Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content


Home > Sermons

Triumphing Over the Past

Regardless of our past, God's grace allows us to rejoice.

I doubt that there is any more debilitating problem for Christian people than the problem of regrets. We feel subject to the guilt of something that we have done or haven't done: the past, with skeletons in closets, with fears that seem to haunt us, things about the past that cripple us. As a result, we constantly find ourselves drawn back like iron filings drawn to a magnet. We turn and look at our past, our history, and there's regret there, perhaps not to some particular sin, but because there are so many things we could've done or could've been or could've known. People turn around and say, "If only I had done that ten years ago, I would've been so much better." People turn around regretting weeks and months and years of what we could or could not have done for Christ or in the Christian kingdom or even in our lives.

In the last months I've met a man who is in the midpoint in his career, in the midpoint of his life; he's in his early forties. We were talking, and he pointed out to me that his greatest difficulty is that he is recognizing that there are an awful lot of things that he is not going to get done in this life that he had wanted to get done. There are things that he wants to be, but, in reality, he knows now aren't going to come to pass. The phrase that seems to have crippled him in part of his living is the phrase that says, "If only." If only I'd done this ten years ago, I would be able to achieve all the things that I wanted. If only I hadn't made certain decisions, then I wouldn't be where I am now. If only I hadn't done that, then all those problems would never arise. We trace back in our minds and our lives whole circuits of events. If I hadn't done that, then the next thing would have happened and I wouldn't be where I am now. You see everything linked to particular chains of events, and we say, "If only, then this particular problem wouldn't have happened."

I believe that the "If only" cry that comes from most of us at some time in our life is the cry of tyranny. It's a very clear spiritual question for many people. As we look back over the years and cry "If only," it draws us to a place of spiritual depression because we cannot encounter what is there. As we look at the past, at the cries of the things that could have happened to us, there are things that we can appropriately, properly, and legitimately regret. But that's different than the condition of misery and dejection that causes us to be subject to the past.

The apostle Paul recounts in this passage of Scripture some of the events of his own life. He gives us some of the biography of where he has come from and what has influenced him. He also shows us how he is able to overcome regret in his own life. Here Paul is a man who had more to regret than many of us have, a man who was able to look back and say, "I have persecuted the church more than anybody else. I am the one who was born out of due season. I am the one who was called to be an apostle, and I was the one who had tried to stamp out the church." He tells us that he has dealt with regret by recognizing that it is a sheer waste of time and energy.

We know that is true. We know it's fairly sensible and reasonable to say that. The past cannot be drawn back. We can't do things about it. We can't sit down and undo what we have done. Even the world knows it's useless to cry about spilled milk. When it happens, it happens. Yet Christians, more than others, seem to spend their lives regretting what has happened. Situations come back to our minds, and we don't go on beyond that point because we dwell with the sense of failure and the sense of doom that that point brings to us. We sit down; we bemoan the past, regretting what we've done. We cripple ourselves and prevent ourselves even from being able to get up and do anything in the present time. There's nothing more calculated to destroy our service, our witness, and the strength of who we are in Jesus Christ at the moment than that captivity to the past and to the things of the past. When we're bound in that sense of being always captive to the failures, it makes the present as as ever the past was. It's a morbid, destructive energy that we waste. You can spend so much of the time in the present worrying about it, that the past makes the present time as dismal and as much a failure as ever it was.

When we look at what this great apostle says about the great sin in his life as he gives an account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we find that he's concerned immediately in this passage about the doctrine of the Resurrection. He looks with undoubted regret that he had come so late in life to the Christian faith. When he talks about being in the last of those called and having seen the Savior on the road to Damascus at a time when everybody else had seen him in the flesh, he's saying, "There's something unnatural, something untimely, about my spiritual birth. I'm not like the other apostles. They have been with the Savior. They've walked with him. They've known him, but I haven't." He regretted that fact. But at the same time, he turns around and recognizes certain things that set him free from the past. You and I have to recognize these things too, if we're going to be freed for the present time in service and in the kingdom of God.

