As students at Brigham Young University-Idaho, you are constantly being challenged to remember things: dates in history, formulas, information delivered in lectures and through reading your textbooks––even church appointments, doctor’s appointments, and a roommate’s or spouse’s birthday. Many of us have so many things to remember that we keep appointment calendars or have audio reminders on our electronic devices. Remembering is important, and a good memory can be a great advantage in an academic setting.
Of even greater importance, a good memory is important spiritually. Each Sunday, as we partake of the sacrament, we are reminded of our covenant that we “do always remember him.” Furthermore, President Spencer W. Kimball once said, “When you look in the dictionary for the most important word, do you know what it is? It could be ‘remember.’ Because all of [us] have made covenants…our greatest need is to remember.” 1
But as important as remembering is––and clearly it is vital to our academic and worldly success and even to our salvation––my message to you this afternoon is that there is also a time to forget. We read in Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes:
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…”
Then skipping a few lines, we come to verse 6:
“A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away…”
Consider especially those two phrases: “a time to lose … and a time to cast away…” A logical question might be: what, exactly, in my life should I deliberately choose to lose, to lay aside, to cast out? There are many things: your mistakes, mistakes of others that hurt you, sins for which you have repented, lost opportunities, moments when we are selfish or unkind, even our unkind judgments of others. Too often we make ourselves miserable remembering past failures and mistakes, even lying awake at night in agony.
This attitude is contrary to the advice of the Lord. In Ezekiel 18:31, we are told to “cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed, and make you a new heart and a new spirit…” And in Hebrews 12:1-2 we are advised to “…lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us…looking unto Jesus…”
In truth, we all make mistakes, and we all sin. If the sins are serious, the Lord has a plan for repentance that can bring us forgiveness. But we must remember that everyone who has ever lived, except the Savior Himself, has made mistakes and has sinned. Yet we sometimes feel we are worthless and inferior because of those mistakes.
In Doctrine and Covenants 58:42, the Lord has promised us that He will forgive us if we repent, and that in fact He will remember our sins no more. Unfortunately, He doesn’t promise us that we will no longer remember our sins. If the Lord no longer remembers our past mistakes, however, we should also strive to cast them off, remembering instead the atoning sacrifice of our Savior.
We can learn from the example of Paul. In Philippians 3:13 he said, “…this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before.” Will Rogers expressed this idea this way: “Never let yesterday use up too much of today.” But despite the advice from the scriptures, church leaders and even psychologists, we often have difficulty forgetting past mistakes. Elder Jeffery R. Holland has said:
“There is something in us, at least in too many of us, that particularly fails to forgive and forget earlier mistakes in life––either mistakes we ourselves have made or the mistakes of others. That is not good. It is not Christian. It stands in terrible opposition to the grandeur and majesty of the Atonement of Christ. To be tied to earlier mistakes––our own or other people’s––is the worst kind of wallowing in the past from which we are called to cease and desist.” 2
Let us examine two specific kinds of past sins and mistakes that we should, indeed, leave behind us: sins and mistakes made by others in the past that are still hurting us, and sins and mistakes made by ourselves in the past that are hurting us.
First, sins and mistakes made by others. Let’s begin talking about this problem by examining an incident in Church history. Many of you are familiar with this story. In the year 1838, two sisters in the Church got into a squabble over who should get the cream produced by their cows. One of those sisters was Elizabeth Marsh, wife of Thomas B. Marsh, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. President Marsh was loved, honored, and respected in the Church.
This disagreement grew into an argument, which just kept escalating. President Marsh took Elizabeth’s side and got deeply involved. In the end, it resulted in President Marsh and Elizabeth leaving the Church. Nineteen years later he came back to Brigham Young and pleaded to be taken back as a Church member. By this time, however, he was a broken man who had prematurely aged and lost his health. Furthermore, all of his previous accomplishments and blessings from the Church were gone.
