• W. Austin Gardner

Changing the Past


Some persons focus on the past. So long as they do, change will not be possible, since no one can change the past. It is not the past that needs to be dealt with; actually the past no longer exists. It is not his past that needs changing; it is the counselee himself as he now is who must change. Counselors must help the counselee to refocus from the past to its effects upon the present. They must explain that the past is present in the life patterns of the counselee himself and in the present effects of past activities. Just as those who focus on the future (which does not exist) in worry do not change, so too those who expend their energies and concern upon the past (which does not exist) find that they are unable to make the required adjustments.


The past can be dealt with only in the present by forgiveness, rectification, reconciliation, and other changes that must be made today. Counselors, then, must not allow themselves to become ensnared by the web of fretting, guilt, self-pity, discouragement, and regrets in which some counselees have become entangled. If they too get caught up in the tangles of the “what might have beens,” they will be unable to help their counselees to free themselves.


Rather, the task of the Christian counselor is to call for repentance, which is a call for change—a change of mind leading to a change of life. Repentance differs from mere sorrow over the past. Sorrow may accompany true repentance but never must be identified with it. Esau was sorry over the ultimate consequences of his sin, but not truly repentant (Hebrews 12:16, 17). On the other hand, “Sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10). In true repentance the Holy Spirit always effects change. Paul described this when he said that he preached to the Gentiles in the hope that they “should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to the repentance” (Acts 26:20). Thus the true counselor calls the counselee not to dwell upon the past, but instead to deal with the present guilt and other effects of the past now, so that the past may be forgiven and buried and,“forgetting the past,” the counselee may be helped to“reach forward to what lies ahead”(Philippians 3:13, 14).

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Jay Edward Adams, The Christian Counselor’s Manual (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973), 172–173.


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