NEVER LOOK BACK
                                 By: Jerry S. Maneker

First Reading: Genesis 13:14-15; Romans 7:15-25
Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:29-30

I’m probably the last person you would think would give a sermon on “emotional health,” and this may be the only
sermon you have ever heard, let alone one concerning emotional health, that has been prefaced with today’s Gospel
reading.

I first want to make a distinction between “emotional health” and “mental health.”  Emotional health deals with one’s
ability to deal with problems in living that, to one degree or another, we all have.  It deals with our ability to cope with
assorted life situations, many of which are difficult and challenging.

“Mental health” deals with one’s brain morphology and/or physiological functions that sometimes manifest themselves in
assorted thinking and/or mood disorders. So-called “mental illness” is physiologically based, and frequently requires one
or more psychotropic medications to fine tune the brain to enable the person to function at his or her optimum, given his
or her physiological condition.  In this sermon, I’m taking about “emotional health,” and not the physiologically based
phenomenon called “mental health.”

Today’s Gospel reading, often erroneously interpreted by many to place themselves and others under condemnation
and, therefore, unworthy to partake of many of the Lord’s gifts, such as happiness, communion, inner peace, and
freedom from guilt, can be seen to be a prelude to Jesus’ fulfillment of His wonderful promises in our lives.

Many of what we perceive to have been “mistakes” or “accidents” in our lives can, when our spiritual eyes are opened,
enable us to see God’s handiwork where He has frequently made a way where there was no way.  For example, I chose
to do my graduate work at New York University rather than the New School for Social Research.  I preferred the latter
university, as it contained many scholars from Eastern Europe who fled Nazi Germany and were excellent theoreticians.  
However, the reason I chose N.Y.U. is because I could find it on the subway.

That seemingly “stupid” reason for choosing a graduate school had the result of my getting a scholarship, subsequent
assistantship, and support by a coveted grant that enabled me to go to this private university without our having to pay
one dime for my education.  I didn’t choose N.Y.U. for expectations of any financial help, as I wasn’t aware that such help
even existed or from which I would be allowed to benefit.

I didn’t have any money to go to graduate school, yet Eileen and I somehow “knew” I would be able to attend there.  God
made a way where there was no way!  He took this high school dropout, who never even received the equivalent of a
high school diploma, and enabled me to get my doctorate.  Only God’s intervention could have accomplished this feat!

This seeming “accident” or “stupid reasoning” was used by God to enable me to achieve this goal!  When we look back
on our lives we will frequently see how God used what we may have thought of, and may even still think of, as “mistakes”
to help us deal with the often treacherous aspects of life that can throw us for a loop, if we don’t have the spiritual eyes
to see God’s handiwork in them.

The first Bible reading for today says, “And the Lord said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now
thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: For all the
land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.” (Genesis 13:14-15 KJV)

Abram asked Lot to choose the part of the land that he wanted to inhabit, and Abram said that he would take that part
that Lot didn’t want.  Lot, of course, chose the fertile plain of Jordan, and Abram was left with the dirt and rocks of
Canaan.

God blessed Abram, and used him amidst the dirt and rocks to be His instrument in fathering a great nation.  As Abram
dealt with the dirt and rocks of Canaan, we are frequently called upon to deal with the dirt and rocks that inhabit our
lives; how we deal with that dirt, those rocks, defines our character as well as our emotional health.

Many years ago, I visited an acquaintance who had a “nervous breakdown” and was in an in-patient facility.  He told me
that after undergoing individual and group psychotherapy he discovered why he was having so many emotional
problems.  He said, “I found out that my father was too good to me.”

The only thing I said was, “I wish my father had been too good to me.”  Then I dropped the matter, as it would have been
inappropriate to have a dialogue with him over his conclusion, given his condition.

A few months ago, my wife and I were at an affair and a woman told me that her ninety-seven year old aunt was dying,
and her aunt’s daughter refused to see her mother because she resented her.  The daughter said that she resented
her mother because, “My mother never prepared me for life.”  The daughter was seventy years old!