Think of how his life may have been better if he had chosen to leave the past behind, to let a little injustice go, to cast away a grudge, and move forward. We can find another good example of how destructive carrying a grudge can be in literature. Nineteenth-century French writer Guy de Maupassant exemplified the consequences of failing to cast out unfortunate incidents of the past in his short story, “A Piece of String.”
This story tells about an old peasant in a Norman village, Maitre Hauchecorne, who one day wanders into a public square, notices a small piece of string on the ground, picks it up and examines it, and puts it into his pocket. Unfortunately, this incident happened on the very day the mayor of the village had lost his wallet, which contained 500 francs. A witness saw Hauchecorne pick up something in area where the wallet was lost and reported him to the police.
Of course, Hauchecorne strongly denied he had taken the wallet, showing police the small piece of string in his pocket and explaining what had happened in detail. The police laughed at his story and did not believe him despite a passionate plea by Hauchecorne for his innocence.
Eventually, another peasant returned the wallet to the mayor, including the money, reporting he found it along side the road. Hauchecorne was freed. However, he felt his name had been smeared, and he had been greatly wronged. “What grieved me,” said he, “was not the thing itself, do you understand, but it was being accused of lying. Nothing does you so much harm as being in disgrace for lying.”
He began to obsessively go to anyone who would listen, explaining what had happened, about how he had been mistreated. Some people in the market did not believe him; others were amused at his obsession to tell and retell the story. Hauchecorne became even more obsessed, proclaiming his innocence more vociferously to anyone who would listen. Each day he added new proofs, lengthening his story. Even in his solitude, his mind was preoccupied with the injustice. Eventually, he became bitter and discouraged, and then he became ill, and then he died. He was still raving in his deathbed, repeating: “A little bit of string––a little bit of string. See, here it is…”
It’s unfortunate that Hauchecorne did not heed the counsel given in Alma 7:15: “Yea, I say unto you come and fear not, and lay aside every sin, which easily doth beset you, which doth bind you down to destruction…” Please remember, as a philosopher once said, “Quietly forgiving and moving on is a gift to yourself.”3
Has someone in your past said or done something that has hurt you? Does your self-image suffer because of how you may have been treated in your growing up years? Well, there is something to be said for fresh starts. The beauty of attending church and taking the sacrament each week is the opportunity to start new by once again taking his name upon us. Furthermore, the good thing about moving away from your past and coming to the university is that no one knows that in high school you were labeled “the shy kid” or the “nerd” or the “class clown” or whatever else. You can change your image.
Twentieth-century sociologist Robert K. Merton coined the expression “self-fulfilling prophecy” to describe a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy itself, due to positive feedback between belief and behavior. It has both positive and negative capability.4
For example, if you sign up for a math class, then constantly remind yourself how bad you are in math, that definition of reality, accurate or not, will eventually hurt your performance in the class. Conversely, if you look in the mirror every morning and tell yourself that you are friendly, outgoing and smart, the self-fulfilling prophecy will help those concepts become true. The basis of the self-fulfilling prophecy is the theorem, “If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” But, such a change in self-concept – and the casting off of unfortunate things others may have said about you or done to you in the past – cannot occur if you are unwilling to leave the past behind.
Cast off the unfair, the hurtful, the stereotyping comments that have been made to you in the past. Don’t be like the unfortunate protagonist in the short story “A Piece of String,” who allowed an injustice done to him by another in his past to become a bitter, acidic, life-ruining incident.
And that brings us to the second kind of past mistake that we should forget: mistakes made by ourselves that are still hurting us. First, let’s realize and repeat that every one of us makes mistakes, some more grievous than others. We have all sinned. We continue to make mistakes that grieve our Father in Heaven. Sometimes a sincere apology in our personal prayers and a change of attitude and actions are all that are needed to repent and move forward. At other times, we may need to confess our sins to our bishop or other church leader to begin the repentance process.