We must recognize that knowing Jesus Christ today is all that matters

What he recognizes first of all is that he is a Christian. It doesn't matter what he once was or what once he had done. It doesn't even matter when that happened. It mattered only that he knew Jesus Christ in the present time and that the shackles, the fetters, of the past weren't things that held him captive. Oh, Paul could turn around and say, "I'm not worthy to be an apostle. I'm not worthy to know that which is the grace of God, for I persecuted the church." But he goes on and here it is, "By the grace of God, I am what I am. What does it matter what the past was? I am, what I am." Put your emphasis here. Don't keep going back. Don't look at all the things that were wrong. Legitimately perhaps, I am what I am now. Don't constantly think about who you were or what you were. The essence of our Christian position, our understanding of forgiveness and freedom, is found in that great hymn, "Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, who like me his praise shall sing?" I'm reconciled by God and by his Son who died on the cross, who gave his blood for me. I am a child of God, a with Jesus Christ, adopted into his family. I am on my way to the glory of his presence. It doesn't matter what I was; I am what I am. I know him. I live in him. I stand with him, and he with me. The vain regrets, all those —they're the past.

Growing up, I knew a lady who was very old. She seemed very old as I was growing up. If she's still alive, she probably is very old now. The whole of her Christian experience—she was a saintly Christian lady—seemed to be summed up when she turned around and said, "You know, I've always enjoyed God's second best in my life." I said, "Why?" She would tell me as she told others, "Well, you know I was called to India as a missionary and I never went. So I've always had his second best." I couldn't convince her then, and I pray that I can convince you now, there is no second best in God's kingdom. The mistakes, the failures, the histories that we have, do not make the present time a second best for us. They're real—we don't deny them—but the present isn't the second best. It's God's place for you. "I am what I am," says the apostle. "I'm not the chief rabbi. I'm not all the things I could have been. I wasn't there at the Last Supper. I didn't stand with my Savior at the Resurrection. I wasn't there when he was crucified. Oh, there are regrets, but I am what I am." My friends, you can't change that. All you can do is destroy the potential and the power of the present. All you can do is make the life that you live now misery by regretting what you have not done or were not. I am what I am, and that, by his grace.

We must recognize that being in God's kingdom today is all that matters

The second thing that the apostle reminds us in these verses is this: we overcome this vain regret in the world by recognizing that entering into the kingdom of God and into a knowledge of his person matters to us now, not what we have missed. It's foolish to mourn about the fact that we weren't Christians so long ago. And yet, how many of us turn around and say, "If I'd only had my time over again, I would have become a Christian earlier. I would've consecrated myself much earlier. I would've asked for God's blessing, known his gifts, exercised my ministry, and done all these things so much earlier. If only I knew then what I know now." It causes us an enormous amount of heartbreak. It's like going in and seeing something and regretting that you're in the last group of people to see it.

I remember standing in line in London at the British Museum on a Thursday afternoon to see the exhibition of all the treasures from King Tutankhamen's tomb. I stood in the line for hours and hours and hours. I was in the last 15 or 20 people before they closed the door. They said to the others, "I'm sorry, you'll have to come back tomorrow." But I was there. I got inside. How foolish if I had spent the whole time looking at the glorious treasures of Egypt thinking, Well, I could've been left outside'. I wouldn't have enjoyed any of it. I got in! I wasn't in the last group that didn't get in. I was there. But if I keep looking back and saying, "Well, I could almost have not gotten in. What a pity I was in the last group and not in the first group!" I lose all the benefit of ever having seen it.

The fact is not what we are not, but what we are in Christ. It doesn't matter that you didn't become a Christian when you were 3 weeks old. It matters that you're in Christ now and that you know him, his power, his grace, and his ministry in your life. It's not what we don't have that matters. It's what we do have and what we are and how we use it now. That's what the apostle Paul is trying to tell us. Don't waste it all. You see, we begin judging ourselves and we see ourselves as failures, because for some reason and in some way we have not entered into the kingdom when we might have. We lash ourselves with the scars of our regrets. In doing that, we become people who take from God the right of his judgment and apply it to ourselves. I think that we are harder on ourselves than God is. He is the just Judge of all the earth, who doeth righteously. Yet, he forgives his people because the cost of his grace was the death of his Son. But, we don't ever forgive ourselves and we cheapen the grace of God by denying to ourselves the acceptance that he brings to us.

