[Problematic past]

Dear Donagh,

…. So you can see I went through rough times and did a lot of bad things.  I tried to make up for some of the things like the robberies but it’s not possible to undo some of the things….  I was just lucky to meet Natalie as I was saying.  She deserves the credit for straightening me out, I don’t deserve anything.  I certainly don’t deserve her.  But the thought of all the rubbish things I did gets in on me a lot lately and pulls me down, it’s like dragging a dead body after me.  Sometimes I just stumble from day to day.  I try to pretend it’s not me, but the fact is that it is….  What can I do with a past like that? I like your website, it gives me a bit of hope.  I'd like to hear what you have to say to the likes of me?  Dave

Dear Dave,

I read your letter carefully and I hope you don’t mind that I omitted most of it here.  Readers don’t need to know the detail.  But from the above they can still get the picture. 

The Christian faith assures us that the past is never a problem.  You can only stumble over what is in front of you, not over what is behind.  Sometimes people are helped by others, whether therapists or friends – or in your case the wonderful Natalie – to go back into their past, but the purpose is always to be free of it, not to keep dragging it along with you.  The Scriptures keep repeating this over and over:

“You have held back my life
From the pit of destruction,
For you have cast all my sins
Behind your back.”  (Isaiah 38:17)

The best example of all is the story Jesus invented about a younger son, just like yourself, who got into even bigger trouble than you.  When there was nothing else he could do, he came back home, expecting a very cold reception.  “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him….”  The son started on the humble speech he had ready, but the father cut him off and said to a workman, “‘Quick, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! And they began to celebrate.”  Read that stunning chapter 15 of St Luke’s gospel, which is all about being lost and being found: the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son.  If you don’t have a New Testament Natalie will find it for you on the internet.

You can't change the past, but you can change its significance.  Instead of looking back to see how low you sank, you can look back to marvel at how you have been raised up.  Your life doesn't have to be a particular kind of story before you can hope.  Any story whatsoever will do.  Sometimes the most wretched stories have the best outcomes.  Here’s an encouraging word from a friend of mind – a very old one: from the 14th century! – “See, who was closer to Christ or more intimate with him than the Apostles were?” said Meister Eckhart.  “Yet not one of them but fell into mortal sin: they had all been mortal sinners.  He has frequently shown this in both the Old and the New Testament in regard to those who afterwards were by far the closest to him.  And even now one seldom finds that people come to greatness without erring somewhat at first.”  That's a remarkable statement – a world apart from all the moralising and finger-wagging that we had come to expect from preachers.  Here’s more from the same man: “When someone stands right above sin and turns completely away, then our faithful God acts as if that person had never fallen into sin, and will not let him suffer for a moment for all his sins. Even if they were as many as all people have ever committed, God will never punish him, but would be as familiar to that man as to any other creature. Provided God finds him now ready, he pays no regard to what he was before.  God is a God of the present.  As he finds you, so he takes and receives you, not as what you were but as what you are now.”

That sounds almost as if Meister Eckhart knew you personally.


This is our Question and Answer desk. 
We respond to one question each month. 
If you would like to ask a question, please send it to