But through the atonement of Jesus Christ, our Father in Heaven has provided a way for us to be forgiven of our sins, regardless of how grievous they are. Jesus Christ suffered the penalty for our sins so we can be forgiven if we sincerely repent. As we repent and rely on His saving grace, we will be cleansed from sin. Yet we often have trouble moving on. Consider a letter to advice columnist “Dear Abby” last summer:
“Dear Abby: In the past, I made several seriously awful decisions about guys. I also spent two years in high school off and on with a young man who only made my life dramatic and exhausting. Now that I’m a freshman in college, I have encountered several guys I’d love to have a relationship with, but I feel unworthy. Because of my bad decisions…I’m worried my past will catch up with me, and they’ll think I’m still the way I was back then… Some of my friends have told me I shouldn’t have to change who I am for ‘some guy.’ Are they right? What should I do to make a connection with one of these young men?” — Undeserving in Idaho.5
Abby’s response in part: “I believe in the philosophy of constant self-improvement. When you improve yourself to the point that you are proud of yourself, you will attract men who have more to offer than the ones you were involved with in high school.”
The columnist’s advice to improve and to move forward is sound, both morally and psychologically. Psychologists tell us that regrets and anxieties may become so great that they interfere with successful daily living. What is the alternative to putting the past behind us? In Ezekiel 33:10, the Lord answers that question: “If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?” Most of us would answer that question: “Mostly in misery.”
In a 1998 conference talk, President Thomas S. Monson made it clear we shouldn’t spend too much time worrying or regretting the past. He said:
“There is one phrase which should be erased from your thinking and from the words you speak aloud. It is the phrase ‘If only.’ It is counterproductive and is not conducive to the spirit of healing and of peace. Rather, recall the words of Proverbs: ‘Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.’”6
Wallowing in regret may cause us to hesitate to try new things. Furthermore, anxieties can become so great and threatening that we flee from reality in order to avoid them. Depression and regret have caused some people to retreat into a fantasy world to escape. But remember that wallowing in the past is a choice. We can choose, conversely, to believe the words of Christ and in his atoning sacrifice. The scriptures give us many examples of people with clear consciences.
In Acts 23:1, we are told: “And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all conscience before God until this day.” King Benjamin, in Mosiah 2:27, said, “…I had served you, walking with a clear conscience before God…” and Joseph Smith, in Doctrine and Covenants 135:4, said, “…I have a conscience void of offense towards God and towards all men…”
Paul, King Benjamin, and Joseph Smith had clear consciences not because they were perfect, but because they had repented of their sins and had faith that the Lord forgave them and paid for their sins through the atonement. An Italian psychiatrist7 said, “without forgiveness, life is an endless cycle of resentment.” There is nothing more draining than holding yourself or others in contempt for your past. Resentment is the posture of the powerless; forgiveness empowers us. It gives us the permission to nod at the past and turn our eyes toward the future.
And clearly we must keep our eyes on the future, not the past. Do you remember the Old Testament story of Lot’s wife? Back in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord could no longer tolerate the deep sin and depravity in those cities, and he elected to destroy them. Because Lot and his family were among the few righteous living there, He commanded them in Genesis 19:17, “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, …escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.”
After a little hesitation, Lot and his family left just in time. At daybreak the morning following their escape, the cities were rained upon with brimstone and fire from the Lord. Despite the warning given to her, Lot’s wife, the record says, “looked back,” (Genesis 19:26) and she was turned into a pillar of salt. President Boyd K. Packer referred to this story in an October 2010 conference address entitled “Cleansing the Inner Vessel.” He said:
“President Joseph Fielding told me of a repentant woman struggling to find her way out of a very immoral life. She asked him what she should do now. In turn, he asked her to read to him from the Old Testament the account of Lot’s wife, who was turned to a pillar of salt. Then he asked her, ‘What lesson do you gain from those verses?’ She answered, ‘The Lord will destroy the wicked.’ ‘No so!’ President Smith said that lesson for this repentant woman and for you is ‘Don’t look back!’”
