The Rev. Canon Omar Pitman
There are things that I have said and done in my life, some many years ago, that have come back to haunt me. I may have confessed them and received God’s forgiveness (“If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” I John 1:9). And when God forgives our sins, He forgets them (“And their sins and offenses I will remember no more” Hebrews 10:17).
However, while God may not remember, all those words and actions are stored in the personal computer of my mind and just the touch of a button — a word, an image, a sound, a person — can bring them up sharply on the screen of my psyche. That is when I realize that I have forgotten the promise of redemption, and I am reminded of it when I make my confession in the presence of a priest (“The Lord has put away all your sins.” The Book of Common Prayer, page 448).
Now on the one hand, the memory of those words and deeds and the pain they caused, like spurs against the flanks of a horse, may goad me to run the race toward spiritual maturity; on the other hand they may just as well send me racing to depressive thoughts of guilt over my “failures.” The latter focuses mournfully on self and what I have done or left undone rather than joyfully on what God has done, and is doing, in my life. Such thinking leads only to despair and defeat (which is the goal of our spiritual enemy) rather than to spiritual growth and maturity, which is God’s plan for our life.
The choices we have made in the past, including our mistakes, are very much a part of who we are. They have been part of forming our personality and our character. How we have subsequently dealt with them has also impacted us. If they have become a burden or a stumbling block to our peace or our spiritual growth then we must overcome their negative impact. Because they are an indelible part of our life — our personal history — they are immutable and we can do nothing to change them. A major first step in developing spiritual maturity is acceptance of things which we cannot change. Spiritual growth involves, among other things, being able to, in the words of a well-known prayer, “accept the things we cannot change.”
Having accepted the reality that these events are an integral part of who we are, we can then use them as building blocks in our spiritual development. They can be an instrument for measuring our spiritual growth.
Just because our past is an indelible part of who we are does not mean it is all of who we are. We are continually undergoing change. The best evidence of this fact is our bodies themselves. Just look at old photographs of yourself and then look in the mirror. It is the same person but there has been change.
What is true of our body is also true of our psyche. What we observe on the outside is also true on the inside, though we cannot so easily see it. We are blinded by our unrealistic but deep-seated (and completely un-Christian) belief that people do not change. But they do, on the inside as well as the outside. Why else would God have sent His Son into His fallen creation and what, after all, is the Church all about?
We have regrets about our past and that alone is evidence that we have changed on the inside. But if we dwell in the past and indulge ourselves with a kind of egocentric wallowing in our regret, we miss a wonderful opportunity for spiritual growth.
Our ultimate goal as Christians is a level of spiritual maturity that enables us to be one with God so that we can understand His creation and His creatures from His perspective. We do this by spending time with Him — lots of time. There really is no substitute for that, no quick fix. As we spend time with Him and think about our past, we can begin to see our “failures” for what they really are — painful lessons in our development of life skills. If we cannot view them in this way then whatever pain they may have caused us or others is only made worse.
Our past is real, an indelible part of who we are and cannot be changed; but through a gracious and ever-deepening relationship with a loving God it can be redeemed and serve as an instrument for developing our spiritual maturity.
For your own reflection:
Gift of Years, author Joan Chittester says of regret for past choices: “Regret claims to be insight. But how can it be spiritual insight to deny the good of what has been for the sake of what was not? . . .[Regret] fails to understand that there are many ways to fullness of life, all of them different, all of them unique.
Discuss that with trusting friends or a small group.
The Rev. Canon Omar Pitman is a retired priest of the diocese. In the Diocese of West Texas he has served at St. Luke’s, San Antonio, and with the Central Convocation Partners in Ministry in San Antonio. Reach him at