Both of these people do what so many people do: they blame others for their own deficiencies in coping with the dirt and
rocks of their lives.  They refuse to “own it!”  They find it easier to blame others for their problems, and by so doing
inhibit their ability to empower themselves to live more effective lives.

As the late psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl stated in his excellent book, Man’s Search For Meaning, we may not be able to
choose our circumstances, but we still can exercise the last of our human freedoms: our attitude toward and within those
circumstances.  As the Apostle Paul stated, “…I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” (Philippians 4:11)  
These statements don’t necessarily mean that we are to be content with our circumstances, but we are to be content
regardless of our circumstances!

Scripture tells us to, “Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art….”  Emotional health involves
accepting responsibility for our actions and choices, and coping with our problems as best we can, despite the
limitations that each of us, in one way or another, have.  Now is the time to lift up our eyes and see God’s life and work
in and through us, and discern His will for our lives that may well be enhanced and even made possible by what we view
as our afflictions and “deficiencies.”

For example, Vincent VanGough was undoubtedly a manic-depressive! He may also have been a schizophrenic; I don’t
know.  In any case, he suffered horribly, cutting off his ear in a possible manic state and eventually killing himself when
he was still a young man.

VanGough painted absolutely beautiful pictures that have enthralled generations of people and have become immortal
in their beauty and vivid and vibrant colors and sensibilities.  The fact is that without VanGough’s sufferings, these
paintings would undoubtedly never have been made and the world would never know the beauty he depicted on his
canvases.

One might have asked him if he’d rather not have had his afflictions removed so that he could live an ordinary life as, for
example, a truck driver or a teacher.  He might well have said, “Yes.”  However, that decision was not his to make, and
without his expressing his afflictions on those canvases he would undoubtedly not have fulfilled the ministry that God
had ordained for him from the foundation of the world.

Emotional health entails taking a seeming “disadvantage” and turning it into an “advantage” by channeling it into the
ministry or purpose that God has ordained for you!  Regardless of our afflictions, we are to channel them into
ministries!  We are not to commit the error of having “anomie,” where our expectations of ourselves, of others, and of life
itself exceed what they are capable of delivering!  We must accept ourselves, other people, and life as they are,
recognizing that it is impossible to change anybody else, and we are to thereby open our eyes to the “naked lunch that
is at the end of every fork.” (William Burroughs, Naked Lunch)

We must keep in mind that “suffering is inevitable, but misery is optional!”  Feeling guilt over past mistakes, or even
egregious sins, has its place in the very short run.  However, after making restitution when possible, we are to shake the
dust off of our shoes, pick up our palate, and walk through the dirt and rocks of this life, keeping our eyes focused on
God’s will for our lives; recognizing that God can and frequently does use those past experiences, those past
“mistakes,” those past sins of which He is not the author, for His sovereign purposes in both our lives and in our ministry
to others.

We must not live in the past!  We must not blame others for our difficulties in life!  Of course, some people are so
traumatized by their childhood experiences that it is very difficult for them to transcend them and “get on with their
lives.”  Yet, we are assured by Scripture that we are not only to “Lift up now thine eyes…,” but to realize that despite
even early childhood traumas, we must have the faith and guts to transcend them, and even utilize them, in order to live
effectively, albeit acknowledging that our lives may frequently be circumscribed by our afflictions and incidents in our
past.

My wife was an abused child!  She was gratuitously and frequently physically abused as a child until I came into the
picture, and then she was emotionally abused by her parents until their death.  Neither of us can understand how
parents can treat their precious children in such a way.  Yet, even under these conditions, my wife transcended those
horrors and has been the most loving, sensitive mother any child could wish for.

