In session 1, you saw that God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are compatible. With that principle in mind, you’ll now consider how specific experiences and relationships have affected your life. Though you may not always be aware of it, your personal history has played a central part in shaping your life. You’ll now begin looking back on your personal history.
Individual Aim: To begin to think about the effects of past experiences and relationships.
Group Aim: To recognize the value of recalling past experiences and relationships and to understand how “Life Story” facilitates this process.
Complete Life Story: Step A beginning on page 63.
Read Session 2: Experiences and Relationships.
Read Life Story: Step B beginning on page 73.
Christians have different opinions about how believers should think about their past. One extreme view focuses entirely on the past as the key to understanding one’s present life situation. This view largely ignores the way God has worked in the past to form each believer as His unique child. Those who hold this view think past experience entirely determines a person’s behavior patterns; God seems to be absent from the picture.
The opposite extreme sees a person’s past, particularly his or her preconversion past, as entirely irrelevant to the present. Those in this camp rightly recognize that they have become new creatures in Christ. However, based on that concept, they conclude that no past experiences have any influence on their new life. They try to leave all aspects of their identity behind and build a new identity from a blank slate. This view also ignores any possibility that God was at work in people’s lives before their salvation.
Scripture passages could be found to support either extreme, but this study seeks to avoid both extremes. So instead of defending either side, you will take a long look into your past to examine God’s handiwork.
Consider the apostle Paul’s view of his past experiences and relationships. On the surface, it might seem Paul viewed all of his preconversion life as irrelevant. This view might be drawn from Philippians 3, in which Paul writes about certain aspects of his preconversion life and concludes,
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ. (verses 7-8)
Did Paul hold that examining his past was irrelevant? Look at how he used his past experiences and relationships in other passages.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul recounted at length his persecution of the church, his zeal in Judaism, his time in Arabia, his preaching in Syria and Cilicia, and his confrontation of Peter (see Galatians 1:11–2:21). His efforts to seek death sentences for Christ’s followers took place before his conversion, yet he thought this episode was relevant enough to discuss not only with the Galatians but also many years later with his protégé Timothy (see 1 Timothy 1:12-13). To the Corinthians he described beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, and other physical and emotional hardships endured for the gospel (see 2 Corinthians 11:21-33). When addressing a crowd in Jerusalem, he told his story, emphasizing his Jewish ethnicity, birth in Tarsus, training under a famous rabbi, persecution of the church, and details of his conversion (see Acts 22:1-21).
Paul used his life story for several purposes: to teach, evangelize, and even defend himself. Aspects of his past had ongoing effects throughout his life. Pragmatically, he used his Roman citizenship to avoid an unlawful beating (see Acts 22:25-29). Spiritually, his past contributed to his awe of God’s grace in forgiving his preconversion crimes (see 1 Timothy 1:15-16; Ephesians 3:8).
Paul’s constructive use of his past shows that he didn’t view examination of his past as a futile effort. He used his past to learn about himself and God. In light of this evidence, how should Philippians 3 be interpreted? Paul’s point was that his past experiences and relationships contributed nothing to gaining righteousness. However, the passage doesn’t say his past experiences and relationships held no value for his present life. In fact, his use of the past in Philippians 3 demonstrates that he had carefully considered his past:
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. (verses 4-6)
He counted all of this as useless for earning God’s approval, but he understood how much this past history had shaped him for God’s service. And above all, his past moved him to worship the God who forgives.
Complete Life Story: Step B beginning on page 73.
Read Session 3: Formative Elements and Themes.
Read Life Story: Steps C, D, E, and F beginning on page 77.