I had a personal experience a number of years ago that showed our focus should remain on future; that we must leave past mistakes behind us. Prior to becoming a journalism instructor at BYU-Idaho, I worked for many years as a professional journalist. At one newspaper in Nevada, I was a prep sports writer, assigned to cover local high schools. While covering this assignment, I became aware of a very talented 17-year-old left-handed pitcher. He could throw a fastball nearly 90 miles per hour and his curve ball appeared to fall off a table.
As the high school baseball season went on, he began to get the attention of professional baseball scouts. Some of his high school games had 10 or 12 scouts there, armed with their radar guns and stopwatches. When the professional baseball draft finally came around, I was not surprised that he was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first round.
Still I worried a little about him. His high school had a reputation for having troubled students. I interviewed him and wrote a front-page story about his being chosen so high in the draft. He seemed likeable and optimistic. I hoped that any problems or bad influences he might have had in high school were behind him now that he faced fame and fortune as a professional baseball player.
His talent did, in fact, carry him through the minor leagues rather quickly, and he was soon in the Major Leagues. However, it wasn’t long before his name became associated with drug abuse in baseball. His performance began to wane. He was traded to other teams, and finally released in December of 1988.
On October 29, 1992, he was back in his home in Nevada. Responding to a call from a neighbor, the sheriff’s department found him outside of his home complaining that snakes were in his home, crawling on him and biting him. Deputies attempted to subdue him by putting handcuffs and leg restraints on him. He became violent and then stopped breathing. He was taken to a local hospital. He remained on life-support systems until his death a week later. It was ruled he died of a cocaine-induced heart attack.
I don’t suppose I will ever know all the details of this incident. But I suspect that this young man, like Lot’s wife, looked back and perhaps even embraced past mistakes, leading to his own destruction.
As I conclude my remarks about repenting, forgiving ourselves, and forgetting our past mistakes, I must add one more dimension to the topic. In addition to doing this favor for ourselves, we must also do it for others. I remember only too well some of my classmates in high school whose lives must have been made unbearable when insensitive classmates noticed idiosyncrasies and mannerisms and felt the need to give them unflattering nicknames and to pick on them and to embarrass them. Even if we are not bullies or totally insensitive, don’t we sometimes define a person by remembering a past mistake that person has made? And married couples far too often remember the mistakes of their spouses, and, sadly, bring them up during an argument or when they feel the need to try to hurt the other person. When someone else has repented and moved on, let it go. As Elder Holland said:
“It is not right to go back and open up some ancient wound which the Son of God Himself died trying to heal. Let people repent. Let people grow. Believe that people can change and improve. Is that faith? Yes! Is it hope? Yes! Is it charity? Yes! Above all it is charity, the pure love of Christ.”8
We could all learn from the wise advice given by former Church President Howard W. Hunter:
“To dig a straight furrow, the plowman needs to keep his eyes on a fixed point ahead of him. That keeps him on a true course. If, however, he happens to look back to see where he has been, his chances of straying are increased. The results are crooked and irregular furrows…Fix your attention on your…goal[s] and never look back on your earlier problems…. If our energies are focused not behind us but ahead of us––on eternal life and the joy of salvation––we assuredly will obtain it.”9
It is my prayer that we will remember our Savior and his atonement, that he enabled us to put our past sins and mistakes behind us, and that we will heed the wise advice in Ecclesiastes and in Genesis to cast away and not look back. Whether it’s an injustice done to us in the past by others or our own past sins and mistakes, let’s not allow things that have happened to us yesterday destroy who we are today. Let’s repent of our personal mistakes, and then keep our attention focused forward to a more righteous and fulfilling future. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
1 Spencer W. Kimball, “Circles of Exaltation,” Address to religious educators, June 1968