There is a question I’ve been asked in a variety of different ways from different women, and it goes something like this: Is it important for me to examine my past (and they are referring to negative, painful, or traumatic experiences) in order to help me deal with my present struggles/issues and to heal or move on?
Some women ask cautiously – they don’t want to look back into their past because there are a lot of really bad memories there and they don’t want to relive or be re-traumatized by them.
Other women are quite eager to get digging, hoping to find clues that will help explain why they are feeling or behaving a certain way in the present day.
It’s a good question, and one that will take a lot more time to fully flesh out than this blog post will allow, but I thought I’d take some time and record, in a nutshell, my understanding of the subject.
First, let me start by saying that the Bible does not approach the answer in the same way that psychology does. The Bible says nothing about the need to re-visit the past for the purpose of healing emotional pain and memories in the wounded inner child, dealing with “unfinished business”, or finding a place to discover what lead to or lay the blame for our current problems and behavioral responses in life. Furthermore, digging deeply into the past is often unproductive and, for some, might be potentially harmful as they are re-traumatized by the experience. Also, as Stephen Viars rightly acknowledges, “Scripture does not encourage us to view ourselves as hopeless victims”. So, we need to steer clear of looking into our past in the hopes that our present issues will finally be resolved if we can just find a way to link them to the past.
That does not mean that the past is irrelevant or has nothing to do with today. However, when dealing with the past, according to Viars, we must be careful to avoid two extreme beliefs: “believing the past is nothing”, or “believing the past is everything.”
What reasons, then, do we have to look into our past, and what do we do with it once we get back there?
God absolutely designed our brains to be able to create and store memories from the past. The fact is we all have a past and memories that go with it. There’s really no way to escape that; we can’t just wave a wand and make it all magically disappear.
What about Philippians 3:13, you may ask? Does it not teach us that, when it comes to the past, we are supposed to forget about it and leave it behind? I’ve tried to tackle that question in another post here , but, no, actually, that is not what the Apostle Paul meant when he penned this verse (still, it’s one I’ve often heard quoted by Christians when they are trying to help others deal with their past).
So, if we will always have a past and memories that go with it,
and if we’re not meant to simply forget about them,
What part of our past should we focus our attention on?
A good place to start, according to Dr. Jay Adams, is to focus only on the parts of our past that are affecting our present. In other words, if a matter has been dealt with and settled in a biblical and God-glorifying way, then it doesn’t need to be brought into the present; it is a past issue, and one that needs to be put behind us. That doesn’t mean that we will never again have memories about it, but it does mean that whenever memories of it unnecessarily get brought into the present that we don’t allow it to begin governing our present life in an unbiblical way. If we have dealt with an issue biblically, then we should be able to talk presently about the event and people in a way that is God-glorifying and full of grace and forgiveness. We also see the matter with what Rick Thomas calls “sovereign clarity” – the ability to “perceive the Lord’s thoughts – as much as His thoughts can be ascertained-about what happened to [us ] (Isaiah 55:8,9).”
What, from our past, might we still need to deal with then?
- Unrepented sin
- Habituated, unbiblical response patterns
Jesus says, in Revelation 2:5, “Remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place – unless you repent”.
Now, I want to be careful here and recognize that it is entirely possible that we can be an innocent victim of suffering: a child who had no way to escape an abusive home, a woman who was raped at knife-point, or forced to have an abortion, a worker disabled from an on-the-job accident, or a prisoner of war. We know that the Bible speaks of many instances of “men and women who have been sinned against or who are suffering because of the natural and painful effects of living in a sin-cursed world” (Viars) – think of Job, Joseph, and – of course – Jesus. Passages, like Psalm 73 and 2 Corinthians 1 also speak to this:
“Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.” (Ps. 73:13,14)
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:8,9)
Yet, even when we have done nothing to contribute to our suffering, if we do not respond biblically to it, it is highly likely that there will be unrepented sin still attached to it, sin that shows up in our outward expressions and inner heart attitudes of anger, bitterness, unforgiveness, hatred, jealousy, disappointment, discouragement, anxiety, fear, etc. If we do not bring our sin into the light and expose it for what it is so that we can confess it and ask God to help us with it, then we will, most likely, continue spinning our wheels, wondering why we can’t get traction and move forward beyond the pain.
Can you think of a situation or person from your past that tends to keep getting brought back into your thought life and that you then allow to govern your life in an unbiblical way? If so, take some time right now and ask yourself:
- Do I have any unrepented sin in regard to this situation or person? (you certainly don’t need to go morbidly digging around for unrepented sin, but you can simply ask God to search your heart and bring to mind any area of TRUE sin that you will want to confess in the matter).
