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Defeating the past

By Carl D. Keyes

The phone call came at 1 p.m. “George didn’t come home last night,” the voice said.

“When was the last time someone saw him?” I asked. After 15 minutes of trying to figure things out, I thought for the first time that George’s drug habit had gotten the best of him. Eleven days of anguish later, my worst fear came true. My brother of 44 years was never coming home. His wife and friends had called me numerous times over the past three years and begged me to help. Occasionally I would respond with a trip to their home, only to find a remorseful and tortured soul. I felt there was nothing I could do. But after George had left this earth I realized there were a thousand things I could have done.

Guilt and regret. They never seem to go away. Sure, there are seasons of forgetting, times of victory, and even days of denial, but when the truth is told, I still feel like it was my fault. “I should have done more” or “If only”: These are the types of phrases that plummet people into the vortex of guilt and clothe them in a garment of regret. It is a place of alienation, loneliness and depression. “I will lift up my eyes to the hills — from whence comes my help?” (Psalm 121:1, NKJV). You look, but can’t see any help. As I searched the Scriptures for relief, I found an interesting passage in 2 Corinthians 12. I believe God was showing me how He takes “all things [and] work[s them] together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

In the 2 Corinthians passage, Paul had a “thorn in the flesh” — a harassing pain, an emotional or spiritual difficulty, some relentless and bothersome ache. The Scripture tells us it was a “messenger of Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7). When we translate “messenger,” it comes up “angel.” The words “of Satan” tell us it was an angel of darkness, or a demon. External supernatural forces were at work harassing Paul. They had become a thorn in his flesh and were “buffeting” him. Buffeting refers to the waves slapping against a bulkhead. This relentless assault by a demonic influence drove Paul to speak to the Lord about it three times.

I wonder if Satan was playing on Paul’s past. In Acts 8:1 we see that “Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him [Stephen] to death” (NASB). The Scripture says that Stephen, a man “of wisdom” (Acts 6:3), “faith” (v. 5), “grace and power” (v. 8), was brutally stoned. Saul, who was later called Paul, stood by and watched. Could this have been the external supernatural force doing an evil work in the life of Paul? This demon who would not let him forget what he had done? A constant reminder of who he used to be?

God was using Paul in a magnificent way. He was giving him special revelations, using him to teach, to testify, and to establish the Early Church, to mention a few things. But this thorn in the flesh that buffeted him kept rising up in Paul’s life and ministry. We all anguish over past sins. We all wish we could go back and change a hundred things in our lives. But some memories will not go away.

It was December 30, 1981. My two-year marriage to Donna was racing to an end. My poor state of mind, constant drinking, drug use, drug trafficking and the mental abuse I inflicted on my wife were leading us to divorce. A friend invited us away for a weekend and, as the Lord would have it, two days later we were standing at an altar in Augusta, Maine, giving our hearts to the Lord. New Year’s Day 1982 I was totally delivered of drugs and alcohol addiction and never had the smallest desire to do them again.

We set our sights on a new life. I heard Dr. Mark Rutland say that “there is no greater patriot than a refugee.” How right he is! Donna and I now have two boys, Matthew and Ryan, and have been married 23 years. We pastor a wonderful church in mid-town Manhattan.

On the other hand, my brother George — the best man at my wedding, the first to come and help when someone was in need, the first to take his last dollar and give it away — struggled with a drug addiction that eventually killed him. You see, he also received Christ, but was not totally delivered as I was. He was terrorized by a cocaine addiction every waking moment of his much-too-short life. I was set free of a lifestyle that eventually would have gotten the better of me. And George battled it out at the altar of his church every Sunday. I’m alive with a beautiful wife and two fine young men for sons. George left behind a wonderful wife and two boys, ages 2 and 4. Talk about guilt.

So, why was I delivered and George wasn’t? I don’t know. But there is one thing that I do know. Life isn’t fair! God never promised us fairness; He promised grace. Guilt and regret will not go away until you hear and receive the word of the Lord. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Yes, there will be difficulties. Yes, you will have regrets. Yes, you will have guilt heaped upon you as if Satan himself placed it there. But God has given us the power to overcome these feelings through His wonderful grace. Grace poured out on us through the blood of His own Son. Grace so great and love so wonderful that no “thorn in the flesh,” no “messenger of Satan,” no relentless “buffeting” of the enemy can rob us of these gifts. And when we ensconce ourselves in these tools of the enemy we give our victory away and deny the power of God’s grace.

King David suffered with similar symptoms of guilt and regret. When the prophet Nathan pointed his finger at David in 2 Samuel 12:7 and said, “You are the man!” conviction fell upon him and he repented. But the guilt was eating him up on the inside. He allowed himself to be cursed and scorned by Shimei in 2 Samuel 16 and walked away from his God-given calling as he dealt with his failures as a king, as God’s servant, as a husband and as a father.

David cast himself out of the society God had placed him in. He felt worthless, empty and contemptible. He had dishonored his position and his people. He had reached the bottom. Now the only place to look was up. David worked his way through his anguish and, somehow, through the clouds of his despair, he encouraged himself and once again saw a glimmer of his merciful and forgiving God. Needless to say, God never gave up on David. He saw a redemptive quality in him when David could see nothing but his own failures.

Eventually, in Psalm 32:5, David mentions three important actions: (1) He acknowledges his sin, (2) he does not hide his iniquity, and (3) he confesses his transgressions. Afterward David comes to the understanding that God not only forgave him, but He also released him of “the guilt of [his] sin.” The power of God’s grace is greater than the guilt of our sin. Now this is worth rejoicing about! In verse 7 David says, “You shall surround me with songs of deliverance” (NKJV). Then in verse 10 we read, “But he who trusts in the Lord, lovingkindness shall surround him” (NASV). David finally sees his value in the Kingdom, even with his shortcomings.

Looking at ourselves in a guilt-ridden manner is not the way the Lord looks at us. He thinks so much of us and loves us so much that it was worth the life of His Son. His love is without end and without boundaries. We are the ones who limit God’s grace and love by not receiving all that He has for us. We must reach down deep inside ourselves and begin to see ourselves as God sees us.

God invites you today to see yourself as He sees you. Look deep into the eyes of the Savior and you will see the reflection of your own beauty. The apostle Paul did it. King David did it. I did it. You can do it too.


Carl D. Keyes is the senior pastor of Glad Tidings Tabernacle in New York, N.Y.

From Trusting God, compiled by George Wood, Hal Donaldson and Ken Horn (Springfield, Mo.: Onward Books, 2003). Reprinted with permission.

Available from Gospel Publishing House (item #036890).

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