‘You’re not really cut out for this sort of thing. It takes character and stickability.’ I was 18 when someone who I deeply loved and respected said them to me. I had just taken the decision in my head to do what I thought God was asking me to do, to get into some kind of ministry job. I had an opportunity that excited me to the point of sleeplessness and a faith that this could be what I was made for bubbling up within me. Fifteen misplaced words later and I felt like my soul had been crushed. Lip quivering and hands shaking I said a brief thank you and got into my car. I wept the on the drive home, Nirvana’s Nevermind was playing in the car, it has never been the same to listen to it since.
Ultimately, I had enough people around me who saw some spark of potential in me. They invested in me and encouraged me and I have been amazed by what God has allowed me to be involved in. The reality is that the words that I heard that day still from time to time echo in my mind. They serve as some sort of shadow side, calling me to quit or walk away when things get tough.
There are two lessons I have learnt from that experience, it was nearly 15 years ago but I am still learning.
The first lesson is that the words I speak to people can have long reaching effects. I think back over the things I might have said to people and realise that I have probably been that guy. I have been the one who crushed the dreams of another person by carelessly choosing words that tore down and didn’t build up. I try harder these days to choose encouragement over everything else.
The second lesson? I have to learn it every day; I need to allow the past to be the past. Whether it be the destructive words of a well-meaning person, the losses I have felt at my lowest points in life or the great moments of success that I sometimes find myself nostalgically longing for again. All of it, I have to let it be, leave it in the past. I need to learn to live for today.
This means learning a lot of skills that don’t always feel natural to us. It isn’t the easiest thing to replace negative words with the positive, it isn’t always easy to engage in the moment and not pine for the past. It is far from natural to forgive the hurt and pain and move forward; that often feels like letting people off the hook. However, this is just the kind of living that brings huge freedom that allows us to see the light of today without the shadow of yesterday dulling the hue.
My favourite story about Jesus is in John 8. He is returning from prayer and the religious leaders drag a fearful woman to him, throwing her at his feet. They loudly tell of her crime, being with a man she is not married to (the man is noticeably absent). They call for her punishment, traditionally death by stoning. Jesus writes on the ground and then calls on the most innocent man to throw first. One by one they leave. The part of the story that I love the most is the last interchange between Jesus and the woman.
“I don’t condemn you, now go and live free of this that you’ve been caught up in.” (That is my paraphrase)
In that story is a central message of the gospel. Jesus, the Son of God, came and stood between us and our past, between us and our punishment, between us and our pain, our sin and the brokenness of life. He looked us in the eye and offers us new life, even redemption from the pasts we have built for ourselves.
This means that all the badges I wear that label me as weak, failed and of poor character or lacking stickability don’t own me. That every loss and shame I have experienced can be left behind. That no matter where I am now, I can always hope for the better; for the promised life of fullness.
What if when we speak to each other we speak words of hope into each others lives. We are more than the sum of past. We are filled with potential, we are the exact type of person God redeems and uses in his Kingdom to do great things.
Please do not let the words or actions of others in your past control anything that happens in your life. Let the past be the past.
(I wrote this listening to Nirvana – Nevermind. Perhaps even a record can be redeemed.)