What a relief: Your past does not define you
Only God can really define who you are. But haven’t you known someone who defines themselves by what has happened to them in the past?
I have a friend who, even though he is now retired, still looks back on his childhood and the way his father abused him emotionally, as one of the major factors in who he is today. He didn’t receive the love he needed from his father. And it has affected his whole life ever since. He sees himself as a victim of his father’s behavior.
My friend is a very faithful Christian, studies the Bible and prays every day. And he has found a large measure of freedom from his past, but in his mind, it still defines who he is, how he acts, thinks, and sees himself.
I also have friends who define themselves by all the good that has happened to them in the past. And my friend, who I just mentioned, would be the first to admit that his mother had an amazing and very positive influence on who he is because of all the love she expressed over many years.
Most of us, if not all of us, have had a big mix of positive as well as negative influences in our lives. And it would be naïve to suggest these experiences don’t have any effect in how we develop and who we become as a person.
But our past does not define who we are.
Only God defines us
Unfortunately, too many health-care and well-being professionals today don’t see the role God plays in defining who we are.
They insist we’re a combination of so many things: Our past, good and bad; our DNA, our choices, our attitudes, our social and economic cultures. The list goes on. In effect, all these human theories define us as a giant conglomeration of so many internal and external influences.
And the one thing many of them have in common is that you have to accept who you are as this bundle of past influences. There’s nothing you can do to change who you are. You can only learn to live with the results and mitigate them to best of your ability. But you will never be completely healed or free from the influences of your past.
Recently, I’ve heard several so-called experts in completely different fields, say that our basic character and identity are firmly established by the time we’re five years old, or thereabouts.
That doesn’t offer a lot of hope for someone like my friend I just mentioned. This approach to life basically traps someone in their past.
Are we trapped in our past?
You are so much more than your past. In fact, from a spiritual perspective, your past does not define who you are. It may influence how you think and act, but is does not define you.
In light of all this, I got to thinking about what the Bible says about who we are, who we really are.
As I said earlier, only God truly defines who and what we are.
In the very first chapter in the Bible, God declares for all time our true identity, that we are made in His image and likeness, reflecting both the masculine and feminine aspects of God’s nature. (See Genesis 1:26, 27)
This is who we are. This is who we have always been, the image and likeness of the divine.
How do you define God?
How you define yourself depends largely on how you define God.
If you think of God as a giant man in the sky throwing thunderbolts at you every time you do anything wrong, that will affect the way you define yourself.
If you see God as divine Love itself, as John does, (See 1 John 4:8 below) this too will influence how you see yourself.
And the further you go in this process, the more you realize it’s not really about how you see or define God. That is a bit presumptuous of us, isn’t it, to think we can define who God is?
How does God define Himself?
It really is about how God defines Himself. I covered this specific idea all the way back in Episode 51 of The Bible Speaks to You Podcast. It’s called: How Does God See Himself?
Because you are made in the image and likeness of God, it is actually how God sees Himself that defines who you are.
Let me repeat that. How God sees Himself defines who you are. Let that sink in a minute.
You are not defined by your past, good or bad, heredity, environment, society, culture, economics, or any other human circumstances or conditions. These things may influence you, but they do not define you.
God’s conscious awareness of who He is declares who you are.
Some examples in the Bible
Let’s look in the Bible at some classic examples of people who were and were not defined by their past.
The first person that that I think of is Joseph in the Old Testament. He had quite a history and a very circuitous path getting to his final position as Governor of Egypt or second in command to Pharaoh.
First, he was the favored son of his father Jacob, and became the despised younger brother by his older siblings. And how did he see, or define himself at the time? Did he have a sense of entitlement at all, knowing how his father felt? That’s speculation of course, but none of the opinions of him defined who he really was.
His jealous brothers sold him and Joseph became a slave in Egypt. He was falsely accused of adultery by his owner’s wife and put in prison. But he found favor in the sight of the prison keeper. He interpreted a couple of dreams for fellow prisoners, which came to pass as he had foretold.
