While washing the wood paneled walls that line the stairway to the basement of our home, I felt like I was trying to perfume a pig. The stairs themselves are still the 2 inch boards used by the builder, without benefit of carpet or tile to cover them. A few years ago someone painted them off-white; someone else walked on the paint before it was dry; a few families moved in and out; some put a chip here, a gouge there... those stairs looked pretty shabby. In energy born from frustration, I grabbed a paint brush and give them a quick coat of fresh paint.
The nicks and gouges are the same color now. The wood is still rather beat-up but the paint gives a uniform effect. It will do, for a time, but I still feel vaguely unsatisfied; I did not fix the real problem.
That can happen in other areas of life too. Ever have an argument with someone, mumble “I’m sorry”, but still feel that something was left undone? Also, there is the vague unrest after doing a job at less than our best. It is easy to make an excuse and shrug it off, but it gets added to the clutter of the unfinished, the unsatisfactory, the “I-wish-I-could- do-it-over” stuff in our lives.
The Bible tells Christians to put the past behind, to press on toward the goal of Christlikeness. That sounds great, but we must also settle differences with others, pay our debts, and do our very best. How can we put the past behind without feeling like we are leaving a trail of debris along the way?
1) Keep short accounts with God: When I was a little girl, my grandmother told me never to apply perfume without first taking a bath. The principle carries over into spiritual life. If it is battered and gouged, or spotted and dirty, any efforts to whitewash it will only cover it up, not fix it. So, if the left-overs include unconfessed sin that must be dealt with. Putting on the perfume of goodness is important, but it does not correct the problem of any dirt that might be underneath.
Sin is serious, not to be swept under the carpet or whitewashed with excuses. David acknowledged his sin saying it was “always before me” and asked God “cleanse my heart and restore the joy of my salvation.” He did that because he knew that God “...is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9).
2) Make restitution: The past may include some unresolved relationship problems. God asks us to deal with them too, even if they seem like “old” issues. When I became a Christian the Lord impressed upon me to apologize to someone I had wronged ten years before. It was hard to find the person’s location and write a letter of apology, but the burden of the unfinished was lifted. Jesus said not to bring any gift to the alter of God without dealing with unresolved differences with others. (See Matt. 5:23,24)
3) Put the things we cannot do anything about into the Lord’s hands: No amount of regret, sighing, or unscrambling will change most of the past. If we have confessed any sin to God and done what we can to correct broken relationships with others, then it is time to move on. Moaning “if only” is destructive and time-wasting. When we spend a lot of time wishing we had done differently, that is all we do, wish. And our lives never change now - when we have opportunity to change.
4) Be free to build memories for the future. Tomorrow I want to be able to look back on today with the awareness that I did what the Lord wanted me to do with as much ability has He has given me to do it. If it does not happen that way, then, because of His mercy, I am “not consumed... His compassions fail not. They are new every morning...” making each new day a new beginning without a backlog of the unfinished to spoil it.