We Can’t Look Past Our Past in Spiritual Formation

We once lived in a house that was the patchwork of a structure from the 1950s with an addition from the 1990s. The house had strange idiosyncrasies like light switches that did nothing and others that turned on appliances in rooms in totally different parts of the house. Occasionally when running the vacuum and the microwave at the same time, every light in the house would dim to a mood-setting glow.

When repair people came—plumbers, electricians, and carpenters—we’d often hear them utter the same refrain, “Well, huh.” We also heard, “Wow, that’s interesting.” We’d even hear, “Why would they do it that way?” It was a unique house, and we were often suspicious when new creaks or clicks made their presence known.

We dreaded service calls. We knew that once the repair person took down the drywall or uncovered the electrical wiring, we would find more than a simple problem waiting to be solved.

Spiritual formation is becoming like Jesus within our skin. Of course, it is skin with history. To live in this skin—or in the drywall in the case of a house—we have to explore what makes it, what makes us, who we are. We need to see underneath the weathered layers to the generative life underneath, not only the life God created and sustained but also the life we have stewarded and fumbled along the way.

THE JOURNEY OF REDEMPTION

I believe there are bold and brilliant possibilities for redemption while we’re in this skin, driving toward what Frank Laubach calls “undiscovered continents of spiritual living compared with which we are infants in arms.”

The obstacle to living in our own skin is, of course, accurately seeing what’s underneath. To explore our memories is to be able to use our gift of hindsight to see what’s behind the drywall, so to speak.

What we need most in the moments when we enter our complicated memories and pull back the drywall to discover what is underneath is the redemption of our memories. Moments we have considered worthless or even harmful are suddenly given value by the God who heals—the God who lives not in calendar time with its various demands but in kairos time, which is best described as non-chronological sacredness.

This is where the idea of leaving the past behind or not letting it define us fails to give us the belief and restoration we so desperately need.

My daughter, now well past the kid-snickering phase, will still chuckle quietly when The Lion King’s Pumbaa the warthog opines, “You gotta put your behind in your past.”

It is difficult to find those who would disagree with Pumbaa’s direction here. As present- and future-focused people, the role relegated to the past is typically sentimental and nostalgic. We keep the high school picture or letter jacket, but we leave behind much of everything else. We do it out of contempt. We also do it for the sake of survival.

THE PAIN OF THE PAST

When we survey our story, we will notice a moment when we were wounded deeply. People we trusted abused or abandoned us at the time when we needed them the most, and what they left was a deep chasm in our story. It has made us who we are today.

We decide who to allow into our lives based on this event.

We decide which relationships we will pursue in the present because of this painful moment in the past.

We have an implicit story about our value and worth to the world based on the emotional impact of this past event. It has reshaped us at the most fundamental levels.

We have Pavlovian memories: earthy, visceral, and primitive, strikingly different from more factual, intellectual recollections.

Persons who have been in a serious automobile accident “may later react to screeching brakes with a racing heart, sweaty palms, and a surge of adrenaline.”

Unchecked, these shells become memories that dominate us, and our story gnarls like a Zinfandel vine. But instead of giving us beautiful hardiness to withstand the elements, it creates a fragile script of bitterness, ache, and disappointment. This is neither the life that Jesus calls “abundant” (Jn. 10:10) nor is it equal to that station we were created for.

REDEEMING AND ASSOCIATING

The robbing of our lives occurs when the core story of who we are—created as “very good” (Gen 1:31) and never downgraded, and “beloved” of God (1 Jn. 3:2)—is taken through specific memories and twisted into something far more sinister than any demon possession.

Bessel van der Kolk, known for his legendary work on trauma and the body, notes our minds disassociate with traumatic events by putting them in “frozen, barely comprehensible fragments.”

We may have memories attached to a certain place, smell, or song. They seem far away or absent at times but are still beneath the surface pushing our stories and scripts into the present and future. We choose what to do with the drywall.

Dr. van der Kolk continues, “If the problem with PTSD is dissociation, the goal of treatment would be association: integrating the cut-off elements into the ongoing narrative of life.”

When it comes to our painful memories, we long for amnesia, but we need redemption and reintegration.

While we may not suffer clinical levels of trauma, we all find ways to distance ourselves from memories that cause us pain. In turn, we are also invited by Jesus to carry our belovedness into our memories and allow him to heal and reintegrate those elements we’d rather leave behind into a life of graceful formation.

Our identity becomes the partnership with God that we take into our exploration of pain, passion, perseverance, and pensive moments. This is the ground of redemption for our memories.

When it comes to our painful memories, we long for amnesia, but we need redemption and reintegration.

REDEMPTION AND REINTEGRATION

Healing our memories and redeeming past events for the sake of future formation is not about reaching a point of worthiness but beginning from a status of belovedness and hiddenness (Col. 3:3) that only Jesus can provide. Robert Mulholland says, “It is clear that the only valid context for our inner reorientation and striving is the fact that ‘you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.’”

Jesus centers us not only within the present but within the past. He orients us toward things that we cannot change in order to be present with us in them, redeeming them as we hold them out to him. Remembering is the practice of bringing our memories forward and engaging them in the presence of God. Memories must be redeemed—and to be redeemed they have to be embraced just as they are, just where they are without gloss or ceremony, or else they become demons emboldened to pull back on the reins of our lives at will.

Our formation in the future is waiting for the redemption of the memories, stories, and scripts that trail behind.

Of course, past pain has a spiritual impact. If we look at the spiritual life as the work of the mind (the way we process the world), the heart (the will and energy for us to do what we do), and the hands (our active movements in everyday life), it isn’t difficult to see how a past pain significantly shapes our spiritual lives.

To redeem our memories, we must begin where we are least likely to go, the place that we feel is least relevant in the here and now. Yet we can never truly leave our “behind” in our past. Our formation in the future is waiting for the redemption of the memories, stories, and scripts that trail behind.


Adapted from As I Recall by Casey Tygrett. Copyright (c) 2019 by Casey Tygrett. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.

Casey Tygrett is a writer, speaker, and spiritual director. He currently serves as Theologian in Residence at Parkview Christian Church in the Chicago, IL area. His passion is for compelling content that leads people to lives of beauty and grace. Learn more at https://www.caseytygrett.com/.