Everyone would agree that we are shaped by our past. When we hear on the news about yet another mass shooting, we wonder what sort of childhood could have produced such monsters. So there are usually newspaper articles and television programs that delve into that person’s past in an attempt to see what it was that produced such a cold-hearted killer. On the other hand, if we see a young man or a young woman who is polite and kind and helpful and an all-around good person, we might say that person was ‘brought up right.’ Everyone would agree that the kind of person you are today has much to do with your past.
We also know that parenting, important as it is, is not everything. There are always other factors. There are people who are given every opportunity, and still manage to mess up everything. And there are others whose parents were mean or negligent, their home life chaotic, and they grew up with few opportunities, but still, they managed to rise above the difficulties of their past and do quite well. Perhaps in their earlier years there was another relative, or a positive circle of friends, or they were at the right place at the right time, or any number of other things. But again, it was things that happened in their past. We are what we are today, in a large part, because of our past experiences.
We are most certainly shaped by our past. But our present lives and attitudes and even circumstances are also shaped by our future. A teenage boy dribbles a basketball and shoots baskets for several hours every day all summer long. His present activities are shaped by the fact that in four months the high school basketball season will begin and he has a chance of being a star on the team, earning the respect of all the guys and the attention of all the girls. It is such future hopes and dreams that keep him dribbling that basketball and shooting those baskets. Another teenager studies hard every night of the week and throughout the weekend because in two years she wants to go to a big college out East, and there is no way she or her parents could ever afford the college she has chosen. However, if she keeps on getting excellent grades, she may get a big scholarship. That future goal keeps her nose in the books when all her friends are out having fun. Or I think of my German ancestor immigrants who left their homes and families to come to America. It was a difficult thing to do and the outcome was very uncertain, but the hope of a better future for them and their children set them on their way. Yes, we are shaped by our past, but we are also, in many ways, shaped by our future.
God wants to mold and shape you in a certain way. God wants you to obey Him and live the kind of life He has in mind for you. And one of the many reasons we ought to pay attention to God’s commands and wishes for us is that a big part of our faith is future oriented. The Bible spends a great deal of time talking about God’s promises for our future, promises even for another life that is above and beyond this life and its inevitable end. Eternal promises like that, if believed in, can be a powerful force in shaping our lives right now.
There is an approach to life that says “You only go around once in life, so grab all that you can in the here and now.” That is the belief and approach to life for a great many people, but it is not a Christian belief. In fact, it is the very opposite of Christian belief. Jesus did not talk about grabbing all you can now because now is all you get. Jesus talked about sacrifice and obedience and taking up our cross to follow him. He talked about choosing to suffer, even to die, rather than do what is wrong. He even said once that if you try to gain your life you will lose it, and what will it profit you if you gain the whole world and lose your eternal soul?
But everything Jesus said was said in the context of his primary message which was that he came to give us real life, abundant life, and most of all, life with Him in His home forever. That is far different from saying ‘you only go around once in life so grab all you can;’ and it will have a far different impact on how you will live and what choices you will make.
If this life is all there is, then why try to do the right thing, why worry about keeping our commitments, why remain loyal when it is painful or difficult, or, most foolish of all, why give your life any cause, no matter how noble or worthy? The approach to life that says ‘you only go around once, so grab all you can,’ doesn’t leave much incentive for making good and moral choices. However, if we believe in Jesus’ promise that there is a life after this life, an eternal life, and, as Jesus says, this life is a preparation for the life to come, then we have every reason to do what is right here, even if it means losing our present life.
This future hope and promise will then have everything to do with our present lives and choices. We are shaped by our past, yes, but we are not bound by it. Our faith in future promises can be an even stronger motivator and determiner of how we behave and what we do in the here and now.
Paul was shaped by his past to be an ardent defender of the Jewish faith and a persecutor of the early church. But then Jesus appeared to him, and gave him a vision of the future that changed everything for Paul. Years later Paul wrote: “Now, I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection… Not that I have already obtained all God has to offer, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me … So, forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:10-14)
Colossians 3:1-2 — Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
Mark 8:35-36 — (Jesus said), “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet lose their soul?”
Grant to us, O Lord, to know that which is worth knowing, to love that which is worth loving, to praise that which pleases you most, to esteem that which is most precious to you, and to dislike whatsoever is evil in your eyes; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
–Thomas a Kempis (15th century)