Sandy and I once lived in the same large ranch-style home in the Shores for 27 years and a massive amount of “stuff” accumulated in our attic, closets and 2 ½ car garage. When we moved in November 2000, we gave away over half to the Salvation Army and others; but the rest found its way to storage shelves in our new basement. Around that time I remember hearing a sermon that addressed how some people accumulate so much “stuff” and have such a hard time departing ways with it that they even rent a storage locker for the overflow. I was determined to never become such a person; so every year since I’ve made a habit of going through my “stuff” and purging the unnecessary and unimportant. Still, in July of 2013 I came upon an essay I’d written back in high school that I kept hanging onto after every purge – and that became the subject of the first blog I ever wrote entitled “Why did I save that?”
These days I’m often asked to give spiritual advice to people who are going through some pretty hairy circumstances in their lives. Based on the limited sample size of the people I’ve counseled, I’ve concluded that most of these hurting people horde memories of the worst of times like others hang onto “stuff.” It begs the question of why does a person hang onto those hurtful moments for years? Words thoughtlessly spoken by our friends and family, actions of an abusive or uncaring person that crossed our path sometime in the past, broken and unfaithful relationships that embittered us toward future relationships, and our own stupid behaviors that once embarrassed us and/or our family, or worse, caused harm to another – these memories have no redeeming value. They just linger and tear us apart inside long after the physical and verbal abuse has ended and long after our own dumb action or failure has been forgotten by everyone else. Even as we try to move on to a new spiritual home, surrounded by new neighbors and a better environment, we keep asking ourselves, “Why did I save that – that hurtful memory?”
I observe this human tendency to cling to hurtful memories, even in many who don’t seek my advice. It’s evident in their social media posts and in their emails. Sometimes the hurt is camouflaged in humor, a religious message or a political theme, but it’s still there. Perhaps it’s the emotions and attitudes that are derived from hurtful memories that one becomes all too comfortable with. Though these erode their personal life, their relationships, even their physical and spiritual well-being, they accept the consequences as others accept a dirty and cluttered house. These emotions and attitudes after all are elements of a person’s very soul. They become part of a person’s identity. “I am this way because of how that person mistreated me,” is often heard. “If I let go of the anger and record of wrongs and forgive the person who hurt me, I’ll lose a part of myself, part of my individuality.”
However, Jesus taught that such fears of loss of identity are unfounded. I don’t have to hold onto past hurts in order to maintain my identity. I have other options – to allow God’s love and forgiveness to flow from me towards the person who hurt me. And when I do this, instead of anger and the record of past wrongs being part of who I was, Christ’s love and forgiveness become my new identity. Paul told the Galatians: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
I was recently reading a message on the subject written by Pastor John Macarthur. He referred to the process of being set free from past hurts as “the basis of comfort,” or “trusting faith.” “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me,” Jesus is quoted by the Apostle John. According to Macarthur, if you’re worried or anxious, confused, or upset, the reason is that you don’t trust Him like you should. If you really trust Christ, what do you have to worry about? And in verse 6 Jesus tells us why we should be comforted: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. I am the way to the Father. I am the truth, whether in this world or the world to come. I am the life that is eternal.”
Still, I believe it takes a truly courageous person, in concert with the God of the impossible to set aside a large piece of one’s soul – which is what hurtful memories entail. Yet that’s the only way we’ll ever be truly free.
God relayed that to His people Israel way back in the Prophet Isaiah’s time: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” Constantly dwelling on mistakes and problems of the past weighs us down. But the Lord instructs us to forget those former things and not dwell on them. He even adds a wonderful promise: letting go releases streams of living water into our life and enables God to do a new work in us.
When the Apostle Paul wrote his second letter to his Corinthian converts, it’s apparent that many in that community were feeling traumatized by their past. They had lived in and had partaken of one of the most immoral and perverse societies of the time; yet Paul told them that they were free and clear of that old evil nature. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
Even some secular people have gotten a partial revelation of this truth. In the book “Alice in Wonderland” written by Lewis Carroll, Alice says: “I could tell you my adventures – beginning from this morning, but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” Canadian writer, motivational speaker, and leadership expert Robin Sharma advises his clients: “Stop being a prisoner of your past. Become the architect of your future.” Indian-American author and public speaker Deepak Chopra wisely says: “I use memories, but I will not allow memories to use me.” And country singer Johnny Cash, who had many personal challenges in his life came to recognize: “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.”
The Apostle Peter who once cowardly denied even knowing Jesus to save his own skin later could tell the followers of Christ: “You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for He called you out of the darkness into His wonderful light.”
And Paul, via his letter to the Philippians provided the roadmap for successfully cleaning your spiritual house.
- Rejoice in the Lord always.
- Be kind and respectful to all men.
- Remember that the Lord is at hand.
- That will help you to be anxious for nothing,
- Let your requests be made known to God, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving,
- The peace of God will be in you and will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
- Meditate on good things: whatever things are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, of any virtue and praiseworthy.
- Do these things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me.
The following are four points that I’m always inclined to remind those who are dealing with past hurts (of others and even of ourselves).
(1) “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” That’s one of the most difficult scriptures to understand and incorporate into our personal lives – recognizing who the real enemy is (namely the devil) not the supposed friend or family member that’s just hurt you in word or action. They’ve just become his ignorant accomplices.
(2) “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” For this reason, we don’t have a right to be offended by anyone else. That truth is what allowed the Apostle James to die with these words on his lips: “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
(3) Perhaps even more important than the previous two – recognize that the person harming you is the one with the big problem, not you. They are ultimately going to have to answer to God Who has promised to defend you. For this reason, they most need God’s help and your prayers and your forgiveness.
(4) Unconditional love and forgiveness are the two most powerful forces in the universe.