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My Past Is Part of What, by God’s Grace, I Am Today


If you don’t know the past, you can’t understand the present and plan properly for the future.” Chaim Potok 

I am a Dutchman. If you want to fully understand who I am, you need some historical context. You do not have to know the dates of the reigns of all the stadtholders and kings or the details of the four wars the Dutch fought against the British. But you cannot understand the modern role that the Netherlands plays in Europe and the larger world unless you have some idea of its past.

I am not only Dutch, but I also come from a particular region in the Netherlands. When I tell people that, in my youth, I lived inside of a windmill used for disposing excess water, they may wonder why. To understand, they need to know about the historical struggle of the Dutch against the water and their history of reclaiming land from the sea. The Dutch needed dikes and windmills to carry this out and to keep dry feet afterward. Knowing something about that region’s past is important for understanding who I am today.

I was not only born in a particular country and region but also into a unique family. To appreciate who I am, people must know something about my family and the ways they have shaped me. In the early seventeenth century, my forebears left the province of Friesland (the name Bruinsma still betrays my Frisian origins) and moved south to the province of Drenthe. Later, during the deep economic crisis of the 1930s, my paternal grandfather and grandmother, along with my father and my oldest sister, moved to Amsterdam. That explains why I am now a proud “Amsterdammer.”

I am also a life-long Seventh-day Adventist. Knowing what this means requires some knowledge of the religious movement’s past. Understanding Adventism without knowing William Miller or Ellen White—or without some awareness of the small movement’s struggles—is virtually impossible.

The religious, familial, and educational contexts in which we grow up have a huge impact on who we become. They determine our personalities, relationships with loved ones, career pathways, and viewpoints on God. For many readers, those formative days of childhood and youth may seem to be in the rather distant past. But that phase of our life continues to exert its influence—often in more ways than we realize.

We have all used these past contexts to make decisions about our jobs, the places where we live, and if we wanted to pursue further education. Many of us had to decide whether or not to remain in the religious sphere in which we grew up. We had to make the important choice of our life partner(s). We have been influenced by our selection of friends, our favorite sports, the kind of amusement we enjoy, our travel (or the lack thereof), and the books we read.

We have also all made mistakes and are influenced by those as well. Many of us have had to face consequences for our wrongdoings. Most (if not all) of us have hurt the feelings of other people, disappointed them, or even betrayed them. A lot of us feel guilt for things we should not have done or should have done differently.

Indeed, there are many things in our past that we carry into the present and future. We no longer have easy access to every event in our past; we cannot relive every emotion we have experienced and cannot rethink every thought. Much of our past, however, remains with us in our memory.

The Power of Memory

Our memory is a very precious commodity, but it can also be quite treacherous—it be faulty or, at the very least, selective. I can hardly remember my own cell phone number, let alone all the pin numbers and passwords that dealing with life in the third decade of the twenty-first century requires. Someone can tell me about the results of last Sunday’s Dutch soccer competition and fifteen minutes later I won’t be able to reproduce any of it. But talk to me about recent church events and most likely I will remember even the smallest details. No doubt, our capacity to remember depends to a large extent on our interests.

We all carry—consciously or subconsciously—such individual memories with us. But we also have our corporate memories. Ethnic groups, nations, and religious communities share particular memories, and some of these memories are long-held and remain very intense. For example, I have traveled extensively in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. I have wondered how the Balkan Wars erupted in the 1990s and led to the atrocities that were committed. For people outside of this region in Europe, it is almost incomprehensible that the 1389 Battle of Kosovo is as vivid in the collective Serbian memory as if it happened yesterday.

It is difficult to forget certain things. The impact of specific memories may diminish and details may become vague, but even as time passes, they linger on. The same is true for shared memories. Some people have the capacity to “forget” or suppress the negative experiences of the past, cherishing the memories of happy times—of loving and being loved and of pleasant life developments. Others tend to remember all the bad things that happened to them, lingering on when life was tough and when relationships failed.

Our memories—correct or selective—impact us, and forgetting the past is not always desirable. The things that we cannot forget may destroy relationships or ruin lives, but when we lose memories, we lose most of who and what we are. When dealing with our past—especially our past mistakes—the art of forgiving becomes all the more important.

The Art of Forgiveness

We all need forgiveness—something that begins with asking for and receiving grace from our heavenly Father. In a way, this is the easy part, for God always stands ready to forgive. His forgiveness is simply for the asking. Forgiveness in our relationships with others spans in two directions. We must offer forgiveness but must also ask for and be ready to accept forgiveness. That may be easier said than done. How far must we go in offering forgiveness? How often must we forgive? Can we forgive anyone?

Christians have no option but to say “yes” to forgiveness. They must forgive, forgive, and then forgive some more. Peter wondered how much forgiveness would be enough. Surely not more than seven times? Christ was abundantly clear in his answer: “No Peter, seven times is not enough. You must forgive, if necessary, seven times seventy times” (Matthew 18: 21, 22). In other words: do not keep count. We must forgive as generously as the heavenly Father forgives us.

