Over the years I have noticed how many people struggle living in the present because they are weighed down by the past. So many are haunted by events that occurred years ago and as a result live dysfunctionally in the now. It can make for a miserable life.
God designed us to live a full and joyful life, each day as it comes, with no impediments from the past. Anger, bitterness, hatred, guilt and shame are all about the past. They can enslave us and ruin our lives in the present.
As we consider the past, it is important to know we are what we remember. The past and what our mind does not let go of does not necessarily determine who we are, but it clearly shapes our life.
Furthermore, if we do not recognize the baggage from our past and deal with it, it can sabotage our life now and in the future–particularly in our relationships. Many individuals I encounter are not even aware of how the past has messed up their lives. Those who are aware of it often refuse to deal with it, as the thought of having to confront the pain from the past can be so frightening that it becomes paralyzing.
Anger, bitterness and hatred are linked together in that they are all about the past, where we may have been wronged, injured, abused, mocked or betrayed. But, if people wrong us in any way, we need to know we are responsible for how we respond. We must be aware that anger and bitterness in our lives does not harm anyone but us. In fact, unresolved anger leaves a dark mark on our souls, silently impacting our ability to enjoy life.
I remember reading about John Fogerty and the old rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival when they had a major falling out, breaking up the band. Fogerty was filled with anger and hatred toward his former band members, so much so that he refused to sing any of their songs. Many years later, Fogerty realized what his own bitterness was doing to him, reflecting, “Bitterness is a poison you drink, hoping it will cause the other person to die.”
It is evident that anger, bitterness and hatred can keep us from experiencing real joy in the present. But, what are we to do about it and how should we respond?
Ultimately, God is the only one who can restore us. In Psalm 23:1-3 we are told:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
We are told throughout the Bible that God is a restorer of life. The word restore is a significant word. It means to take something broken, beat up and hurt, and repair it–make it new and whole. Webster’s dictionary defines restore as, “To bring back or put back into a former or original state.” When we are restored, it is as if there has never been any damage done to us.
This is what God wants to do with our past if we allow him.
Anger, bitterness and hatred can enslave our soul. There is only one way to be delivered from it, and that is to forgive. However, forgiveness is counterintuitive. To hate is a much more natural response when we are hurt or wronged by someone.
Three days before Christmas there was a powerful story on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal titled “The Salvation of Napalm Girl.” It was written by Kim Phuc Phan Ti. Though you may not know her name, you most certainly know who she is. You have seen her picture hundreds of times. She was captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph in 1972, a photograph that many people believed was a turning point in the Vietnam war. In the photo, she was 9 years old, running down a dirt road with arms outstretched, naked and shrieking in pain and fear, with a napalm cloud billowing in the distance.
Here we are now, forty-five years later and Kim is still receiving treatment for the napalm burns that cover her body. However, she says what was worse was the crippling weight of anger, bitterness and resentment toward those who had caused all her suffering. She says “I had so much hatred and bitterness in my heart.”
She wanted to let go of her pain and to pursue life instead of holding fast to fantasies of death to those she hated, but she had no idea how to be healed. She didn’t know where or how to find peace.
On Christmas Eve 1982, Kim attended a special worship service at a small church in Vietnam. The pastor spoke of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, who was wrapped in human flesh and sent into the world. As the pastor spoke, she knew something powerful was taking place in her heart. That night she stood up at the end of the service, went forward and surrendered her life to Christ.
She described her experience in these words:
When I woke up that Christmas morning, I experienced my first-ever heartfelt celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. I know what it is like to experience terror, to feel despondent, to live in fear. I know how wearying and hopeless life can be sometimes. After years in the spiritual wilderness, I felt the kind of healing that can only come from God.
I had spent so much of my life running – first from the bombs and the war, then from communist Vietnam. I had always assumed that to flee was my only choice. Looking back, I understand that the path I had been racing along led me straight to God. Today I live at ease. Yes, my circumstances can still be challenging. But my heart is 100% healed.
My faith in Jesus Christ is what has enabled me to forgive those who had wronged me – no matter how severe those wrongs were. Faith also inspired me to pray for my enemies rather than curse them. It enabled me not only to tolerate those who had wronged me but to love them.
No matter what type of pain or sorrow you may be experiencing, as Christmas approaches, I encourage you not to give up. Hold fast to hope. It is hope that will see you through. This peace I have found can be yours as well. I pray that it finds you this Christmas.
Jesus has the power to eliminate our anger and hatred, regardless of what has been done to us. John Ortburg says there is only one place you can take your grudges, and that is to the foot of the cross. He adds something we should all take to heart:
At the cross, I remember that I, too, stand in need of forgiveness. At the cross, I remember that for me to expect to receive ultimate forgiveness purchased at the ultimate price from heaven, yet withhold it from someone who has hurt me, is the ultimate contradiction.