At twenty minutes till nine, on the day she was to be married, Miss Havisham received a letter from her fiancé that hijacked the rest of her life. He was standing her up at the altar. And, in that moment, she chained herself to the past. Every day, for decades, her soiled and tattered wedding dress was her sole attire. She had every clock in the house frozen at 8:40 AM. And the wedding cake, once resplendent, lay forever uncut and uneaten, gathering cobwebs atop the kitchen table.
Miss Havisham is a character in Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations. She may be fictional, but let’s not fool ourselves into saying she’s not a real person. She’s more real than we care to admit.
We may not wear the same outward clothing every day, but inwardly draped over our hearts are smeared disappointments, stained hopes, soiled relationships, tattered dreams. We all have moments in our past that we never really seem to get past. There’s that “8:40 AM,” when the hands on the clock of our lives stopped. And try as we might, we can’t seem to get the clock ticking again.
You can’t change the past, they say. And, in one way, that’s obvious. We can’t make it 1980 again. But it’s also not wholly true. The past can, in fact, be changed, for two reasons.
1. Because the past is never truly past to us.
2. Because the past is certainly not past to the creator of time itself.
If there’s something from your own past you wish you could change—and who doesn’t have something like that?—then read on.
The Past Is Never Truly Past to Us
First, let’s get a grip on the fact that the past is never truly past to us. It’s still with us, alive and active and influential within us, in the form of memory. Your child may have died 15 years ago, but that yesterday is still as real as today. Your divorce may have been finalized 5 years ago, but 2013 is just as active within you as 2018. You may have moved on, as we say, but you travel forward with the luggage of personal tragedy in tow. These hurts and disappointments and hard lessons don’t simply disappear. Like scars, they are cut into your soul.
Our present is, therefore, the current embodiment of our past. Who we are today is the accumulation and incarnation of all our yesterdays. We are not past the past; it’s just as alive today as we are.
Because of that, if we could change our today, we could also change our yesterday.
We actually do this all the time, but rarely realize it. How often do we look back on a very dark and depressing time in our lives? While we were going through it, it was awful, heartbreaking, joyless. Nothing but bad, 100% terrible. Then, years later, with some distance between then and now, we look back and realize how that event shaped us in positive ways. We grew up. We learned from our mistakes. We became more humble. We started to appreciate life more. If we hadn’t gone through that horrible time, we wouldn’t be who we are today.
What have we just done? We’ve rewritten our past. Like a novelist who, in the course of writing her novel, goes back and edits Chapter One to fit better with later events in the story, we’ve gone back to edit our own Chapter One or Three or Seven. Yes, it’s already done, but we’re not. The events are irretrievable, lost to time, but we are not. We are our past. And as we relive that past in our memory, as we rethink those dark times, reevaluate who we are as a result of them, things change because we have changed. All of a sudden, that dark epoch in our lives has small glints of hope that were not there before. Today has altered yesterday.
Although God is active in chronological time, he works in Christological time.
This is even more profoundly true when we come to realize what God wants to do for us. Because the past is certainly not past to the author and creator of time itself.
The Past Is Never Truly Past to God
God’s wrists are not handcuffed to the clock. He can alter our yesterday as easily as he can change our tomorrow. For him 1970 and 2020 and 2018 are all one big Today. Although God is active in chronological time, he works in Christological time.
In Christ, God’s Son, yesterday, today, and tomorrow all collapse into one. He holds in himself everything from the beginning to the end of the world. Yes, he was born in time as a man, but the first man, Adam, was already made in his image. Past Eden mimicked future Bethlehem. Yes, he was crucified in time, but he was also the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. So from the beginning, he’s also the end. And from the end, he’s also the beginning.
What happens when we are united with Christ in baptism? God places us within the author of time itself. And in that moment, and in all moments thereafter, our understanding of yesterday, and its impact on us today, undergoes a profound shift. Our past is forever changed.
When we look back on our past, we see Christ becoming the subject of all our misdeeds, the object of all our sufferings, the doer of all our good.
Our mistakes, our deprivations, our shames, our indecencies, are no longer ours but Christ’s. I cannot emphasize this enough. Our past ceases to be private property. It’s now God’s territory. Baptism transfers ownership of our personal stories to Jesus. Our life story becomes his life story, and his life story becomes our life story. He in us, and we in him. And we swap stories.
His ownership of our lives, enacted in baptism, initiates a life-altering, past-changing perspective on who we are and who we’ve been. We become intertwined with Christ in God. Our lives are hidden in him and revealed in him. When we look back on our past, we see Christ becoming the subject of all our misdeeds, the object of all our sufferings, the doer of all our good. He becomes our past. And in him, we become new creations with completely different stories. Every chapter of our lives is rewritten in God.
Our past becomes Christ’s present. Our yesterday his today. And he who is full of love for us, fills our lives—past, present, and future—with that creative love.
Therefore, we can change our past. Or, rather, God in Christ changes it.
Our yesterday? Christ.
Our today? Christ.
Our tomorrow? Christ.
He who is not bound by time, but free in love, freely loves us into a life in which all our dark yesterdays now glimmer with the illumination of his transformative mercy.