I once heard an astronomer explain that we can’t help but live in the past – in a very literal sense. Every point of light we see in the sky happened in the past. If we are looking at a star that’s 18,000 light years away, then we are looking at light that began to travel from its point of origin 18,000 years ago. If we were closer to the star, it might look different. It might not even exist at all anymore, but we won’t know about any of those changes for 18,000 years.
All light takes time to travel. Even when you look up at the sun, what you see is what the sun looked like eight minutes ago. Even my talking to you is happening in the past. You are hearing and seeing everything I do after I do it. Nothing is truly simultaneous. We perceive nothing instantaneously. Even if the delay is imperceptible to our senses – for we have thoroughly adapted to the lag in which we live – it still exists. Every piece of stimuli in our environment has happened in the past, so we can’t help but live in the past.
Unfortunately, we probably spend too much time living in the past emotionally and spiritually. We still react to mistakes, stumbles, frustrations, and obstacles that should now be light years behind us are still clearly in our sights. Imagine if Paul had dwelled on the past. How crippled would he have been as a servant of Christ? Here was someone who had fought against Christianity, who had helped torture and kill Christians, who took pride in the harm he would inflict on Christians.
Here was his approach, though, in I Timothy 1:12-17:
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.
Paul makes some similar statements in Philippians 3:7-11:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Paul recognized his past. He recognized how he got to where he was, but he didn’t live there. His past could not be escaped, but he put it light years behind him so he could focus on the future. It should be the same for every one of us. We all have our own baggage, our own issues, our own histories. But those pasts are not what define us any more than the reality of a star 18,000 light years away is governed by what we see from our perspective here on Earth.
Instead, we should be reaching for a future ahead of us, a hope that nothing else can offer us. That future should be our reality. It should be what defines us, and that should be what motivates us every day.