The word haunt has a bad reputation. It got mixed up with the wrong crowd and has since become synonymous with scary, unpleasant words like trouble and disturb. In childhood, any area that appeared even remotely intimidating we quickly deemed “haunted.” But hauntings take on a different form in adulthood; they no longer inhabit places but minds instead. As adults we are haunted by memories.
Unlike the fictitious ghosts and goblins of our youth, history—especially our own history—scares us far more than anything fiction can conjure up. I am no longer disturbed by the monsters dwelling in my brother’s closet, but I am very much troubled by the skeletons hanging in my own.
Yet if we believe that God is who he says he is, and that his gospel of redemption brings beauty from ashes, then we need not be afraid of the bones of our past. Hauntings can push us toward holiness just as much as they can keep us from it.
Haunted toward Hesitation
Oftentimes looking back paralyzes us from moving forward in obedience; past failures haunt us negatively, pushing us nearer reluctance than obedience. Consider the first time the Lord appeared to Moses and told him to go back to Egypt to petition Pharaoh. Moses literally said, “But, but, but.”
If you’ll remember, Moses fled Egypt after being rejected by both the Egyptians and the Hebrews. His noble efforts went awry when, attempting to defend his people, he actually murdered an Egyptian. This lost him the respect of both his adopted Egyptian family as well as his Hebrew kindred. Naturally he fled the country, because there’s nothing like a little time and space to help you forget heal the past.
When God told Moses to return to his old stomping grounds, Moses felt strongly that even though forty years had passed it was still too soon. Moses responded to the Lord saying, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’ . . . But Moses said to the Lord, ‘Oh my Lord, I am not eloquent.’ . . . ” and again, “But he said, ‘Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.’”
Moses’ history with the Egyptians and Hebrews was a stinging reminder of his shortcomings. Moses allowed his own history and insecurities to disqualify himself from doing the work God had commanded. Though he eventually turned things around, his initial reaction was not obedience but rather reluctance, reluctance prompted by fear.
It’s not uncommon for us to do the same. We can give our shortcomings a sense of authority and allow them to dictate what we should and shouldn’t do. But the past can haunt us toward holiness too—we just need to redirect our focus.
Haunted toward Holiness
When we shift our gaze from our own shortcomings, and focus instead on the power of our God who consistently extracts his glory from hopeless people, places, and situations, then we exchange fear for reverence. When we move from fear to revere, these hauntings of our past can compel us toward holiness through obedience rather than fear-produced reluctance.
Consider Joshua on the outskirts of the promised land. The Lord said to Joshua, “Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them to the people of Israel.” But Joshua already knew what was waiting on the other side of the Jordan.
In Numbers 13, Moses sent spies into Canaan to scout the land, and the spies reported that though the land was indeed flowing with milk and honey, it was also inhabited by a slew of Israel’s enemies—the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Amorites, and the Amalekites, not to mention the Nephilim. The history the Hebrews had with these peoples instilled enough fear in the people that God’s promise was drowned out by their circumstances. In Numbers, this led to further rebellion and reluctance from the Hebrew people.
Joshua was aware of this history, aware of the odds, and aware of the grumbling people he was to lead, but he was aware of more than that. Joshua’s memory held images of manna every morning and of water bursting from rocks. He remembered a God with the power to part an entire sea and who led by cloud during the day and fire at night.
So rather than become fixated on the laundry list of reasons that things shouldn’t work out if they followed God’s plan and give way to fear, he focused instead on the power of the one who beckoned them beyond the border and marched onward in obedience.
Joshua allowed the past to set the stage for God’s glory to be displayed, despite and in spite of the odds stacked against him and the Hebrews. The tales of the reluctant, the disobedient, and the insecure are also inspiring in a way. They challenge me to trust the invisible qualities and divine attributes of the Lord in spite of my very tangible surroundings and shortcomings.
If his power is made perfect in our weaknesses, then we need not cower when haunted by our shortcomings. Instead, we need to shift our gaze—from fearing our own inadequacies to revering the omnipotent God of the ages whose glory has never been, and will never be, bound by our limitations.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?”
Cover image by Tobias van Schneider.