sister who had kept in her heart a serious sin that she had committed as a teenager. Every time she had looked upon any of those she had wronged, she wept inside.

    I wondered why she had not already heeded the Lord’s counsel, “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (D&C 58:43).

    She told me, “I just couldn’t find the courage to confess my sin. I finally got so weary of looking back that I couldn’t go on. Lately I have feared that I would not be able to cleanse my soul before I die.”

    My heart ached for her. She had forsaken her sin long ago. But because she had never confessed, she had never known the joy of feeling forgiven. She had never been able to forget the past. After her confession, she lived in peace. Later, when I attended her funeral, I felt grateful that she had finally been able to stop looking back.

    Time can heal wounds, but only if the proper steps are taken. Fear can lead to a lifetime of sorrow and pain. The only real release is repentance.

    Accepting the Gift of Repentance

    Heavenly Father has provided the Atonement for us so that we may rise above sorrow and pain.

    Once, while I was speaking to a friend I had not heard from in 20 years, he mentioned an incident that he remembered from our early school years together. He asked me if I recalled it. I did not.

    “You must have me mixed up with someone else,” I said.

    “No!” he insisted. “We were both involved.”

    Later, I shared the conversation with an older brother, expressing my dismay that my old friend had accused me of something that I had not done.

    “Well, dear brother,” he laughed. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that was you. I remember the incident well.”

    My heart was heavy. I thought and worried for several days. How could I have forgotten my involvement in such an embarrassing experience? Then I found a verse in the Book of Mormon that described how Alma’s pain had been lifted when he had repented; thereafter he “was harrowed up by the memory of [his] sins no more” (Alma 36:19). As I read this verse, I realized that when I had repented, the remorse I felt must have been eased so thoroughly that I had forgotten the experience.

    Of course, we do not forget every sin when we repent. Nor should we. Remembering past experiences can help us avoid future mistakes. But even though we remember our sins, we don’t need to dwell on them. We don’t need to keep dredging up feelings of guilt or discouragement. Like Alma, we can be blessed to “remember [our] pains no more” (Alma 36:19; emphasis added).

    Recognizing the blessing of the Atonement and strengthening our testimonies of Christ and of his sacrifice will lead us to a full and complete repentance. Doing so will replace pain with peace and give us perspective on how and when to look back.

    I once heard a mother counsel her confused child on making a difficult decision.

    “How do I know what to do?” he asked.

    Her answer applies to most of the choices we must make in life. “Look toward the light,” she told him.

    I would add, “And don’t look back. Leave the past in the past. Rejoice that Jesus Christ has given each of us a bright new future.”

    Illustrated by Keith Larson