Letting Go of the Past

andrewI have done lots of things wrong in my life. While I’m not in the same league as Paul (‘the chief of sinners’) I have done things I should not, said things I should not, treated others badly. As a Christian I understand that all sin leads to death – and that therefore I need/ed to repent of those sins, and the promise of the Bible is that God will forgive.

So far, so good – basic stuff that I’m sure you’ve heard. The trouble is that I cannot seem to stop there – just repent, accept forgiveness, and move on, trying not to do the same things again. I linger over my sins in an awful way, recalling over and over again the things I have done, and turning it into a part of the narrative in my head that says I am awful and that God couldn’t possibly like me at all.

I suffer quite badly with anxiety at times, and my depression (and possibly the hypomania as well, which I suffer from less often) is triggered by me worrying. I come from a family of people who worry about things other people don’t have a problem with – over driving, over flying, over medical appointments. When I feel anxious about something, I turn it over and over in my head, until it fills almost every thought and my mind twists something simple (“my boss wasn’t satisfied with that particular piece of work”) into something horribly huge (“my boss hates me, I am an awful employee and I am going to be sacked”) My perfectionism means that any mistake I make – particularly in a job – becomes an awful, enormous problem in my life, and once the depression has set in, any sort of rational thought about whatever caused it just goes away, and I feel all twisted up inside.

I have lost many jobs over this tendency, when I could not cope with the depression and the worry about being sacked, or told off, or disappointing my employer. I have lost many months to sickness. It is something I battle with, and unfortunately, because all the parts of my life are linked, it affects my relationship with God.

I have, for example, spent the last twenty-five years repenting for something I did when I was seven. (I can’t believe that was so long ago – when did I get old?) I’ll even tell you what it is – my nana took me to the doctors’ surgery she was cleaning, and I wrote on the walls. I knew I shouldn’t, and I did it anyway, then hid under the stairs. Of course, nana was fine, but I felt sick – still feel sick – about what I had done, to the people whose workplace it was, and to my nana, who needed the work. I know it is ridiculous – I have known that for years, but it still has an emotional hold over me (although it has become a bit less over time.) That is silly, of course, I have done worse than write on a wall since, in terms of how it has affected other people (hurting friends, in particular) but it is a good illustration of how my mind works.

The gradual build up over time of the various sins I have committed means that, if I am feeling particularly anxious about something, perhaps not even related to any sin, all the old worries rise to the surface. If I am formlessly anxious that I am not doing a good job, I will carry that anxiety into my home, and spend hours trying to think of what I am not doing that I should, and that will seamlessly segue into reflections on the many and various things I have done wrong in my time so far. Then I start to think that, with all those things, God cannot possibly love me – and, because I know I should repent, I do so over and over again, and it does not help me at all.

I suspect I am not that unusual in this, and that many of us who are people of faith and have anxiety disorders feel the same. I think, for instance, that this obsessing over sins, repenting and feeling no relief can lead to, or inform, scrupulosity (religious OCD). It is a tendency I am determined to do something about, in case it leads to something more damaging to my faith, as well as my mental well-being. It is, thankfully, not such a problem when I am stable.

The Bible talks about repentance, and sorrow, and makes a distinction between Godly and worldly sorrow:

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. (2 Corinthians 7:10-11)

Repentance should not leave me still sorrowing over something I have done. I need to learn that, as Jesus said on the cross – “It is finished” – it is over, gone, forgiven. I need feel no guilt, because Jesus has taken my guilt from me and cleared it. I try to remind myself that once is enough – one confession before God, one act of repentance, and it is done. When I am stable I am fairly successful in that, and only repent again if I have done the same thing, for instance. As for when I am unwell…I am still working on that.

To conclude, I picked this up on the internet:

FORTIFY me with the grace of Your Holy Spirit
and give Your peace to my soul
that I may be free from all needless anxiety,
solicitude and worry.
Help me to desire always
that which is pleasing and acceptable to You
so that Your will may be my will.

(St Francis Xavier Cabrini)

and I have also found two interesting links: How to Pray Against Anxiety Attacks, Panic and Fear by Seasons of Peace and a prayer by St Ignatius Loyola from My Soul in Silence Waits



  1. I’m so with you on this one. Endless rumination on pasts sins leading to anxiety about future sins and ending up feeling utterly worthless. The thing that has helped me above all, the thing that in many ways keeps me sane is confession. I don’t know if the sacrament of reconciliation is a part of your church tradition but I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. The church fathers definitely knew a thing or two about human psychology when the set up for confession was created. The thought that goes into preparation for confession is different from ruminating in a bad way as it leads to a positive outcome. To share what are the worst secrets in your life with someone (either face to face as in some places or anonymously in a confessional as at others) and not to be judged is a truly liberating feeling. To actually hear someone say that your sins are forgiven and they’re all done and over is massive, moving and every time I go to confession gets bigger and more amazing. The thought that goes into doing penance, whatever that is and it’s usually something remarkably little, concentrates my mind on how little I can do for my sins and how massive Jesus’ sacrifice was for me. And for me, the most moving part is the end when the priest says, ‘and pray for me a sinner too’ and I remember that everyone screws up and God still loves them.

    I know this may be utterly irrelevant to you and how you understand forgiveness and these things but I cannot understate just how liberating confession has been for me.

    • Hi bourach, thanks for the comment.
      I have always thought that confession, whether or not people think it is theologically necessary, was psychologically so – that the Catholic church understands human nature. Bit like I heard someone describe purgatory once as a place where we are happy knowing people are going to heaven, but don’t really like the idea that they’re going straight there having a lovely time without us!
      When it comes to confession – I am a fairly new Anglican with no background in the tradition, and I think there is something similar, but not in my church? I’m not really very knowledgeable about it, but it certainly seems like something that would be helpful to a lot of people.

      • I used to be an Anglican and as I understand it the C of E position on confession is summed up in the aphorism ‘None must, Some should, All may’. ie that nobody is compelled to go to confession, some people by their natures should go to confession and that anyone can go to confession if they want to. I know that not all vicars in the CoE would be comfortable in the position of confessors but if they’re not they should be able to put a member of their congregation in touch with a vicar who is. Page 21 onwards of this link http://www.churchofengland.org/media/41167/cirecon.pdf is what happens.

        I don’t know if confession would be right for you but if you ever want to discuss it with me just email me because I am a massive massive fan (as you might have guessed)!

      • I’ll have a look at the link, and check it out! Thanks!

  2. Hi Emma, thanks for sharing so honestly. I am currently preparing a sermon on Phil. 3:13 and Paul forgetting the past and focusing on the Resurrection relationship with Jesus. I will post a blog about it. Something that helps me is each morning reading this.

    What I focus on will get me. Focus on the negatives/ challenges will always take me down. Focus on the positive/ good things will always give me hope.

    Its a tough one your facing and I wiil pray for you.

    • Thanks very much Barry, trying to focus on the good, the future, on Christ, can be hard but I’m going to get there! I’ll look out for your blog!


  1. […] little while ago I wrote about sorrow, mentioning 2 Corinthians 7:10-11 which talks about “Godly sorrow” and how feeling haunted by […]

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