When the Past is a Trap (Psalm 73)

When the Past is a Trap (Psalm 73)

Written by: Pete McClanathan

“All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” (Psalm 73:13)

And so it has come to this. Our friend Asaph, a godly man and leader, confesses something that is hard for us to believe. Does he truly mean that he views his life with some regret? That he may have missed some things along the way? That his well-intentioned choices may not have paid off? That he would do differently if given the chance?

By the end of the psalm we’ll see that is not what he truly believes. But his cry ought to be familiar to us. Memories of things past, and the yearnings and comparisons they bring, can snag us in traps. Traps that will freeze us emotionally in past times, places, and experiences. And lead us to question God’s sovereignty and goodness as well as our own wisdom.

A number of years ago during an interim pastor season, I was challenged by a longtime church member at a congregational meeting. This man’s complaint was that I was preaching too much about “salvation." He claimed that instead I should be focusing on battling the cultural changes around us. “People need to know what things were like 50 years ago,” he said.

I politely replied that what he termed “preaching salvation” was an intentional effort to stir hunger for God and His Word among the people with a variety of subjects and scriptures. The discussion went no further, and I believe this man and I still share mutual respect.  

But the phrasing of his comments has lingered in my mind. I’ve observed that these ideas are not at all uncommon. And I believe they may reveal important things about us.

There is no question that time brings changes, and in many ways change can be uncomfortable American culture today is clearly different from that of the mid-20th century. And I would not disagree that the widespread changes have been unsettling, even overwhelming to many. Not to mention the changes we encounter within ourselves as life moves us along. I’ve experienced such feelings myself in many ways.

This angst does not arise merely from having to navigate new forms of culture and technology. Or from changing seasons of life. The evolution of social practices and moral values, often in a troubling direction, certainly has contributed significantly to stress and distress. I dare suggest, however, that the truth may reach beyond the events of yesterday or today.  

In times like these, there can arise a desire to pull the world around us back toward a time and place which seemed to make sense. The desire is understandable. But in reality, clinging to past experiences as an ideal for the present and future can prove to be a losing game. The reasons go beyond the fact that the past is difficult to recapture. I’m asking that you explore some of these matters with me. And lest you believe I don’t really understand, I’ll let you in on some of my own personal thoughts and struggles.  

I am one who wrestles continually with the regrets, losses, and what-ifs of life. I admit to carrying my own idealized memories of an analog world that no longer exists. Tears of longing can appear as I review youthful years from the late 1950’s into the mid 1980’s. And there can arise a wish to be transported back. Back to times when I would find our city’s downtown commercial area thriving with dozens of small retailers and department stores. Local bus service and daily newspaper. Full-service gas stations abundantly placed around the city. Local employees staffing locally-owned businesses. Land telephones that were simple to use and understand. Hobby shops, sandlot football and church league basketball. AM radio, downtown restaurants and bowling lanes. My best friend beside me on stage with his guitar as our band played at various locations in the area. The complexities of internet privacy and social media were unheard of, as were the stresses they can bring. And there seemed to exist a fairly polite and respectful code of community conduct (usually).
And I have to mention the trains. Oh, my. The streamlined Land O’Corn and the nocturnal Hawkeye passenger trains of the Illinois Central Railroad. The Stephenson Street depot where they came calling twice each day. The Iowa to Chicago express meat trains. Wallace Yard filled with freight cars and diesel locomotives. The Milwaukee Road ‘s secondary mainline winding through the eastern parts of town, and its East Stephenson Street station. Branchlines from Freeport north to Madison and south to Dixon and beyond. The underdog Chicago Great Western across the southern part of the county.  Local freight agents at every small town station who gave a glad greeting and could be counted on to provide expected train times. And the glorious transcontinental passenger trains passing through Ogle County on their way to or from Chicago. Magnificent creatures bearing delightful names such as Empire Builder, City of Los Angeles, Twin Cities Zephyr, City of Portland, City of San Francisco, North Coast Limited, Western Star.
All have disappeared into the past, and longings can be hard to avoid. Sometimes I feeI I’d give a great deal to travel back for several weeks in the late summer and early autumn of 1965 (or 1967, or 1969), with a digital camera and unlimited battery and storage capacity. But what would I find myself doing and feeling? I doubt it would prove to be what I wish for. And am I not coming dangerously close to Asaph’s thinking, that there are treasures I’ve missed and would like to revisit?