Forgiving others, however, is only one part of the equation. We have many reasons to also ask for forgiveness, and that process is often quite difficult. It demands that we admit when we are wrong—that we stop finding excuses and accept responsibility for our acts and words. It means that we cannot be too proud to bow our heads and bend our knee. It also means that we cannot be afraid that the other party will refuse to forgive us.

Just as there is corporate memory as well as individual memory, there is also corporate forgiveness and individual forgiveness. Groups of people must in some cases ask for a public sign of forgiveness, and those groups that have been on the receiving end of cruelty and injustice must be ready to grant that forgiveness. For example, I hope Adventist administrators will, sometime soon, ask forgiveness for how the church has treated many of its female pastors.

Moreover, asking for forgiveness can easily be superficial—a quick “sorry” without any real remorse. I do not refer to that kind of forgiveness. Asking for—and accepting—true forgiveness and forgiving others opens the possibility for fresh starts and mending torn relationships. We read in Colossians 3:13, 14, “Bear with each other and forgive one another . . . . Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Leaving the Past Behind 

There is one more extremely important aspect of forgiveness. We must forgive ourselves. Successfully dealing with our past requires closure. We sometimes look back and say: “I cannot forgive myself for what I did, for the choices I made, for what I failed to do.” It may in some cases be easier to forgive others than to forgive ourselves. We may even hate ourselves for some of the things we have done. But we must come to the point where we recognize and take responsibility for what we did wrong, forgive ourselves, and make amends if possible—then find the strength to move on.

How do we move on? Mary Manin Morrissey, a leading coaching expert, was correct when she said, “Even though you may want to move forward in your life, you may have one foot on the brakes. In order to be free, we must learn how to let go. Release the hurt. Release the fear. Refuse to entertain your old pain. The energy it takes to hang onto the past is holding you back from a new life.”

We can try to suppress our past—refuse to think about pain, move away from places that remind us of it, and ensure that we don’t encounter the people who caused it. We can attempt to dispose of the things that remind us of our past misery. We can try to lock the door to our past and throw away the key.

However, many are simply unable to do this. I know of colleagues in ministry who were treated unfairly by the denomination, and the experience continues to poison their lives. Some people have been deeply hurt or abused by religious institutions, loved ones, and hostile communities. Completely forgetting the past should not be our goal, but we must deal with these events and work to leave them behind us.

In the Old Testament, Joseph went through a long period of suffering and unparalleled misery before things changed for the better. Interestingly enough, he gave one of his two sons the name Manasseh, which means “causing to forget” (Genesis 41:51). It illustrates the dual process involved in leaving the past behind us. The past loses its sting, but the people and things around us will always remind us of our past, just as Manasseh’s name always reminded Joseph of where he had come. Klyne R. Snodgrass rightly said that we are called past our histories, but not out of them. Our histories and memories are important in shaping who we are, but we should not allow them to become the determining factor in who we are today or who we will be tomorrow.

The personal history of the apostle Paul provides an example for contemplation. His past was a mixed bag, as it is for many of us. He was a Roman citizen, an educated Pharisee, and a man with a future. But his fanaticism led him astray. He was happy when he saw the execution of Stephen and became a zealous persecutor of the people of God. But Paul’s history was totally transformed by the story of Christ. Read 1 Corinthians 15:1-10, where Paul recounted what happened to him. Pay special attention to verse 10, where the apostle said: “By the grace of God I am what I am.

Paul had not forgotten his past, but he was no longer a prisoner of his past. When he said in Philippians 3:13, 14 that he was “forgetting what lay behind and straining towards what lays ahead,” he was not saying that he no longer had any memory of what happened on the Damascus road but rather that his present and his future were no longer defined by his past. His past was still with him, but it was eclipsed by what Christ had done for him. He had experienced that “Jesus calls people to live in the present, aware of their past and pulled into the future.”

By the Grace of God

Forgiving and being forgiven are prerequisites for facing the present and the future. As we learn from past mistakes and experiences and build on skills we have mastered, our past can help us face new challenges. As we remember how we previously succeeded in overcoming serious difficulties, it can help us face new problems.

Marcus Garvey, one of the leaders in the struggle for equal rights for Black Americans, once said, “People without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture [are] like a tree without roots.” We need to understand the history of the world into which we were born, the families of which we are a part, and the personal experiences that determine who we are today. This includes reflecting on our past memories and mistakes, seeking forgiveness, and forgiving ourselves.

Our past urges us to repent, and this action keeps us humble. But by faith, we can adopt Christ’s story as the determinative factor of our story! In Christ, we are redefined and placed under his controlling influence. Whatever our past has been, by God’s grace we are where we are today and we can face the future, free from a sense of guilt, with confidence in what we can yet become.

Reinder Bruinsma is a native of the Netherlands who retired in 2007 after a long career in pastoral, editorial, teaching, and church leadership assignments in Europe, the United States, and West Africa. After receiving a BA from Newbold College and an MA from Andrews University, he earned a BDiv with honors and a doctorate in church history from the University of London. Before retiring, he was president of the Netherlands Union.

Title image by Andrea Windolph on Unsplash.

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