Leadership Lifter: Letting Go of the Past – Part 3

by Rick Warren

For the last two months we have been looking at how to let go of the past and move towards a more healthy future. We looked at two things you must do to move forward: I must give up my grudges and I must give up my grief. This month I will conclude the series with the final thing that is required for you to keep from getting stuck in the past. 


Some people refuse to accept forgiveness from God. They hang on to their guilt. They hold on to it. They lock themselves into a prison as if their paying for their own sins.  

This is from letter received by a friend of mine who is a pastor at another church: “I’m 31 years old and divorced. Though I fought the divorce bitterly I feel bad because it went ahead anyway and I now feel badly that I have no hope for the future. Often I go home from church and cry but there’s no one to hold me when I cry. No one cares. I’ve begged God for the grace to be single for His glory and to fix my eyes on Jesus, but nothing changes. I continue to fail. I’m a basket case emotionally or on the verge of a collapse. Something is very wrong. I’m so crippled and embittered that I can scarcely relate to anybody else anymore. I feel as if I will have to set out the rest of my life in the penalty box.” 

That describes so many people that I have met. I’ve met 13-year olds who feel that they are in the penalty box of life. “I’ve made a mistake and blew it! Therefore the rest of my life is Plan B. I can no longer have God’s best for my life because I’ve made some dumb mistakes. Stupid, silly mistakes, therefore the rest of my life is wasted.” If that’s the way you feel, you are wrong! If I believed that, I wouldn’t be here. There is hope. That is the message of the good news, that we have a forgiving and gracious God; the God of the second chance. But you’ve got to give up your guilt.  

This is what I call the Humpty Dumpty syndrome of life. “All of the king’s horses, and all the king’s men, nobody’s going to put me back together again.” I will be scarred the rest of my life! Then you need to meet JC in a new way. He is the healer of scars. 

I’ve met so many people who are torturing themselves today with guilt and torturing their mate with guilt for things that happened long before they were ever married. And they’re taking it out on their marriage today. That’s not right either. You’ve got to let go of your grudges — people who have hurt you. You’ve got to let go of your grief — things that are out of your control. You have to let go of your guilt — when things you’ve done have hurt others.  

How do you let go of guilt? There are two approaches to guilt. One is right and one is wrong. They are both seen in two of the disciples in the Bible — Peter and Judas. Both Peter and Judas, on the night before Jesus was taken into custody, both denied Jesus. They both sinned. But they responded very, very differently to their guilt. One response was right and one response was wrong. You will choose one of these two responses to the guilt you have in life.  

The way Judas responded was self-condemnation. Matthew 27:3-5 tells us, “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse. Then he went out and hanged himself.” He committed suicide. That’s the ultimate expression of self-condemnation. He said, “I’ve blown it! I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life! I’ve created the greatest sin! Therefore life is worthless and I’m condemned.” He went out and took his own life. There are many, many ways to live in condemnation without committing suicide.   

On the other hand, Peter’s response was not condemnation but confession. Matthew 26:75 tells us, “Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken and he went outside and wept bitterly.” He had the same remorse Judas did but he confessed his sin. How do I know he did that? Because a few days later God used him. Peter must have said, “God, I’m so sorry. I lived with Jesus Christ for 3½ years. I’ve watched every move and when it came down in a clench, I copped out! I denied I ever knew You. God, I’ve really let You down!” Have you ever said that to God? “God, I’ve blown it! I’ve really let You down.” God, says, “No, my child. You did not let Me down. Because you weren’t holding Me up in the first place.” You don’t hold God up. He holds you up. You don’t have God in your hands. He has you in His hands. This may shock you but nothing you ever do surprises God. Isn’t it amazing that God knows every stupid mistake I’m going to make for the rest of my life and yet He still loves me? He already knows. That’s grace, folks.  

Peter said, “God, how could You use me? I’m so unfaithful.” But he confessed his sin. He repented and Peter, the man who denied Jesus Christ at the crucifixion, was the same man that God chose to use 50 days later on the day of Pentecost to speak and 3000 people were saved. That’s the God of the second chance. That’s the good news. You confess it to God.  

