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Forgiveness and Trying Not to Look Over My Shoulder

A young woman is walking on a city street but looking back over her shoulder.

An incident from my past keeps coming back to my mind.  As I have explored why, I have realized that one reason is that my pride was hurt by the other person in the situation.  I felt like I deserved better than I got.  I wanted to be treated like a valued member of a team.  Instead, I was scolded and felt put down and humbled.


I can’t change the past.


But if I nurture the hurt, it could start to define me.  What we devote our minds to, defines us.


Confess, Forgive, and Move On


Jesus tells me to let it go – to confess to God my part in the incident, to forgive the other person, and to move on.


I have confessed my part to God, and I believe what 1 John 1:9 says: that if we confess our sins, God will forgive us our sins and cleanse us.

I have forgiven the other person. Colossians 3:13 says, “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (NRSV). I have made a conscious decision to forgive the other person.


I have never had a chance to talk to this person again, so I don’t know if they even think they hurt me.  But that doesn’t matter.  I am called to forgive even those who will never know I have forgiven them, just as God forgives me of sins I have never acknowledged and don’t even remember having committed.  That’s part of what forgiveness is about – it is unconditional.


The challenge is the step of moving on.  My mind wants to keep going back to the hurt, to keep mulling it over and trying to defend myself.  But if I don’t move on, my focus on that incident will twist my soul.


Trying to Walk Forward While Looking Back Twists Us Up


An image came to mind recently that I think will help me not to get stuck re-litigating the past.


Imagine a person who can’t stop looking at something that happened in their past.  It’s behind them now, but they keep looking back.


Now picture it as if it were literally true: Something happened to you as you were walking down the street, and now you have moved on.  The site of the incident is literally behind you.  But imagine that, instead of moving forward with eyes ahead, you keep twisting your body to look back at that spot behind you, even as you try to walk forward.


If you do that long enough, your whole body will become twisted and no longer able to function properly.  Your neck will get stuck in a twisted position.  Your shoulders will not stand straight.  Your hips will hurt as you walk.  All because you can’t take your eyes off of that spot that is behind you.


That’s what we do to our souls when we can’t take our minds off of a hurt from the past.  It twists us.  It twists our souls so that we can’t move forward smoothly.


It doesn’t matter that I think I was mistreated.  I still need to let it go, because the alternative is to let it twist my soul.


I'm not advocating "forgive and forget." Nowhere does Scripture advocate "forgive and forget." That we can remember what happened to us in the past is both part of what makes us human and part of what makes us creatures made in the image of God.

The issue I have been struggling with is not whether to forget, but whether to dwell on the hurt when it comes to mind. God invites us, and empowers us, to release the past pain so that it no longer has a grip on us. That is harder to do if we keep focusing on the hurt.

The prophet Isaiah did not have my situation in mind when he wrote the following words of the Lord, but they seem to fit: "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (Isaiah 43:18-19, NRSV) Those are words that apply repeatedly in our lives, because God is always striving to do something new, if we will only cooperate.

I can’t focus on the past and at the same time stride confidently into the future God has ahead of me. I have to make a choice as to where I focus my gaze, because when I am looking over my shoulder, I’m not focused on what lies ahead.  (I might not even notice what is going on right around me, as my daughter pointed out.)


I Will Direct My Eyes Forward


So I have decided that every time that hurt from the past comes to mind, I will remember my image of a person who can’t stop looking back at what happened behind them.  Instead of dwelling on the past, I will intentionally direct my mind toward what lies ahead: the work that Jesus has for me right now.

But, practically speaking, how does one STOP thinking about something? Only by replacing the thought with something else. As St. Paul says: "[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Philippians 4:8, NRSV). I need to interrupt the unhelpful thinking and put my mind on what God has laid in front of me now.


So that’s my plan.  I don’t need to get twisted up, thinking about the past.  I will decide, again and again, to stop looking back, and instead to focus on the good things that God has in front of me.  That's where I will focus my thoughts.


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