Building on the Past for a Better Future

In the last article, “Why is Change Difficult?”, that I wrote on the subject of change, I found myself reminiscing about the past. The past is something valuable, something we can learn from. This includes the past as it pertains to God’s relationship with his people. The Bible contains many stories about how God has been there for his people. These stories speak of what God has to offer us.

One of the themes found in Archbishop Emeritus Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap.’s new book, Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living by Archbishop Emeritus Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap. (New York: Henry Holt and Company. 2021) is the importance of the past, specifically God’s place in our past and, thus our present and future.

Many people have lost sight of what God offers us. Archbishop Chaput writes, “It’s hard to imagine a greater irony than dying of thirst on the surface of an ocean” (63). God provides us an ocean of infinite grace but many people have no idea what God offers. They look for something more in life but they do not realize that it is God they seek. Instead, they drink what the world offers, wealth, power, and prestige, but these things can never quench our real thirst. We thirst for the living waters of the Spirit.

We live busy lives. Even if one is looking for God, one might not know how to recognize God. As Archbishop Chaput shares what a corporate consultant wrote, “We can miss God without the Church to slow us down, to point God out, to remind us of his presence” (182). Coming to Mass in the midst of a busy life can help us slow down. Sharing God’s Word from the Bible helps point out how God has been present to his people in the past so that we might more readily recognize his presence today.

It is important to remember both the good times and the bad times. We naturally remember the good times, perhaps even boasting of our successes. On the other hand, we like to hide our failures. However, as Archbishop Chaput shares from a pastor, “In some ways, Church history is similar to how the Jewish people recount themselves in the Hebrew Scriptures. They often don’t record their greatest stories but rather their worst. They show their humiliating attempt to follow God by underlining their failures and his fidelity” (187). Why? To show that the successes come not from their own efforts but from God. We read in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, “he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

It is in knowing the past that we recognize that true “success” and, more importantly, true life comes when we hand our weaknesses over to God and He responds with grace.

In showing the importance of the past, Archbishop Chaput turns to the “late British scholar and skeptic J.H. Plumb” (19) who “had a grudging respect for the legacy of Jews and Christians” (20) because of their view of the past. Today, many people want to remove any mention of the past. Speaking of Plumb, Archbishop Chaput writes, “he saw that destroying the coherence of the past could cause a paralysis in social matters. He knew that humans “need a compulsive sense of the value of man’s past,” not only for themselves as persons but also for the world at large” (20).

Our past is an important part of how we are. We may have moments that were terrible, embarrassing, and something we would rather forget. We have moments in our past that we never speak of. These moments are part of how we are. The fact that we have survived them can reveal to us how God has led us through difficult moments.

In acknowledging our weaknesses, we can see and admit how God has rescued us. The Israelites could not speak of how God set them free from the Babylonian Exile without admitting that they had ended up in exile because they had sinned. We cannot speak of how Jesus died for us on the Cross so that our sins can be forgiven without admitting we have sinned.

It is in admitting our failures that we can tell of God’s marvelous deeds. This is true in telling others of God’s marvelous deeds. It is also true even for us on our own. We cannot realize all that God has done for us until we admit our failures to see how God has rescued us.


Fr. Jeff

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