She could have easily become an abuser, given her background, and even justified the abuse by calling it Godly, citing
such Scripture verses as, “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to
discipline them.” (Proverbs 13:24)

Many people, though by no means all, who have been abused as children go on to abuse their own children!  Why did
my wife never abuse her own children, given her background?  Simply stated: she chose not to do so and decided to
see to it that her children would have the childhood and the love in their lives that she never had.

She refused to live in the past and allow her parents to define her reality for her!  She took to heart, and still takes to
heart, the promise of God, “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up.” (Proverbs 27:
10)  Of course, she still suffers sorrow concerning her childhood experiences with them, but she does her best not to
live in the past and owns up to the fact that only she can empower herself to live an effective life and make the choices
necessary that helps ensure that outcome.

Many of us have had, to one degree or another, traumas in our lives!  Looking back, dwelling on the past, is not only
hurtful and counterproductive, but most likely inhibits God’s ability to use us now and in the future to fulfill the ministries
He has ordained for us from the foundation of the world.  

Many people live in the past by obsessing about their past mistakes, many of which have become sources of
embarrassment to them.  They can’t get over their guilt at what they have done.  

Beyond the fact that guilt is a cheap emotion, and gets us nowhere when we dwell on it, we are to always realize the old
truism, “This is the first day of the rest of your life.”  God not only forgives every past, present, and future sin of His
children, but forgets those sins.  For the Christian, God doesn’t see us, He sees His Son; He doesn’t see our sins, He
sees Jesus’ shed Blood!  This is part of the very essence of the Gospel message! And that is why today’s Gospel
reading holds no fear for those who trust Jesus’ promises and salvivic work on the Cross.

Therefore, we have no excuse to dwell on the past, or live in the past, but are called upon to use all of our past
experiences to live effective lives, and be yielded to God so as to be used by Him for His own sovereign, sometimes
inscrutable, purposes.  Indeed, although God is not the author of sin, He may well use our experiences of sin to sensitize
us and better enable us to empathize with the sins and frailties of others; thereby better enabling us to fulfill our
ministries.

If guilt starts to overtake us, we can take comfort in the Apostle Paul’s assertion before the Sanhedrin, “…Men and
brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” (Acts 23:1)  Paul didn’t live in the past!  He
called himself the chiefest of sinners (1Timothy 1:15) and, as we saw in our first reading, acknowledged his constant
state of sinning (Romans 7:15-25), yet he didn’t preoccupy himself with guilt or live in the past, but trusted in God’s
grace to forgive him and use him for God’s purposes.

As I’ve written elsewhere (“The Abundant Life,” in the Sacramento Valley Mirror), “The Apostle Paul, who called himself
the chiefest of sinners (1Timothy 1:15), who confessed to constantly wrestling with sin (Romans 7:7-25), who consented
to the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen (Acts 8:1), and who persecuted followers of Christ until his conversion
(Acts 8:3), wrote [that his conscience was completely clear before God.]  Indeed, he comforted all of us by telling us that
not only would nothing separate us from the love of Christ if we yield ourselves to Him but that, “There is therefore now
no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)  In spite of his own history and his own struggles with
sin and his sin-nature, a nature shared by all of us, he was able to tell the Sanhedrin at his trial, ‘…Brothers, up to this
day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.’ (Acts 23:1)  Paul knew about God’s grace to all of His
followers more than most of us know today.  Despite his history, Paul never felt that he was under condemnation by
God.  He knew that God chose us from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) to do a work for Him and that He
knew everything we would do.  God knew our past, present, and future thoughts and actions and chose us anyway for
His own sovereign purposes. God didn’t choose us to put us into condemnation!  Many people who claim to speak for
God may seek to condemn us or have us have self-condemnation, but God doesn’t do that; Paul affirms God’s
unconditional love for us. Writing to those who are God’s possession he wrote, ‘For those whom he foreknew he also
predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born within a large family.  And
those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he
also glorified.  What then are we to say about these things?  If God is for us, who is against us? ...Who will bring any
charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.’” (Romans 8:29-31, 33)

We are not to condemn ourselves for what we think are “mistakes” in our past!  If we truly believe in the sovereignty of
God, we trust Him with our lives and with every aspect of our whole journey as we navigate our way through this
mysterious life.