What do you do with your guilt? You have options: 

You can repress it. That doesn’t work, pushing it down inside. When I swallow my guilt, my stomach keeps score. Or my back, or my migraine headaches, or something.  

You don’t suppress it. It only comes back. 

You can express it — how? By doing more of the same? “Look what a lousy guy I am!” And go out and do more of it! “I’m an immoral person, so watch how immoral I can be.” No. 

You confess it. Give it to God. “God, You’re right. It was wrong. I’m sorry.”  

What does it mean to confess?  

You don’t beg God. “Please, please, please forgive my sin.” You don’t have to beg God. God wants to forgive you more than you want to be forgiven. He’s waiting to forgive you. He wants to wipe the slate clean.  

You don’t bargain with God. “God, if You’ll forgive me this time, I will never do it again” — Want to bet? If that’s your area of weakness you’ll be back there in a matter of days. Confession does not make you perfect, it just takes care of the past. “God, if You’ll just forgive me I’ll tithe twenty percent of my income!” You don’t bargain with God. 

You don’t blame other people. “God, the reason I sinned was because it’s really their fault. My mother held my face under the bathtub water when I was a little kid. Since then I’ve had repressed emotions. That’s why I stabbed the guy in the back. I’m a product of my environment.” You don’t blame, you don’t bargain, you don’t beg. 

You just believe. Believe and receive. The Bible says, “If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That’s the soap bar verse of the Bible. Cleanse. Totally cleansing.  

That’s what God says to you. Which of these three bags of emotional garbage are you still carrying around in your relationships today?  

Grudges? Who are you still holding a grudge against? A Mom? A Dad? A brother/sister? A former mate? A former pastor? A former girlfriend? Who are you holding the resentment against? Let it go! The Bible says, Give it up! Get rid of it. It only hurts you worse and makes you worse. Let it go. If you are allowing people from your past to continue to hurt you in the present, that’s not smart. Let it go. Some of you hold on to every little hurt in your marriage. You hide it and you keep a stockpile of it so you can use it as ammunition in the next argument. Your husband or wife says, “You did this…” and you say, “Yes, but you did THIS…” I Cor. 13:5 “Love keeps no record of wrongs.” You don’t count or keep score in love. It’s unloving to keep score. Give up your grudges. 

Grief? Have you built a wall around you? Have you become afraid of becoming intimate with anybody? Do you think if you get close to somebody you may lose them too? So you become hard and build a shell, a case around your life. Have you accepted what cannot be changed? Are you looking at what’s left, not what’s lost? Are you playing it down and praying it up?  

Guilt? Are you carrying emotional baggage into relationships that you’re trying to develop now in life? Things you feel guilt for maybe 20, 30, 40 years ago are affecting your relationships today. You’ve never let go of them. Give up your guilt. 

Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross so you can quit nailing yourself to a cross. The Bible says, “Therefore if any man be in Christ he is a new creature, old things are past away, behold all things are become new.” The moment you commit your life to Christ it’s washed out, the slate is clean. You become a new person inside. It’s being born again, starting over. A brand new shot at life. You do not have to live the rest of your life in a penalty box. Not only is it a waste of time, but you will never be the leader that God intended you to be until you are willing to let go of the past and move into the future.  

Rick Warren is the Founding Pastor of Saddleback Church and author of such best-selling books as The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life.

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One Response to Leadership Lifter: Letting Go of the Past – Part 3

  1. maggievoelker says:

    Thanks Pastor Rick. A few years ago I discovered that root words of ‘anger’ are ‘grief’ and ‘grievance’. So, holding on to grief, grievances (grudges) and guilt show up as anger towards others (grief, grudges) and anger towards self (guilt). No wonder we’re commanded by our Heavenly Father to not let anger control us or let it stay with us past sundown. (Eph. 4:26 NLT, The Message)

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