My family has a friend who has a son who is in prison. I have never met the man but I have heard much about his story. It’s a heartbreaking one, at best. He had been driving too fast around a particularly dangerous curve, lost control of his vehicle and crashed. Unfortunately for him, the crash ended up killing his two best friends, both passengers. The parents of the deceased, outraged and distraught over their loss, went after their son’s friend. The law “threw the book at him” and he is currently serving a four-year sentence in a maximum security prison. What started as a fun night with friends, has turned into a tragic, life-changing experience.
Most everyone has something in their past they are not proud of. Whether it is an action from high school, an incident from college or a decision from adulthood, we live with some haunting memory from our past. It may not be as severe and unforgiving as the story above, but it is still regretful and painful nonetheless. If given the opportunity, most of us would love a “do-over” or a chance to change history, especially our own personal history. Unfortunately, life is not that gracious. There is no time machine that allows us to go back and fix stupid decisions, regretful actions or even misspoken words. We must learn to live with this unpopular soul mate called our past.
What do we do with our past? We don’t like it. We aren’t proud of it. We can’t hide it. We can’t run from it. We can’t sugarcoat it. We can’t ignore it. We can’t change it. Yet, life goes on.
What are our options? Are we supposed to be imprisoned by our thoughts all day long because of our past? Do we let our regrets rule us? Even if we do, can it change our past? Can it help those we’ve hurt? Does beating ourselves up every day for the rest of our lives change anything? How would that help those in our future?
There is really only one option (after seeking forgiveness) when it comes to redeeming our past. We must learn to embrace it.
Embrace the past?? That seems to defy reason. It certainly isn’t natural. It doesn’t feel normal. It doesn’t sound safe. Unfortunately, for those with the past – it is the only option that can bring healing to our bones.
When he is released, the man in prison will have paid his legal debt to society. Though his time behind bars will never bring back his friends or even secure forgiveness from their families, he will have at least paid the legal portion of his debt. However, upon leaving his cell, he will be left with three indelible marks:
- the memory of his friends,
- the title of ex-convict and
- a felony on his record.
From his release date forward, he will have a permanent scarlet letter on his chest. He will not be able to get a job without being honest about his past. He will not be able to enter a healthy romantic relationship without sharing painful details about his background. He may have few people willing to travel with him in life, especially if he is driving.
Needless to say, some employers will not hire him. After all, who wants an employee with a record if you can hire someone without one? Some women won’t date him. Who wants to introduce Mom and Dad to their ex-con boyfriend? Some people won’t befriend him. Is it really safe to be friends with a man who killed his friends, even if it was accidental?
But what if his debt to society has been paid? What if he has learned his lesson? What if he is truly reformed? In many ways, because of his past, he could be the best employee one could hire. Because of what he has learned, he might make an outstanding boyfriend or husband one day. Because of his intense loss, it could make him the safest driver on the road or even someone’s best friend. And yet, because he has a messy past, few will give him the opportunity or “time of day”. Because of our prejudice about one’s past – we could be missing out on a gem of an employee, spouse or friend.
Jesus seemed to gravitate towards people with a past. Though perfect Himself, He seemed to have a special place in His heart for those who were farthest from it. Whereas the rest of the world would shun them, Jesus ate at their table. When everyone else alienated them, Jesus welcomed them into His presence. Even those considered “unclean”, Jesus physically touched. No wonder the broken loved Him. No wonder those with a past loved their present Company. He had done for them what few would be willing to do – love them in spite of them and give them a second chance. One remarkable encounter can be found in Mark 1:40:
“A leper came to Jesus, begging Him and falling on his knees before Him, and saying, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.”
Leprosy is almost extinct today, but back in the first century it was common enough to have their own colony of infected people living together. Because of the highly contagious nature of the skin disease, lepers were kept outside the city gates. Because they were considered ceremonially unclean, they were not allowed access to the Temple. Because they were considered stricken by God, no one touched them. No one.
Imagine being completely deprived of physical touch. Most of us have access to some level of physical touch today whether it be from a spouse, children, family or friends. Lepers did not. NO ONE touched them. Ever. Not even “with a ten foot pole.” In many ways, those with a past can relate to the leper: Outcasted. Unclean. Unforgivable. Unloveable. Untouchable. How did Jesus handle the lepers of His day? The passage continues:
“Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.” (vs. 41-42)
“Moved with compassion.” Without hesitation, “He stretched out His hand.” Without consideration of how it would be viewed and without regard to being socially contaminated, He touched the untouchable. Jesus was willing to give those with a past an opportunity no others would give them. He was willing to give an outcast a second chance and a leper a new life. He was willing to help lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors and Pharisees and Roman soldiers and Samaritans. With the last breath of air in His lungs, He was even willing to help someone with a criminal record.
How do you handle your own difficult past? Perhaps today is the day you begin to embrace it? Granted, it may not be easy to face. You may not like talking about it. You may find even fewer people willing to listen. But if you want to move forward, particularly with your own restoration – you need to embrace it. It doesn’t mean you have to like it or even be proud of it. Learn from it. Be grateful for the lessons it has taught you. Look for ways to help others because of it. You have your past for a reason. Embrace it and don’t let it rob your present or hinder your future.
And remember, from God’s perspective, we ALL have a past to be ashamed of:
“There is no one who does good. The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:1-3)
“… for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
In spite of this, here is how God responded to us:
“For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly… but God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6,8)
The next time you meet an ex-con, extend your friendship. They probably need it more than you know. See a social leper? Touch their life. Few others are willing to do so. Know someone with a difficult past? Befriend them and help them build a new future.
Be moved with compassion. You’ll be amazed at the healing it brings in their life. You’ll be humbled by what it does in yours.