Says Paul, "Let a man so account of himself as a minister of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God. I judge not mine own self, for I know nothing by myself, yet am I not hereby judged, but he that judgeth me is the Lord"—not my peers and my friends, not the past, but the Lord who judges me. Leave the judgment with him. Don't waste time, energy, and effort judging yourselves, when he alone is equipped to do it. Look into your own spiritual realm. Look into your own spiritual life and enjoy him in the present time, knowing that you are walking with him. That's the question—not when it happened but that it happened. You have something to regret if there is no testimony of his grace now. But if you know that now you love him, it doesn't matter when that love grew.

In one sense, all these testimonies we hear that at a particular time Christ became Lord of our lives are not important. What matters is the present. The testimony is always of the power of God, now unto salvation. It's what you're doing with him and the relationship you enjoy in this present moment that is important. Oh, to be caught up with the wonder of his grace, caught up with the beauty of his presence, not in the past, but now! That's the urgency we have before him. That's the important aspect of our life. Don't be bound by the past. Don't be bound in the shackles that will hold you with regret: you never went to seminary or you never finished that or this or did the next thing. You didn't do it. God has forgiven you, he's put it apart from you, and now he says, "Live with me. Live with the quality of power in the present that frees you from that."

We must recognize that the grace of God is all that matters

Thirdly, the apostle is encouraging in this: he reminds us that our regrets are useless because they don't matter, for nothing matters in the kingdom of God except the grace of God. God has a different way of looking and dealing with individuals than you or I have. That's the principle that we need always to be brought back to: God deals with you and with me not as we deserve but by grace. He doesn't pay as we deserve, but he gives to us. What matters is not what we may have been or what we might have achieved or might have done. If only we'd made other decisions, if only we'd walked in other ways—that's regret. We live now under his grace. What we have is from his hand, and it's enough and abundant.

Earlier this week, I sat down with a man who lived with a problem of regret. He has lived with it for 20 years and will not be free of it. He strives to be free of it in a different way than God gives to him. Until he comes to accept the fact that God has given him something in his past that he has to learn to live with and treasure, he will always be bound by it. We preserve these things for ourselves, always thinking we could do better if only we hadn't made another decision. I was struck that that man made a decision 20 years ago that has become for him a matter of eternal regret. His present has been wasted because he will not let go of that decision. We live under grace. We're called to live this life accepting the fact that God gives to us, not regretting what we don't have or what we didn't do or being sad that we didn't enter into the knowledge sooner that now we have fully. But enjoying what is and knowing that it is from God's hand that we have received what we have—that's the answer and that's the truth and that's the important thing.

People have come to me and said, "If I hadn't made that decision to get married to that person at that time, I could have been a great servant of Christ." They've lived with that regret. Don't look like that. Divorce isn't the answer to those questions. It is recognizing that God has given you that. Your decision is made; be blessed. Be determined to be blessed in it. If you're unhappy, and there are people unhappy in their marriages because they've made those decisions, then know that God says that the believer sanctifies the unbeliever. Know that what you have is his grace, not to destroy, not to break down, but to see how it might be used to his glory. We live in the present, not with the regrets of the past.

Many of us lose the sight of the word that God spoke to us. He spoke through the prophet Joel and he said, "I will restore to you the years that the locusts have wasted." And you say, "But how—wasted years, barren years, years that locusts and canker worm and caterpillars have destroyed?" "I will restore them," says the Lord. "I can do it." If you think of it in terms of what you can do, then it's all over. But we're in a realm where our effort is not the first and the most important thing. We live in the realm where God by his grace speaks and achieves. He comes in and he gives to us a crop one year that will make up for the ten that we have lost. That's the character of our Master. That's the character of the Lord. That's our God. Don't look back; don't waste your time and your energy. Put the regrets of the past behind you and rejoice that by his grace we are where we are and what we ought to be in him. Because of it, stand in his kingdom for his sake and find that even in our case, the Lord will lift us up and bless us just because he is the Lord and that's his nature.

Robert M. Norris is senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland.

(c) Robert M. Norris

Preaching Today Tape #65


A resource of Christianity Today International

Related sermons

A Strange Résumé

God turns our weakness into incredible strength.

Costly, Messy, Beautiful Obedience

Finding favor in the eyes of the Lord
Sermon Outline:


I. We must recognize that knowing Jesus Christ today is all that matters

II. We must recognize that being in God's kingdom today is all that matters

III. We must recognize that the grace of God is all that matters