God Can Use Your Past to Shape Your Future

In John 5, Jesus heals a crippled man and then tells him to pick up his mat and walk. Can our "mats" help us be grateful to and dependent on God—even in marriage?

“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’ At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked” (John 5:8-9, NIV).

“Pick up your mat.” After healing the man, why would Jesus tell the man to take his mat with him? He had been unable to walk for 38 years, so his mat must have been disgusting.

I love reading about how Jesus miraculously healed people in the Bible, and I’ve enjoyed watching Christ do amazing things in my own life. But if I had been the man in this story, I would have appreciated the miracle and then taken my new legs and speed walked as far away from the ugly, tattered and soiled bed as I could. Yet, Jesus wanted the man to take his mat with him.

My issue with picking up that dirty mat is that once God forgives and cleanses me of my sins, I want to move on and run free from any reminder of my poor choices. I love King David’s soothing words, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). So, why would I want to carry the mat from the past with me?

Christ’s instruction to the man who couldn’t walk causes me to think about the different times in my marriage that I have wanted to run away from painful experiences — to leave “soiled” memories in my past and move on.

A reminder of sin

During a particularly difficult season early in my marriage, my wife, Erin, and I were still learning how to handle conflict in healthy ways. One day, we were engaged in a heated argument when Erin called for a time-out — a break so we could allow our emotions to settle. But I wanted to work through the issue and reconcile, so I continued to force the conversation. As I blew through her attempted boundary, Erin informed me that she was unwilling to talk anymore because the conversation felt unsafe. Erin then walked into our bedroom and shut the door.

In a feeble attempt to end the fight, I followed her. But when I got to our bedroom door, I discovered that it was locked. The fact that I was now locked out of both the conversation and our bedroom infuriated me. I knocked on the door really hard several times, hoping to gain entrance — but to no avail. Finally, in one last desperate attempt to show how much I disliked being locked out, I punched the door. Unfortunately, I was so enraged that I didn’t realize how hard I hit the door, and my fist went through it. Thankfully it was a hollow-core door and not solid oak or I would have broken my hand. I’m not sure who was more surprised by the sudden hole — Erin or me.

As I slunk back to the living room, I felt humiliated. I’d always been so proud of my ability to maintain my emotions and remain level-headed in the heat of an argument. I wasn’t the angry husband who punched holes around the house — yet my bedroom door now had a massive peephole.

I think this snapped both Erin and me back into reality, and we quickly resolved our argument that day. I apologized repeatedly for punching a hole in our door.

After the incident was over, I thought about fixing the hole, and I even bought the supplies — but I never fixed it. I think a part of me wanted to leave the hole as a reminder that I was capable of doing something that I never thought I would. In many ways, the hole in our master bedroom door served as my “mat.” For the years that we lived in that house, the hole reminded me of my sin nature and my need for God.

I had become dependent upon my education and my skills as a counselor to help me resolve the conflicts that Erin and I experienced. But I needed to be dependent on God. The hole humbled me and caused me to seek God first whenever Erin and I fought. I’m not suggesting that the hole miraculously eliminated our arguments, but something definitely changed over the next few months, positively affecting the way I handled conflict with my wife.

Ever-present help

So, what are you running from or trying to forget? Maybe your marriage has experienced infidelity, domestic violence, pornography, workaholism, unhealthy conflict, drug or alcohol abuse, lying or deceit, or the withholding of affection or sex. Whatever the infirmity, God can use it for His ultimate glory. Instead of throwing the ugly “mat” aside, allow God to use your past to shape your future. The story of your life together is a powerful reminder of God’s ever-present help.

There is a story in the Old Testament recounting when the Israelites defeated the Philistines in battle. Victory for the Israelites was not because of their military prowess; it was because of God’s miracle: “But the Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel” (1 Samuel 7:10). After the battle, to honor the divine victory, “Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Till now the Lord has helped us’ ” (1 Samuel 7:12). Ebenezer is said to mean “stone of help.”

Every time the Israelites saw the stone, they were reminded of God’s ever-present help. The pitiful hole in the door of our house eventually became like an Ebenezer in my life — a reminder.

The “hole in your door” and your disgusting mats can keep you dependent upon God and grateful for His help in your marriage. Instead of trying to forget the past, it’s better to use these painful experiences to strengthen your marriage.

God has used my ridiculous arguments with Erin to grow our marriage. I used to feel shame associated with the ways I handled our disagreements, but now I see these times as a reminder that God was always present and working in our marriage.

The same is true in your marriage. God is always present, and He can use your painful experiences to shape you and your marriage into something amazing.

Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Family Ministries at Focus on the Family and the author of Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage.

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