Key Scriptures: Genesis 15, 16 and 21, Philippians 3:1-21, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Ephesians 4:31-32, Isaiah 43:25, Hebrews 10:17, 1 John 1:9, Luke 9:62, Ephesians 4:22-23, Luke 17:32-33
Guiding Question: How does God want us to view our past?
Optional Introductory Activity: Share with students the backgrounds of a few famous people who had to overcome difficulties, without telling them who the person is. As you describe a person’s background, ask students what most people would assume about that person and their future by only the information given. After they have shared their ideas, reveal the name of the person associated with the bio you shared. (One place to find several of these bios is https://www.develop good habits.com/successful-people-failed/ ). Ask students why they believe these people were able to overcome their pasts and accomplish things most people would have said they could not possibly accomplish with their background.
Lesson: (Questions to students are in bold italics.) What are some ways the things that happen in someone’s past can impact their present and future? Why do past events have the ability to impact our present and future? Is it always in our best interest to allow the things that happen in our past influence us? Why or why not?
Our brains remember events in our past better if they had a strong emotional component to them when they happened. If the emotions were strong enough, it is almost as if your brain took video of the event so it could be played over and over again in our minds. This can be wonderful if we are remembering a special moment in our lives. Bad memories can sometimes be helpful if they prevent us from harm in the future – like remembering how it hurts to touch a hot burner, so we don’t do it again if we can avoid it.
Remembering the past can become problematic, however, when it keeps us from moving forward for some reason. There are many reasons we can become stuck in the past and many ways being stuck can then impact our present and future. This unit of lessons will look at some of those ways in detail, but today we just want to think about the topic in general. When is it okay to think about the past and when does dwelling on it do us more harm than good? More importantly, how does God want us to think about our past?
There are a lot of stories in the Bible where someone allowed things that happened in the past to impact their choices in their present. Those choices often started a spiral that at times still impacts us today. One of the best examples of this may be the story of Sarah and Hagar. Read or tell the stories from Genesis chapters 15,16 and 21. As far as we know, Sarah and Hagar got along just fine before all of the trouble started. What choice did Sarah make that later caused problems for everyone? Sarah thought she needed to help God keep His promise to Abraham about having a son.
It was the custom at the time that if a man’s wife couldn’t get pregnant, she would give him her maid with whom to have a child. Having an heir was very important in those days, and people went out of their way to make sure they had one. So Sarah’s choice, while not particularly wise or godly, would not have seemed strange to those around her.
And it worked. Hagar gave birth to Abraham’s son Ishmael. Sarah should have been elated that her plan worked and continued on with her life. Sarah, however, could not let go of her past. She couldn’t forget that Hagar had a son with Abraham and she had not been able to have one. The more she thought about the past, the worse it got.
For a time, things improved when Sarah eventually had Isaac. As Isaac grew older, Sarah noticed Ishmael mocking Isaac. Although the Bible doesn’t say, it’s quite possible all of those memories from the past came flooding back and probably added to her annoyance. So much so that she demanded Abraham get rid of Hagar and Ismael. While God made everything work out for Isaac and Ishmael, the remembrance of that rift still causes problems in the Middle East to this day. Had Sarah been able to overcome her previous poor choices that led to the birth of Ishmael, things might have been different then and even now. Unfortunately, we will never know.
But it’s not just negative experiences in our past that can cause us trouble. Sometimes it is not our shame or embarrassment of our past, but our pride in our past that can get in our way. At one point the Apostle Paul was dealing with people (false teachers) who were prideful about their pasts. They evidently thought they were special because of things they had done in their pasts. Read Philippians 3:1-21. How does Paul describe his own past? Does Paul think his past makes him better than others? What does Paul say the events and accomplishments in his past mean to him? What does he focus on instead?
Sometimes, our past looks better than our present. Or perhaps our accomplishments in the past make us feel special or proud of ourselves. Yet, if we aren’t careful, we can spend so much time thinking about the great past, we forget to live a great present or work towards a great future. You may have heard the term someone was resting on his or her “laurels”. What does that expression mean? In light of what we just read in Philippians, how do you think God feels when we spend too much time thinking about the great things we might have done or the fun we had in the past instead of focusing on the good deeds – serving others and sharing our faith – He wants us to do in the present?
Thankfully, the Bible also gives us examples of people who were able to overcome their past and focus on serving God in the present. When we tell the story of Daniel, we generally don’t talk much about his past. Daniel was actually either part of the royal family or the nobility of Judah. (The Bible doesn’t tell us to which of those groups Daniel belonged.) He was healthy, good looking and intelligent according to the Bible. He probably was living his best life in Judah as a good looking, wealthy man of privilege. (Daniel1)
Suddenly, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem. The Bible doesn’t give a lot of details, but sieges were never fun. Basically, a siege was a battle tactic where you surrounded a city and prevented food, water and other necessities from entering the city, until the people became so weak and desperate from hunger, they surrendered. Often in those days, the royal family and nobles might have been killed by their enemies, but instead, the Babylonians took them captive.
One can only imagine the grueling almost 1700 mile journey Daniel and the others made from Jerusalem to Babylon. They were probably on foot and one can imagine how poorly they might have been treated by the soldiers accompanying them. Daniel could not have been thrilled about the situation. Yet when he finally arrived in Babylon, he didn’t focus on the past wonderful things he had lost, or the past horrible things that had happened during the siege and the journey to Babylon. Instead Daniel focused on what God wanted him to do in the moment – making many good choices that still teach and encourage us many years later. Why do you think Daniel was able to overcome or let go of his past and do what God wanted him to do in the present?
We’ve discussed three basic ways people get stuck in their past….
- Being unable to let go of their own mistakes and the consequences of them like Sarah
- Being unable to let go of the wonderful things that happened or were accomplished in the past like the false teachers
- Being unable to forgive and let go of the bad things that have happened to us in our past
Before we have lessons addressing more specific ways people struggle to overcome their past, let’s take a quick look at some New Testament scriptures that have some general principles God wants us to remember about dealing with our past. Read each one. What does it tell us about how God looks at our past and how He wants us to think about our last?
- Philippians 3:13-14: forgetting the past and straining toward what lies ahead
- 2 Corinthians 5:17: if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come
- Ephesians 4:31-32: put away bitterness, anger, malice…be tender hearted, kind, forgiving
- Hebrews 10:17: I will remember your sins no more
- 1 John 1:9: if we confess our sins God forgives and cleanses us
- Luke 9:62: no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God
- Ephesians 4:22-23: put off your old self which belongs to your former way of life
Skills Activity: Review the main points from the lesson. Have students create a short autobiography. Encourage them to be creative and use artwork, film, etc. Then have them analyze their past in light of the lesson. What good or bad things have happened that could cause them to get “stuck” in the past and keep them from living the life God wants them to live. Have students who would,like to, share their work. (Be prepared to share your own story first, if needed.) If time allows, have students suggest ways they think could help them overcome the past and focus on what God wants them to do and who He wants them to be in the present and in the future. This can be an introductory conversation, since the following lessons will give students an opportunity to explore the topic further.
Application Challenge: Look back at your autobiography. Are you more at risk of becoming Sarah, the false teachers Paul addressed or Daniel? Why? What steps can you take to be more like Daniel – able to put the past behind you and focus on doing what God wants you to do in your life now? What is one thing you think God would want you to do this week? Try to put aside your thoughts about the past and focus on doing what you think God wants you to do.