- Am I harboring any unforgiveness? (again, the purpose of exploring this is to reveal truth and bring it to the light where it can be dealt with).
- have I developed any habitual, non-biblical response patterns that could be lying at the root of my immediate problems? The goal here is to evaluate how I have learned to respond to past events and people. What is the “shape” of my response patterns? Do I become angry, withdrawn, manipulative, jealous, hateful, self-righteous, unforgiving, a gossiper, slanderer, self-harmer, etc.?After any unrepented sin, unforgiveness, and non-biblical response patterns are discovered, then, take some time and:
- Confess – “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. (1 John 1:8,9) State the specific acts/attitudes of sin that you are harboring to God, joyfully expecting Him to pardon you, cleanse you, remove your guilt, and faithfully make known, because of of the shed blood of Christ on your behalf, his steadfast love to you that surpasses all understanding.
- Re-frame – this is a psychological term, but one that has its roots in Scripture. It simply means to go back and re-write your experience in the light of Scripture and the Gospel; instead of focusing on what happened to you, overwrite the experience focusing, instead, on who God was in and through it and what He did in and through it. In this way, “Our pasts”, according to Stephen Viars, “can be among our best friends.” We should look at our past as “a record, in part, of the way God has related to you and worked in your life.” Our goal, then, he says, “is not to focus on “it” but on who God is and what He has done [in and through it]”.
Let’s look at some examples of how this is done in Scripture…
- Jesus, in 1 Peter 2:23 – “and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously”
- Joseph, in Genesis 50:20 – “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive”
- Isaiah, in Isaiah 6:5 – “Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
- Job, in Job 42:5,6 – “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
…And some from outside Scripture…
- Corrie Ten Boom, prisoner of war in a Nazi Concentration Camp – “Even as the angry vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him….Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness….And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on his. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives along with the command, the love itself.”
- Elisabeth Elliot, after her own husband and 4 other missionaries were tragically killed at the hands of the Auca Indians, in the midst of her own grief – “Our vision is so limited we can hardly imagine a love that does not show itself in protection from suffering…. The love of God did not protect His own Son…. He will not necessarily protect us – not from anything it takes to make us like His Son. A lot of hammering and chiseling and purifying by fire will have to go into the process.”
- Oulaudah Equiano, a Christian, born free in Benin, kidnapped, stripped of his family at the age of ten, and then enslaved – “I early accustomed myself to look at the hand of God in the minutest occurrence, and to learn from it a lesson of morality and religion; and in this light every circumstance I have related was to me of importance. After all, what makes any event important, unless by its observation we become better and wiser, and learn ‘ to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humble before God!'”
*How is this information challenging you personally, right now?
*How can you begin to apply what you’ve learned, so far?
*What will you do with your past in light of this information?
When we develop a biblical theology of the past, we can begin to handle the difficult past well. When we handle the past biblically, here are some benefits, according to Viars, that we can expect in our present:
- replace guilt and despair with forgiveness and hope
- unplug the negative effects of a guilty past
- turn failures into stepping-stones for growth
- evaluate the place of the past in current struggles and find hope in the midst of the process
- experience the joy that comes from viewing hard times God’s way
- appreciate the sovereignty of God, who can use the past as a marvelous opportunity to teach valuable and life-changing lessons
- be better prepared to help others who are struggling with the past
Remember: a key component of making disciples is sharing the things we’ve learned with others, so…
- How might you come alongside another believer in Christ who is “stuck” in their past and having difficulty living in a spiritually (biblically) healthy way today?
- How would you answer another believer who asked you whether or not they needed to revisit their past to “get healthy”?
- What might you say to someone who believes that their past is nothing, that it has nothing to do with their choices today, that it’s irrelevant to today’s struggles, and whose motto is “hakunamata” (put your past behind you)?
- What might you say to someone who believes that their past is everything, that all of their failures today are because of disobedience, abuse, lack of love, physical/emotional needs not getting met, etc. in the past, and that none of their present behavior is their fault because their “wounded inner child is creating emotional pain”, their “memories need to be healed”, or they are being “ruthlessly driven by their past”?
Good things to think about and ponder in light of Scripture!
If you have enjoyed this post, if it has been helpful to you, and you find yourself wanting to learn even more on the subject, I highly recommend that you check out Stephen Viars’ book, Putting Your Past in Its Place. It will absolutely transform the way you look at the past. My prayer is that, as you learn to handle it with solid biblical theology, the past will become your ally, your friend, and no longer your enemy!