Purposeful Faith

When Your Past Returns to Haunt You

Blog Post by Abby McDonald

“Are you a pagan?”

I sat in a body-piercing studio with the owner gazing at a tattoo displayed on the nave of my back. It was a gnome, sitting on a mushroom and playing a fife. Everything about it screamed pot-smoker, hippy and apparently, pagan.

And to think I got it because I thought it looked cool. To me it said, “Outsider,” a label I gave myself during my younger years.

The man’s question caught me off guard. I was twenty-one at the time and wasn’t sure who I was, let alone what I believed.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. The artist seemed as surprised by my answer as I was. Immediately, I felt ashamed.

Who was this person, anyway?

I spent the next eight years trying to figure out the answer to that question. Eventually, I realized all of the places I ran to seek my identity were fickle and fading.

It wasn’t until I started with the One who gave me my eternal name that I would know my true self.

These days, my tattoo is usually hidden. But the other day, while on family vacation, I was changing into my swimsuit and my five-year-old saw it.

“Mama, what’s that on your back?”

I told him what the picture was and explained how a tattoo is like a permanent picture on your skin. Then, my mind went back. Back to the person I was. Back to the mistakes I made and the years I spent wasting my life. Things much bigger than a silly tattoo that shape the person I am today.

For a little while, I let the voice of condemnation darken the light in my soul.

Scenes of things I wish I’d never seen replayed in my mind. Faces of people who left this life for the next one burned in my memory and left my heart heavy.

Perhaps you’ve been there? You’re walking in the new life Jesus freely gave you, and then all of a sudden you’re hit with a blatant reminder of the mess you used to be? That, despite your best efforts, some days you still are?

In those dark moments when I’m not sure I can escape my past, God often gives me a reminder. This time was no different.

We arrived at the pool and found it closed because of an incoming storm. After playing for a while in the arcade next door, we made our way back to the campsite. As we made dinner, a beautiful site caught my eye.

A spectacular sunset over the river.

The sun was big and radiant, dipping to the horizon in a circular blanket of clouds. I hurriedly got my camera and ran down to the beach.

I must of snapped a dozen pictures, but when I flipped through them in my viewfinder I was disappointed. This huge ball of light and fire looked tiny and dim. I couldn’t capture its draw. It was uncontainable.

As I sat in our camper later that evening, I felt that gentle whisper in my spirit.

Don’t try to put limits on my grace, Abby. It’s more limitless than the sun.”

And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

John 1:16 ESV

I was putting God in a box again, thinking I could somehow run outside his grace. But it doesn’t just cover me. It drenches me.

We can’t put finite limitations on the grace of an infinite God.

And the moment we stop trying to put God in a box, we find we don’t want Him there. We find freedom. We find joy and rest.

So today, if your past is trying to haunt you, take a lesson from my tattoo. Remember it shapes you, but it doesn’t define you.

God can take the shattered pieces of your life and turn them into something far more spectacular than a sunset. He does it each and every day. Sometimes we just need a reminder of who he is.

Sometimes we have to take him out of the box and come to the altar. 


Abby McDonald is the mom of three, a wife and writer whose hope is show readers their identity is found in Christ alone, not the noise of the world. When she’s not chasing their two boys or cuddling their newest sweet girl, you can find her drinking copious amounts of coffee while writing about her adventures on her blog. Abby would love to connect with you on her blog and her growing Facebook community.


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Abby Mcdonald

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Abby, you’re hard on yourself initially and others around you may be quick to judge. Your tattoo is teaching me to always extend grace – because we just don’t know the other person until we reach out and talk to them. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you, Nylse, and Amen. We truly don’t know. I’ve been walking with Him for some time now but every now and then an event will trigger a painful reminder of who I was. I thank God his grace is not limited by our perspective. I’m amazed by Him each day.

  • Wow. Something I need to remember every day! I beat myself up SO bad and it leads me down a dark tunnel of depression! Thank you, this certainly resonated with me today!

  • This was so spot on for me!! I have wrestled with my past so much lately. I remind Satan and myself that I have been forgiven of those past sins because I asked for forgiveness with full remorse and sincerity and by the grace of God was cleansed and forgiven of those sins. Yet, that voice breaks through reminding me of the places I should have never been and the things I should have never done because I was saved by the blood – a child of God who had rebelled and turned away from my Father and the truths and values that I knew held true.

    The past 9 years I have been sick and getting sicker and after MANY doctors and many incorrect diagnoses finally found out this year I have a rare disease that has no treatment or cure and is attacking my major organs and my muscles. I am loosing my ability to do basic things. There are days I think maybe I’m getting what I deserve due to my past but then God reminds me that his grace is sufficient and his blessings are new everyday! I choose to take what Satan has meant for my harm to use for the glory of God! My test – and there have been many, starting from a very young child being raised by teenage drug addicted parents, molestation by a stranger when in 2nd grade, failed marriages, abuse, etc…- are now my testimony! When my past creeps in my Father steps in to say loud and clear “climb in my lap and let your Father love on you because you are Mine”.

  • Abby, thanks for sharing. Grace. What a great concept to teach kids!
    I make it a point of commenting on people’s tattoos when I see them–maybe I like their color choice, or wonder what it’s about–and most people are usually open to telling the story behind their tattoos. Whether the person follows Jesus or not, sometimes God takes over the conversation. It’s cool to watch.

  • Oh, Abby, I don’t know why your post brought laughter and tears to my eyes. I will have to ponder that tonight. At first, I saw a sweet friend trying to cover up her past but still searching for God’s grace.

    But then I think I see me. Grace is a beautiful gift from God; I sometimes try to earn when all I have to do is just sit still and take it in.

    “Don’t try to put limits on my grace, Abby. It’s more limitless than the sun.” I loved this line. I know when I see God’s beauty it is as if he sending me a wink.

  • He is incomprehensible. As much as we try, we cannot wrap our minds around the depth and length and breadth and height of God’s grace. But I love that He gave you a glimpse in that sunset! What a reminder that God is always greater than our worst.

  • Great storytelling, Abby. Oh, who doesn’t wish things were different in our past. So glad we serve a God who sees us through eyes of grace. And here you are using your past to point people to God. Now that’s the beauty of it all. God using our past to tell others about his love and grace.

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