Eventually, Joseph was called out of prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, which he did, and was made Governor of all Egypt. He then proceeded to direct an amazing seven year plan to thwart the effects of a coming seven year famine. During the famine he reconciled with his brothers.
That is a very short version. You’ll find the whole story in Genesis, chapters 37, 39-45.
Joseph did not let his past define him
The point is that Joseph had quite a past, but he never let it define who he was. The Bible narrative says repeatedly, “ The Lord was with Joseph.” (Gen 39:21) He always turned to God for help and was obedient to God.
What if Joseph had ruminated about how his brothers had treated him and identified himself as a victim of their jealousy and cruelty? Well, perhaps he did feel this way for a season, but he did not hold onto those feelings.
Joseph took all these experiences to cultivate his relationship and trust in God. Perhaps “was forced” to cultivate his relationship with God is a better way to describe it. Who else could he turn to?
Because “the Lord was with him,” Joseph must have felt God’s presence and comfort. That must have been very reassuring. Time after time, Joseph saw God redeem a miserable situation.
What can we learn from Joseph?
When you find yourself in a situation where others have treated you with anger, jealousy, hatred, or something worse, and you have suffered for it, you have an important choice to make. And it’s not necessarily a quick and easy decision.
Will you take the victim mindset and let these thoughts and events define you? Or will you be like Joseph, forgiving those who have wronged you, and take it as an opportunity to keep close to and get to know God better?
I know it’s not always easy forgive and take a more spiritual approach when you have been mistreated or maligned. There have been times when it’s taken me many cycles of prayer to forgive someone, or decide I was not going to let my past, or someone’s view of me in the past, define me.
But if Joseph could do this, then you and I can do it too.
Again: How does God define you?
Let’s come back to this idea of how God defines you. Here are a couple of places where God defines us as His children.
Bring my sons and daughters back to Israel
from the distant corners of the earth. Isaiah 43:6 NLT
I will be your Father,
and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the LORD Almighty.” 2 Corinthians 6:18 NLT
We are the sons and daughters of God. This is virtually another way of saying we are made in God’s image and likeness.
So once more it comes back to who and what God is. If God is wrathful, angry deity, then we are the offspring of that. If God is Love, the we are the children of Love.
Who God is defines who we are.
How does Jesus define people?
Let’s look at a couple of examples in the New Testament of how people defined themselves or others based on their past.
And that could be taken two different ways. Someone can judge you based on your past, but they could also judge you based on their past. Neither of these is valid in the eyes of God.
First let’s look at the man born blind, whom Jesus healed. You can find this story in John, chapter 9.
How did society define this man? This must have been how he defined himself as well. Even Jesus’s disciples define him as a man who was born blind.
Everyone saw him this way. Everyone except Jesus. Jesus defined this man and his situation as an opportunity to glorify God, “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3 NIV)
Jesus reminded his disciples and those who would listen to him that he only says what his heavenly Father told him to say and only did what he saw the Father do.
The Father who sent me has commanded me what to say and how to say it. And I know his commands lead to eternal life; so I say whatever the Father tells me to say.” John 12:49, 50 NLT
So Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. John 5:19 NLT
Jesus defined people the way God did
This means that Jesus saw this man, defined by the world as being born blind, as a son of God, the image and likeness of God.
God did not define this man as blind. If He had, Jesus wouldn’t have been able to heal him.
God defined this man only as His very own image and likeness. There is no blindness in God. So God could not impart blindness to a child of His.
The blindness was not part of who this man really was. It was certainly something he had experienced since birth, and he, along with society, defined him this way. But for Jesus, this experience did not define the man.
And so Jesus healed him. He showed everyone a much clearer definition of who this man really was.
How did the Pharisees define people?
Let’s look at another example, also from the book of John.
Remember when the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the very act of adultery? This is in John, chapter 8.
The Pharisees were defining this woman in connection with her past, the very immediate past of perhaps just a few minutes previous to the conversation with Jesus.
But just as in the case with the blind man, Jesus saw way beyond the past events of this woman, whether they were in the distant past or moments ago. He saw her as God defined her, her original identity or definition, if you will, as a child of God, made in God’s image and likeness.