The past attracts us not so much for what it was, but for what we believed it promised. As warm as such thoughts may feel (and they do), in truth they are merely selective and idealized memories. The tough times, even the unremarkable grinds of daily living, seldom appear in our reflections. And the good times rarely fulfilled the promises they seemed to hold.  

And so we come to two thoughts. We first must recognize and admit that what felt like the good seasons probably weren’t all of what we think we remember. Treasured experiences and ideals of the past can deceive us because they seldom reflect the realities of life. By their nature they magnify what seemed pleasant and hopeful, and conceal the hidden personal and spiritual struggles that existed behind our shiny memories.

The longing for better times involves yearnings. And because time can’t be reversed, yearnings have no other place to go than to stir feelings of personal loss, regret, even guilt. Those yearnings can be deep and relentless. No one is completely exempt. Asaph knew. I know.

And they risk something more serious. Clinging to treasured memories of what we think were calmer and better times can lead us to a faulty understanding of God’s character, His purposes, and His provision.

Yearnings reveal the troublesome truth that underneath lies a bed of sadness or discontent in our lives. And so long as that pain is being medicated by thoughts of what was, or what might have been, we remain tossed by feelings of loss and regret and we block the road to healing. So what can we do?

Recall the Stop, Look, Listen process from earlier articles? Let’s apply it to this painful subject and see what we find.  

The first step calls us to Stop. Stop what? Stop the dysfunctional reflections on things of the past. Stop massaging the longings for things to have gone differently, (“If only…”).  And stop measuring today’s life by things of another time. The trains won’t be coming back, nor will the band, nor my friends, nor the elusive college years, nor will she.

Why the need to Stop? For our very own protection. Left unchallenged, these memories and yearnings can settle into places in our minds that can be difficult to dislodge. We can find ourselves paralyzed emotionally by second guessing, what-ifs, and oceans of regret.

And we can run ourselves perilously close to a subtle but serious form of idolatry.  Longings such as we have described always relate to things of the world. And as we crave things, people, places, or experiences, whether present or past, we become part of humanity’s pursuit of that which cannot satisfy.  

Remember, idolatry consists of giving value and worship to persons or things in the world that rightfully belong to God alone. And is that not precisely what Asaph is doing in vs. 13, though he may not realize it? His words suggest he longs to rewrite his life, this time without the restrictions that righteousness can bring. And we hear a yearning for experiences and joys he feels he has missed.

“The whippoorwill roosts on the telephone pole as the Georgia sun goes down;
It’s been a long time but I’m glad to say that I’m going back down to my hometown.
Going down to the Greyhound station, gonna buy me a one-way fare;
And if the good Lord’s willing and the creeks don’t rise, tomorrow I’ll be right there.”  

(Joe South, Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home? Copyright 1969)

How many of us have been trapped by such a view of life? Has it brought peace and fulfillment, or ongoing regret? Like Asaph, we can find ourselves meeting life at a painful crossroad where the present feels empty or burdensome and the hope and promises of the past shine as incomparably better. The temptation is great to direct our minds back to what seemed to hold such promise. But experience tells us, if we’re honest, that there is nothing there. Nothing other than questions, regrets, and the inevitable sadness that comparisons bring.

“But there’s a six-lane highway down by the creek where I went skinny-dipping as a child;
A drive-in show where the meadow used to grow and the strawberries used to grow wild.
There’s a drag strip down by the riverside where my grandma’s cow used to graze;
Now the grass don’t grow and the river don’t flow like they did in my childhood days.”
(Joe South, Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home? Copyright 1969)

 If you, like me, frequently find yourself with troubled longings for things past, remember that they are gone or changed forever. The yearnings come from faraway dreams that seem uncompleted, not from an accurate view of life as it is.  It will require awareness, courage, and a well-grounded faith to begin the climb out of this prison.

So as we stop, what then? We Look. Look for what? How about all the good that is around us? Things we might not see easily in the midst of difficulty? Intentionally seeing things as they really are. Refusing to ignore or dismiss the people, places, and experiences that God has provided, then and now.

This is not a call to wishful thinking or prosperity gospel, far from. It’s a practice that recognizes the pain and difficulties of life and directs us beyond them, to a sovereign God who has held all of our days in His hand.

And we also Listen . . . to what the Word of God tells us about Him, about life, about trust and restoration. That subject is deep and wide, and we’ll pick up there in our next article. Meanwhile, here are two fortresses we can camp within:

“Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these? For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” (Eccl. 7:10)

“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.  Behold, I am doing a new thing, how it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Is. 43:18-19)

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