All of us are flawed!  All of us have sin in our lives!  All of us have made mistakes in the past!  Indeed, far beyond being
“behavioral,” sin is a “condition” that we all share, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Of course, some may be more “moral” than others, but even the most moral person in the world can’t even come close
to approaching God’s “righteousness.”  That’s undoubtedly what Jesus is communicating to us in our Gospel Reading
for today when He says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one
of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and
throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30)


Jesus is telling us that we need a Savior!  None of us can stand before a righteous God on our own merits!  All of us fall
far short of God’s righteousness! (Romans 3:23)  

Indeed, sin is so endemic within each of us that it comprises what we are, what we do, what we don’t do that we should
have done, what we say, and what we think!  To put a finer point on it, according to Jesus the thought is equivalent to
the act!  As He says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever
murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to
the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire… ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall
not commit adultery.”  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with
her in his heart.’” (Matthew 5:21-23, 27-29)  

None of us will ever be sin-free this side of eternity!  Jesus says that His yoke is light precisely because He is that
Savior, that Perfect Sacrifice, that Unblemished Lamb, that Kinsman-Redeemer who forgives all of our past, present,
and future sins and iniquities.  We are sheltered by His gift of grace, or unmerited favor, to us and we are, therefore,
free to be and do what God has ordained for us.  

Therefore, it’s foolish to compare ourselves with anyone else!  We must be authentic, warts and all, and trust God to
continue to deliver us as He has faithfully delivered us in the past, and promises to deliver us now and in the future if we
but endure in our trust in Him.

We are to acknowledge that even the most “moral,” Godly, committed person backslides and sins; does so frequently in
his or her life. In this connection, albeit in a secular context, I’m reminded of the following poem by Sophocles:
   “For stretching, endless Time
    Brings forth all hidden things,
    All buries that which once did share
    The firm resolve falters, the sacred oath
     is shattered;
    And let none say, ‘It cannot happen here.’” (Sophocles, Ajax)  
 
God knows our frame!  He knows we are but dust!  He knows that we are fearfully and wonderfully made!  He knows our
complexities!  He knows the beginning from the end!  Nothing takes Him by surprise! Everything in our past is known by
God and He says He unconditionally loves us, and will never leave or forsake us.  All we are called upon to do is trust
Him and show love and compassion to other people!

And we are to leave all consequences to God, as we will never figure out the complexities, the mysteries of life, this side
of eternity.  I love the part of Martin Luther’s last letter to his wife when he wrote, “Pray, and let God worry.”

It seems to me that to be best used by God we must learn from our past, pick up the wreckage that exists and hand it
over to Him, and trust God for all past, present, and future occurrences.  As the Apostle Paul wrote, “…but this one thing
I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the
mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)

We are not to look “inside” and we are not to look to the past to define our realities!  We are to look to God Who knows
all things, and trust Him, Who chose His children before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), to manifest His life
in us; enable us to articulate and fulfill our ministries until He calls us home. We are to have the faith and the guts to
use, learn from, and transcend negative experiences from our pasts, not blaming anyone else for our current mind-sets
or circumstances, in order to live both effective and Godly lives.

Yes, there are rocks and dirt in those lives but, as we are assured by Scripture, God knows that fact.  To be intact as
human beings is not to look inward as too many gurus and even many clergy have tried to persuade us, but to look to
God whose sovereign plan for our lives, undoubtedly using our past experiences, must be fulfilled for our lives to have
the meaning and fulfillment that He has ordained for us.
      
The human condition, with its rocks and dirt, was poignantly summarized by Oscar Wilde when he wrote, “We are all in
the gutter.  But some of us are looking at the stars.”  I want to believe that Wilde used “stars” as a metaphor for God!   
   


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