One of the difficulties of life is the fact that it is not a rehearsal. The fact is that, as we go through life, we are learning on the job and doing so many things for the first time and so, as we go, we make many mistakes. We are potentially learning and growing all the time, and that is why it is so helpful to have those who have travelled life a bit ahead of us alongside us, with whom we can share our journey and from whom we can learn.
The problem is that, as we are continually gaining experience and wisdom, it is then easy to look back and say to ourselves, “if only I had known that then”, or “If only I could have that time again with what I know now.” Life experience and greater understanding can then turn from ‘if only’ into regret, and regret is a very unhelpful emotion. It is different to repentance. Repentance can help us to leave the past behind, and learn from it. The wrong kind of nostalgia and regret can weigh us down and keep us looking at past mistakes, failures, and inadequacies , and that makes it harder to look forward with hope, faith and expectancy.
While God, many times, asks His people not to ‘forget’ His goodness, His kindness, and His acts on their behalf, Psalm 103:2, He Himself promises to remove our transgressions as far as the east is from the west, and remember our sins no more. Psalm 103:12. He doesn’t dwell on our past mistakes and failures, and so nor should we. Dwelling on the past in a negative way with regret, is not only unhelpful but does not honour Jesus, who died that we might be free to live for Him, unfettered by our past.
Then there is the looking back with ‘longing’ for past things, and God tells His people not to ‘look back’ on several occasions. He knows that ‘looking back’ in the wrong way doesn’t work for us, and when His people have done that they have lost faith, and have therefore got themselves into trouble. He really doesn’t want us living in the past with too much nostalgia about the good things that were ours in a previous season. Look back with thanksgiving. Yes! But longing and nostalgia? No!
The Israelites for example just a couple of months after they had come out of Egypt were looking back with nostalgia and it distorted their vision. “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted” Exodus 16:3. They also remembered the fish, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they had had before their deliverance, and they began to grumble and complain. Numbers 11:5. No memory here then of making bricks without enough straw? How sad that the mighty deliverance they had seen from Egypt and as they crossed the Red Sea, was lost to them as they dwelt on the wrong memories.
And why was Lot’s wife told not to look back? Would it provoke longing, nostalgia, regrets? Whatever it was it wasn’t helpful. Instead of being thankful for the incredible deliverance they had experienced as they ran into their future with the Lord she, it would appear, still had her heart in Sodom. Looking back certainly didn’t work for her. Genesis 19:26. Was God saving both her and Lot from being drawn back again into their past? Perhaps if we find ourselves dwelling regretfully or nostalgically in the past, we need to check out whether our heart is more in the past than our ‘present’ with the Lord.
Another source of regret can be looking back to past success or triumphs. This is probably especially true for those who have had a successful ministry or a great season in life that seems to be passing with time and age. We can have regret when a season has ended, an ‘if only that had gone on longer’, that hinders us from a healthy grieving, and from moving on. Paul gives us a great lead in this when he declares ‘Forgetting what lies behind and straining towards what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus’. Philippians 3:13,14.
So if we are going to look back, it needs to be fully ‘laced’ with ‘thanksgiving’. Thanksgiving that past mistakes and sins have been ‘covered’; thanksgiving for past deliverances and blessing; thanksgiving even for past fruitfulness, and then we can look forward to what is coming next. We can also stay full of thanksgiving for the future because, in Christ, the mantra ‘The best is yet to come’ makes sense, because we are being transformed day by day to be more and more like Jesus. God’s children are truly the only people on earth who can fully embrace and believe that that is true! This is because we know that the Lord is in our future. No matter what the past looks like the future is bright because like David we can say with confidence ‘Surely (definitely) goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life.’ Psalm 23:6.NASB