All of us have some painful moments in our past that we would like to forget. If we had the option of rewriting our stories, there would undoubtedly be some chapters that didn’t make the final version that we present to others. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about the poor decisions in our past. Thankfully, God doesn’t base our futures on our pasts, so we can walk in freedom from the pain of yesterday while we embrace a better tomorrow.
2 Corinthians 5:17 (TPT)
Now, if anyone is enfolded into Christ, he has become an entirely new person. All that is related to the old order has vanished. Behold, everything is fresh and new.
If you could go into your life’s story and take out certain parts, how many blank pages would you leave behind? For many of us, a good portion of the book would be removed, and it would look more like a highlight reel than a true version of the history of our lives. For others, maybe there are only one or two paragraphs that would be taken out. Regardless of the amount of editing we would like to do, the fact remains that most of us would do anything for the opportunity to go back and rewrite our history.
Unfortunately, that’s simply not possible. If you grew up playing video games, you know that the reset button was the most powerful tool that you had at your disposal. With a single click of a button, everything that you had done was erased, the slate was clean, and you got to make a fresh run at whatever obstacles were ahead of you.
Since we don’t have a reset button on life, what are we supposed to do? The weight of the shame associated with your past may be too much for you to carry on your own. If that’s the case, there’s a good reason for it: you were never intended to carry it on your own.
We have a man in our church named James (his name has been changed for the sake of today’s study). James grew up in an abusive home, as his father had abandoned him and his mother when he was a toddler. Over the next 15 years, his mother brought home a rotating cast of boyfriends and husbands, men who she generally met through her own destructive lifestyle.
By the time James was 16, he was already frequently drinking to the point of passing out, and he discovered opioids by the time he was 17. The day after his 18th birthday, James was arrested as the result of a routine traffic stop. The police officer pulled him over because of a non-working taillight, but quickly realized that James was under the influence of drugs and alcohol. To make matters worse, he had more than 100 prescription pain pills lying in the passenger seat in a Ziploc bag.
The public defender that was assigned James’ case did the bare minimum in his representation. James admits today that it wasn’t even really her fault. In the small town that he grew up in, it wasn’t uncommon for the public defender to have upwards of 40 clients at any given time.
If you think James’ story was over at that point, it gets even worse. Because of his addiction, James had robbed multiple convenience stores in and around the area. While he wore a mask to protect himself from being seen on the security cameras, he left fingerprints in all three of the locations. Once he was booked for the traffic stop, his fingerprints came back as a perfect match to the ones left at the scene of the robberies.
James was ultimately sentenced to 35 years in the state penitentiary. While he was incarcerated, James started attending church services that were held twice monthly. When a man from the church who hosted these meetings presented the Romans road to salvation, James accepted Christ as his Savior. James started spending most of his days reading the Bible in his cell.
James didn’t have a strong support system when he was released. Due to his poor decisions, most of his family members wanted nothing to do with him. He had stolen from his sister and her husband, and his brother on numerous occasions. His mother passed away during his incarceration.
He did move into a halfway house upon his release as a condition of his parole. Unfortunately, the halfway house was very poorly supervised due to a lack of funding, and drug use was rampant all around him. James, doing everything within his power to stay committed to Christ started sleeping in a vehicle that he scraped up the money to buy after he was released. Shortly, James found a local church in his hometown that helped him get on his feet and worked with the local court system to find a better housing situation.
By the time I met James, he was 45 years old and looked considerably older. His rough lifestyle certainly left its mark in the wrinkles that mark his face. During our first meeting, James half-jokingly told me that if he had known he was going to live this long, he would’ve taken better care of himself.
He relocated to our area for a job. Before he started, he wanted to find a local church. I’ll never forget the day James walked up to me after a Sunday morning service and asked for a meeting. I invited him back to my office and he shared his story with me. The most poignant part of the conversation was when James said, “I know I can’t do anything in ministry, but I’m happy to clean toilets, mow the lawn, or handle maintenance stuff.”
He got a befuddled look when I tilted my head and asked him why he believed he couldn’t participate in ministry. “I’m a thief and a drug addict. Nobody wants me to preach.” I felt a lump in my throat as I listened to James classify himself as a thief and a drug addict.
I opened the Bible that was lying on my desk, and I read him the verse from 2 Corinthians that you just read. I asked him what that verse meant to him, and he wasn’t entirely sure. James’ eyes welled up with tears as I explained to him that what he had done was not his identity.
This man who had faithfully attended church since his incarceration had spent a good portion of his Christian life assuming that he was disqualified by his past. Today, James is an ordained minister in our church. He doesn’t regularly preach on Sunday mornings, but that’s by his own choice. Instead, James’ heart is rooted in prison ministry. Twice a month, our local county jail invites James in to share the Gospel with inmates.
You see, James can reach people who I could never reach. I’ll be honest, I’ve preached in local jails before. However, the inmates are rarely receptive to a message that comes from someone who has never walked in their shoes. James has something that I don’t have. He has an authentic testimony that the men who he shares the Gospel with can relate to.
You can’t erase your past. You can’t go back and rip out entire chapters of your own story in the name of making yourself more presentable. However, you can submit those regrettable chapters to Christ and allow Him to use those parts for His glory.
What you’ve done is not who you are. God does not view you through the lens of your past failures. In fact, He doesn’t view you through the lens of your successes. Instead of viewing you through the lens of what you’ve done, He looks at you through the lens of what His Son did for you.
A Closing Prayer:
God, please help me move past the shame and regret that I experience because of my past. Help me to rest in the version of me that You see and use my story for Your glory. In Christ’s name, Amen