This brought forgiveness and healing to the situation, not to mention a much needed self-awareness to the Pharisees.
Jesus was not pretending this woman hadn’t broken one of the Ten Commandments. But he didn’t define her by her sin.
How does this apply to you and me?
You may make mistakes. You may sin. People may take advantage of you. People my abuse you and tells lies about you. But these things, as hurtful and damaging as they may be, do not define you.
God has already defined you. And His definition of you always wins out over anything’s or anyone else’s definition of you.
Your past, whether it’s something that happened 75 years ago or 75 seconds ago, does not define you. God alone does.
We have to face the mistakes we’ve made and deal with people and situations, especially our own feelings and the way we have defined ourselves.
But the clearer you are on how God defines you, the more peace of mind and freedom you’ll experience and the closer to God you’ll feel.
How does God require the past?
A lot of people love to quote this verse from the King James translation of the Bible:
That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past. Ecclesiastes 3:15 KJV
For some, it says that God will take away whatever has happened in the past.
This particular verse has been translated in a wide range of possible meanings. This one from the Christian Standard Bible is very close to the translation of the Tanakh, the Jewish Scriptures:
Whatever is, has already been, and whatever will be, already is. However, God seeks justice for the persecuted [Hebrew: God seeks what has been pursued]. Ecclesiastes 3:15 CSB
If you feel pursued or persecuted by your past, God seeks and delivers justice for you. And just as your past doesn’t define you, the future cannot limit or prolong God’s justice.
It’s amazing how many people don’t really believe this. They think of God’s justice way off in the future. Just like the they think of the kingdom of heaven. They think it’s way off somewhere and sometime after they die.
Jesus saw how people were defined in the kingdom of heaven
Once again, and as always, Jesus comes to the rescue with his clear vision of what he saw and heard from God.
I have made this point many times on this podcast and I will continue to do so. Jesus declared that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matthew 3:2) He declared this kingdom of God is within us. (Luke 17:21)
Jesus focused on what was true in the kingdom of heaven. His vision was so clear, he could see past the society’s definition of who people were based on their past. He saw how people were defined in heaven: sinless, whole, unfallen from grace, and free.
Is it possible for you and me to see ourselves in this light as well? Yes of course it is. But it requires daily discipline of our thinking and actions to be more Christlike.
How does God define you in heaven?
You cannot bring into the kingdom of heaven any definition of yourself which is not in agreement with God’s original definition of you, in other words, the image and likeness of God.
Does that mean we just pretend something bad didn’t happen or that we never made a bad choice? No, of course not.
But as long as you focus on your current definition of yourself or how the world defines you, good or bad, your view will be limited and inaccurate.
The more we can acknowledge and accept God’s definition of us as His image and likeness, as His sons and daughters, “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17 KJV), the more we will begin to define ourselves that way and let nothing less than God define who we are.
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James Early, the Jesus Mindset Coach, is a Bible teacher, speaker, and podcaster. He conducts Bible workshops online and in person. His focus is on getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus by embracing the mindset of Christ in daily life. Contact him here.
Genesis 1:26, 27 ESV
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
1 John 4:8 NLT
8 But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
Genesis 39:21 NLT
21 the LORD was with Joseph
Isaiah 43:6 NLT
6 ‘Bring my sons and daughters back to Israel
from the distant corners of the earth.
2 Corinthians 6:18 NLT
18 I will be your Father,
and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the LORD Almighty.”
John 9:3 NIV
3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.
John 12:49, 50 NLT
49 The Father who sent me has commanded me what to say and how to say it.
50 And I know his commands lead to eternal life; so I say whatever the Father tells me to say.”
John 5:19 NLT
19 So Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.
Ecclesiastes 3:15 KJV
15 That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.
Ecclesiastes 3:15 CSB
15 Whatever is, has already been, and whatever will be, already is. However, God seeks justice for the persecuted [Hebrew: God seeks what has been pursued].
Matthew 3:2 KJV
2 the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Luke 17:21 KJV
21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
Romans 8:17 NLT
17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory.