What do you do when you think you’ve blown it but you aren’t quite sure?
Maybe you shouldn’t have changed jobs.
Maybe you shouldn’t have bought that new house.
Maybe you shouldn’t have moved to a new city.
Maybe you shouldn’t have taken that big promotion.
Maybe you shouldn’t have started a new business.
What do you do then? It’s always easy to look back and criticize yourself for the decisions you made years ago. We’ve all done our share of second-guessing. It’s normal, it’s natural, and to a certain extent it can be useful. But at some point you’ve got to move on.
I received an email that said something like this (with identifying details changed):
In the early 1980s I left a very good job in Canada to move to Spain because I thought the Lord was leading me in that direction. But it never really worked out like I thought it would. Along the way I got sick, endured treatment, and now am much better. I decided to move back to Canada where I am a lot older than when I left. And I wonder to myself, Was I wrong to leave Canada in the first place? How can I trust God with my future if I secretly think my past decisions were wrong?
It’s that last sentence that sticks in the mind: “How can I trust God with my future if I secretly think my past decisions were wrong?” We’ve all been there at one time or another, and some of us have been there many times.
You bought the new house only to discover that the foundation has cracks in it. Now your dream home has become a nightmare.
You took the new job because your old boss was a jerk only to discover that your new boss is three times the jerk your old boss was.
You moved to a new city, hoping for a new start, but the promised job never materialized, and you discover that the people in the new city aren’t particularly glad to see you.
You decided to find a new church because you you didn’t like all the gossip at your old church. So you switched only to find out that the people at the new church are pretty much like the people at your old church.
You prayed for a long time about starting a new business. When the time seemed right, you took a step of faith, made the leap and started the business, only to see it fail within nine months, just one of many failed ventures in the general economic downtown.
One key factor joins all these examples (which could easily be multiplied). You prayed about it before you made your decision. You took all the steps you knew to take, including seeking godly counsel, considering the circumstances, and searching the Bible for God’s wisdom. What I’m saying is, You truly believed that you were doing the right thing.
But it didn’t work out. And you wonder, understandably, “Did I make the right decision?” Worse, down deep in your heart you ask the question posed in the email I received:
“How can I trust God with my future if I secretly think my past decisions were wrong?”
When I think of these down-to-earth examples, my mind goes back to the story of Abraham who answered God’s call, left Ur of the Chaldees, gave up his idol worship, and set out to follow the Lord. Hebrews 11:8 puts this momentous step of faith in its proper perspective:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.
That verse poignantly illustrates a central truth about the life of faith. You never see the big picture in advance. Even if you think you see it, you don’t. When God calls, he doesn’t always explain himself. He always tells you just enough to get you moving in the right direction.
It is precisely at this point that Abraham’s greatness may be clearly seen. God called and he obeyed. Hebrews 11:8 says he “obeyed and went.”
He may have doubted, but he went.
He may have argued, but he went.
He may have wondered, but he went.
When God calls, the only proper response is to obey and go. Do you remember those old Greyhound commercials? “Go Greyhound and leave the driving to us.” That’s not a bad motto for the life of faith. When God calls, move out and leave the driving to him.
Famine in the Promised Land
But there is more to the story than that. First, when Abraham arrived in the Promised Land, he immediately discovered that some people weren’t glad to see him. Genesis 12:6 tells us that he eventually arrived at Shechem. The Bible adds an ominous phrase at this point: “The Canaanites were in the land.” Think about that. The Canaanites would become the sworn enemies of Israel. When Abraham arrives in the Promised Land, the first people he meets are pagan idol-worshippers. It’s a reminder that living by faith is never easy – not for Abraham, not for you or me.
Second, Abraham soon faced an unexpected crisis. “Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe” (Genesis 12:10). God sent a famine just as Abraham began to settle down. That fact in and of itself is not unusual. But the timing ought to catch our attention. After Abraham’s great step of faith, you would think that God would give him a period of peace and quiet. Life is rarely that simple for any of us.
God often sends trouble following a period of prosperity in order to test our motives. Are we serving him just because things are going well? What if we lose our job? Our marriage? Our friends? Our reputation? Our wealth? Our home? Our health? Will we still serve him then?
It’s crucial to see the larger point. The God who called Abraham in the first place is the same God who sent the famine when he arrived in the Promised Land. The call and the famine go together because they come from the same place. If we believe in a God who is in charge of all the details of life, that must be true.
So now let’s go back and look at the email from the man who wonders if he made a mistake to leave Canada in the first place. On one hand, there is no way to answer that question because I’m not aware of any verse that says “Stay in Canada” or “Move to Spain” or “Move back to Canada.” I can’t even find the word “Canada” in the Bible. From that perspective we’re not talking about a sinful act. You could leave, you could stay, you could return, or you could move to New Zealand and it could all be within God’s will for your life.
Life is short for all of us, and if any of us had a chance to do it over again, we would probably make some decisions differently. I know I would. But that choice is not given to us. Too much introspection about the past makes us tentative about the future. It doesn’t matter what would have happened if the writer had stayed in Canada because no one but God knows how it would have worked out. The thing that matters is that he is back in Canada now.
If we don’t believe in God and his sovereignty, we are doomed to frustration because we will replay our “bad decisions” over and over again. But if we believe in God and his sovereignty, at some point we have to move on. The only way to do that is to focus on God and his greatness and his goodness. Romans 8:28 has to come into play at some point.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (ESV).
Does that include the good things that happen to us?
Does it include the decisions we make that turn out well?
We know the answer is yes.
Does it include the worst things that happen to us?
Does it include even our “bad decisions”?
If words mean anything, then the “all things” of Romans 8:28 must include those decisions we think we would make differently. When we factor God in, we can let go of the past. At some point we need to pray a prayer like this:
“Lord, I believe you can use those things for my good and your glory. I believe it because your Word says it, and I also believe that if I trust you, you will prove yourself faithful to me even though right now I have my doubts about how my life is working out.”
The past is gone and we can’t go back. Don’t try. You can’t live in yesterday. As a wise man said, “The key to a better future is to stop trying to have a better past.” Here’s the most profound thing I know about the past:
It is what it is.
Nothing you do can change it in the least.
You can’t live in the past. And you can’t live in today forever. The voice of God calls us onward toward tomorrow. Here’s a series of three statements I call the First Law of Spiritual Progress. It goes like this:
I can’t go back.
I can’t stay here.
I must go forward.
You can’t go back to the past – not to relive the good times or to undo the mistakes you made. But you can’t stay where you are either. Life is a river that flows ever onward. It matters not whether you are happy in your present situation or whether you seek deliverance from it. You can’t stay where you are forever. The only way to go is forward. When you are tempted to despair, remember that you can’t go back, you can’t stay where you are, but by God’s grace you can move forward one step at a time. God’s call is always onward, forward, moving out by faith into the unknown future. This is not easy but it must be done. And when we do it, we will discover a well of joy springing up to refresh our souls as we march onward with the Lord.
We can’t change the past, and even if we could, we can’t always be sure we would improve things. But we can trust the Lord, go forward, do our best, and leave the results in his hands.