Have you ever been haunted by your past?
Over a decade ago I was preaching during the first worship service and I guess I was all wound up in what I was preaching, because an elder motioned to me that it was time for Sabbath School. I had a real passion for what I was preaching at the moment and basically chastised the elder for telling me to stop. It came across kind of … no it definitely came across as high and mighty and condescending to the elder. The elder quickly ducked out of view of the congregation. I soon realized I did not react appropriately and even made a fool of myself. After church I told the elder I was sorry. He graciously accepted my apology and for the remainder of our time together in that congregation he acted like it never happened. But I had trouble shaking it. Four or five years later, he and I were talking in the hallway, and of course he was acting totally natural, while I was still cringing inside over what I did years ago. As we were talking, the obvious finally dawned on me. He does not even remember what I am cringing about! I am the only one who remembers it! He forgot about it years ago after he forgave me. Why am I holding on to this? I had to forgive myself then and there, and now I no longer feel awkward when I see him, and, of course, I have never repeated the incident.
It appears in the days of Nehemiah Israel was still haunted by its past, going back to the days of Moses.
But you are a God of forgiveness, gracious and merciful, slow to become angry, and rich in unfailing love. You did not abandon them, even when they made an idol shaped like a calf and said, ‘This is your god who brought you out of Egypt!’ They committed terrible blasphemies. Nehemiah 9:17-18 NLT
This came during their time of confession. They are claiming God’s forgiveness but still going over things that happened long ago. The good news is, history does not have to repeat itself. Paul was haunted by his previous actions towards Christians, but he still was able to move on.
No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. Philippians 3:13-14 NLT
Paul was able to get over his past by not continually thinking about it, but also by being sure not to let his history repeat itself. He pressed on to what was ahead instead of repeating what was behind him. When a runner trips over a hurdle she can’t waste time wallowing in self pity. There is no time to lose. She must get back up and run! But she also must make sure she does not trip over any more hurdles. There is no time for self-pity or for tripping over more hurdles.
David made some big mistakes, but we don’t see him making the same mistakes over and over. I think his prayer of repentance in Psalm 51 offers us some clues as to how he moved forward instead of letting history repeat itself.
For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night.” Psalms 51:3 NLT
So David was haunted by his rebellion just like Israel, and just like I was. Often times we try to ignore negative feelings and emotions but they have their place. Those negative feelings are symptoms telling us a problem needs to be fixed. If we only treat the symptoms then the problem remains and still needs to be fixed.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. Psalms 51:4 NLT
David recognized that He hurt God. He is not sorry that he hurt himself. He is sorry he hurt God and others.
Forgive me for shedding blood…Psalms 51:14 NLT
David’s confession is specific, just like Israel’s in Nehemiah 9.
At the Christian school where I occasionally substitute teach, one of the classrooms uses what is called a fix-it ticket. When students do something inappropriate, students writes down on a piece of paper exactly what they did wrong, and how they are going to fix that form of behavior. They sign the paper themselves, and then the teacher signs it and the student takes it home for the parents to sign. In Psalms 51 David appears to be writing a fix-it ticket. He is writing specifically about what he did wrong and also how the problem is going to be fixed. A while back I had an attitude that I knew was not right. I wrote a letter to God telling him specifically why I was wrong and asked for Him to help me in specific ways not to have that attitude any more. I have never had that attitude since.. I believe that actually writing things out, not typing but actually hand writing things out can be very therapeutic. If nothing else it shows God and ourselves that our repentance is earnest, rather than just giving a flippant “Please forgive me. I’m sorry.”
Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.
Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.
Psalms 51:1, 7, 10, 12 NLT
Instead of just making promises to do better, David claims God’s promises. 2 Peter 1:4 Tells us that we can participate in Jesus’ divine nature by claiming His promises rather than making our own promises. David even has to ask God for the willingness to obey. It reminds me of Jesus crying in Gethsemane, “Father, Not My will but Your will be done.” Realizing David could not clean his own heart he asked God to clean and purify it for him.
We don’t see David repeating his history over and over because his repentance and confession were very specific and very deep. David realized and openly confessed his own weaknesses and how we was prone to sin.
For I was born a sinner— yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. Psalms 51:5 NLT
Therefore instead of being self-confident David put his confidence in God’s powerful love and promises. We too can keep our sinful history from continually repeating itself by making our repentance deep and heartfelt, and by having no confidence in our flesh or human effort (Philippians 3:3), but rather put our hope and faith in God’s powerful love and promises.