Paralyzed by Your Past?
A husband and wife, who were experiencing conflict in their marriage, went to see a counselor. The husband told the therapist, “I hate it when we argue and then my wife gets all historical.” The therapist responded, “You mean she gets hysterical?” The husband said, “No, I mean she gets historical, bringing up my past history of mistakes and everything I have ever done wrong.” Is that not what most of us have done? When we are angry with someone, or when we have a disagreement, we bring up all events from the past to justify our case. Many of us continue to live—in the past. And by continually remembering the hurts of the past, we get hurt or traumatized again. By constantly remembering our failures, disappointments and regrets of the past, we hinder our ability to do better in the future. If we never forget our fears, then we will always be afraid.
The paralytic in today’s Gospel reading from the Fourth Sunday of Pascha (John 5:1-15) is an image of someone who is dominated by their past. He was paralyzed for thirty-eight years. Laying on his pallet or bed at the Pool of Bethesda, he was waiting for someone else to put him into the water. It is dangerous to look backwards in life because we can easily become paralyzed by our past.
Fr. Anthony Coniaris, in his book, “Homilies from an Orthodox Pulpit” (pp.58-63) said, “If you try to drive your car by only looking through the rear-view mirror, you’ll never get to your destination. Likely, you will crash your vehicle. You will also hurt, injure or kill someone.” Victor Hugo said, “If God intended that man should look backward, He would have given him eyes in the back of his head.”
Perhaps the most famous example of looking backwards and becoming paralyzed is the wife of Lot.
24Then the LORD rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the LORD out of the heavens. 25So He overthrew those cities, all the plain, all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. 26But his wife looked back behind him, and she became a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:24-26).
Jesus provides some insight as to why this happened to her.
28Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; 29but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. 30Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed. 31In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods are in the house, let him not come down to take them away. And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back. 32Remember Lot's wife. 33Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it (Luke 17:28-33). In other words, the past is the past, we can never go back and recreate it or relive it, neither should we try to. Nor should we even obsessively cling to the memory of our past. King Solomon provides further insight:
7Of whose wickedness even to this day the waste land that smokes is a testimony, and plants bearing fruit that never come to ripeness: and a standing pillar of salt is a monument of an unbelieving soul. 8For regarding not wisdom, they got not only this hurt, that they knew not the things which were good; but also left behind them to the world a memorial of their foolishness: so that in the things wherein they offended they could not so much as be hidden (Wisdom of Solomon 10:7-8). Lot did not believe God’s message given through the two angels.
So, how are we to deal with our past, our history? The Prophet Isaiah, speaking for God, said:
18"Do not remember the former things, Nor consider the things of old. 19Behold, I will do a new thing, Now it shall spring forth; Shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness And rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18-19). Jesus Himself said, 59Then He said to another, "Follow Me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." 60Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God." 61And another also said, "Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house." 62But Jesus said to him, "No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:59-62).
There are several prominent examples in the Scriptures of persons with dubious histories. First, before the Apostle Paul was called by Christ, he was named Saul. Both a Greek citizen and Jew, he was also a Pharisee and a fierce persecutor of Christians. Saul led a band of men who laid their coats at his feet so they could more easily pick up and throw the stones that would eventually kill the Protomartyr and Archdeacon Stephen (Acts 7,8,9).
Second, there is the Prophet King David, who seeing the beautiful Bathsheba, desired to have her even though she was married to Uriah. Nevertheless, David has an adulterous affair with Bathsheba, then has her husband killed, and then marries the new widow (2Samuel 11). The third example is the Prodigal Son who asks for his inheritance, leaves his father, squanders all his money on harlots, and ends up working in a pig sty (Luke 15).
Knowing their troublesome history, did these three men become paralyzed by their past? Did they become stuck in their former life by always looking back at it? We know the answer to these questions. They did not. Saul became Paul, the greatest of the Apostles, writing thirteen epistles of the New Testament. King David, after being confronted by Nathan, repented and went on to write 150 Psalms, the most famous is Psalm 50/51, also known as the Psalm of Repentance. The Prodigal Son returned to his father’s house and was welcomed with open arms. None of these three looked back in a way that prevented them from truly repenting and moving forward in their lives according to God’s will.
Many people say I can forgive but I cannot forget. I cannot forget how others have hurt me and I cannot forget the mistakes and sins of my life. Yet, if we cannot forget have we truly forgiven others? Have we truly accepted the gift of God’s forgiveness? The only way to forget is to forgive and know deep in our hearts and minds that we have been forgiven. Rarely does not occur instantaneously. It is a daily process, taking many months or even years to complete.
23Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24). We remember our sins and the sin of others only once, for the purpose of reconciling, then we forget and move on.
Jesus asks the paralytic in today’s Gospel, "Do you want to be made well?" (v.6). In other words, do you want to repent, be forgiven, and forget the past? Fr. Coniaris says, “Without confession and forgiveness of the past, we learn nothing from the sins and failures of yesterday. We go on concealing our sins and blaming others for the way we are.” Repentance, Confession and forgiveness are the only appropriate ways to turn our gaze from the past towards the future. The Apostle Paul, after repenting and turning away from his past, advised the Romans:
1I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:1-2). Being transformed and renewing our minds is a sacrificial offering of repentance to God.
17Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2Corinthians 3:17-18). Being transformed from glory to glory is allowing God to change us into His image and likeness through His forgiveness that we receive when we repent.
In conclusion, as Christians we are to forget our past but we are not to forget all history. The Divine Liturgy teaches us through worship to remember three things: First is all the good things that our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us:
“Remembering, therefore, this saving commandment and all that came to pass for our sake: the Cross, the tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second glorious coming”.
Second and third, we remember the lives of the Theotokos and the Saints as examples for us to imitate.
“Remembering our most holy, pure, blessed, glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, with all the Saints, let us commit ourselves and one another, and our whole life to Christ our God.” Amen!