As a former pastor and as an equipper of pastors, people often ask me the important question, “Should I try to forget my past?” When hurting people in our congregation and community ask us that question, how can we respond in a compassionate, biblical way?
First, we can respond with a one-word answer. “No.” Then we can respond with a blog-size answer. Being pastors, we could even alliterate our response using the words:
- Repent/Receive Grace/Renew
Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t forget the past. It’s impossible. More importantly, it’s unbiblical.
Memory is our God-given capacity to store and recall what we have experienced and learned. Remembering is part of our design by creation—before the fall into sin. “Remember” is used 167 times in the Bible (NIV), thus reminding us of the importance of remembering.
Some people mistakenly interpret Philippians 3:13 to mean that we should try to forget our past: “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” The Greek word for forget does not mean not to remember, but not to focus my attention on. More importantly, the biblical context of Philippians 3:13 relates to whether Paul would focus his attention on his works of the flesh, attempts at self-righteousness, and putting confidence in the flesh, versus focusing on Christ’s righteousness and the power of Christ’s resurrection.
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is a testimony to the biblical value of remembering. “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia” (2 Cor. 1:8). Throughout the epistle, Paul recalls and rehearses a litany of past sufferings.
In a similar way, the Psalms are a biblical testimonial to the power and value of remembering face-to-face with God. I call it reflecting and facing our feelings face-to-face with our Father.
People typically ask about forgetting in the context of dealing with past suffering (being sinned against) or dealing with past sin (sinning against others). I believe that attempting to refuse to remember our past can actually be a symptom of sin.
Trying to suppress past memories of pain (regarding either our suffering or our sin) can be a refusal to face and deal with life. It can be an attempt to deal with pain apart from God. We could compare such attempts to self-sufficient “coping mechanisms” such as drinking and drugs—where we try anything to numb our pain, emptiness, or guilt.
In God’s Healing for Life’s Losses, I describe how the psalmists, Job, Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul remember face-to-face with Christ through “candor and complaint/lament.” In biblical candor, we’re honest with ourselves regarding our past and present. In biblical complaint/lament, we’re honest with God regarding our past and present.
Rather than attempting to forget, we are to bring to mind past external events and our current internal thoughts and feelings and bring them to Christ. As I put it in God’s Healing for Life’s Losses, “No grieving, no healing. Know grieving, know healing.” Reflecting on our past is our admission to ourselves and God that we can’t handle our past on our own, that we desperately need Christ.
When our memories of the past relate to our past sin, Christ’s soul-u-tion is to remember, repent, and receive grace. “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev. 2:5 ESV).
In Psalms 32 and 51, David models remembering, repenting, receiving grace, and renewing his life by God’s Spirit. Rather than trying the impossible and sinful mental activity of suppressing the memory of his sin, David recalls to mind his sin against God. He repents deeply not only of behavioral sin, but of heart motivational sin.
Having repented, David receives grace—he accepts God’s gracious forgiveness and prays for shalom—a conscience at peace with the God of peace. He then prays that the Spirit would renew a right spirit within him so that he could turn from his path of sin (put off) and return to the path of righteousness (put on).
But what do we do with our emotional agony when we remember past suffering—being sinned against? God’s Word is clear. We never forget, we re-member.
Think about that word: re-member. To put our memories back together again, to shape our memories through God’s eternal grid.
In God’s Healing for Life’s Losses, I use the life of Joseph to portray how God wants us to remember and then reinterpret our past with spiritual eyes. There I call it “weaving.”
In Genesis 45:4–8 and 50:20, Joseph refuses to forget. He calls to mind his suffering past with these words. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
In the Hebrew, the word intended can be used in a physical sense for weaving together a tapestry, such as Joseph’s coat of many colors. It can be used in the metaphysical sense in a negative way for weaving together an evil scheme or plot, such as Joseph’s brothers did. Or, it can be used in a positive sense of God weaving together good out of evil.
How do we deal with our past suffering? We look at life with spiritual eyes by bringing to bear God’s eternal narrative, spiritual 20/20 vision, and larger story perspective. Weaving is re-membering—to create wholeness using God’s perspective to bring meaning to our suffering.
That’s how, like Joseph, we find hope when we’re hurting. That’s how, like Joseph, we grant forgiveness to those who have caused our suffering. In so doing we can say, “I grieve, but I don’t despair. I grieve, but not like the hopeless ones. I grieve with resurrection hope.”
Being human involves shaping our personal experiences into stories and narratives. That’s part of our God-given capacity of memory. We shape our sense of self and who we are in Christ from our retelling of our experiences.
As spiritual friends, it is when we listen carefully and compassionately to one another’s most important stories that we gain access to how our friends are attempting to make sense of themselves in the context of their past experiences. Our one-to-one relationships and our small-group meetings should be places where we retell our stories.
In God’s Healing for Life’s Losses, I discuss how the retelling process moves us from “weaving” to “worshipping.” In worshipping we are committed to finding God even when we can’t find answers.
We are committed to knowing God more than knowing relief from our past. We worship God by retelling our stories like Joseph did—in a way that honors and glorifies God and His role in redeeming our past (see Gen. 45:4–8).
There is no power in forgetting our past. God doesn’t want us to pretend. Of all people, as Christians we must be the most honest about our past. We must remember, reflect, repent/receive grace/renew, reinterpret, and retell.
Here are two biblical counseling resources that pastors and church members will find helpful in dealing with the past:
God’s Healing for Life’s Losses by Bob Kellemen
Putting Your Past in Its Place: Moving Forward in Freedom and Forgiveness by Steve Viars
Join the conversation
What is your biblical answer to the question “Should I try to forget my past?”