“I don’t think it helps to drudge up the past. I try to look forward, not backward.”
The woman speaking was pleasant, engaging and a strong Christian. I had asked her about some very traumatic experiences she had had 20 years earlier while she was a young mom married to an abusive husband.
She continued. “It’s like what the apostle Paul wrote. He said we should, ‘Forget what lies behind and strive forward for what lies ahead, pressing on toward the upward call of God.’ I want to do that: go up, not down; and go forward, not backward.”
I was in seminary, and not very experienced in ministry. And I was a bit confused.
On the one hand, she was quoting Paul accurately (Philippians 3: 13-14). But on the other hand, I knew a person couldn’t just sweep such awful stuff under the rug of time, hoping it would all go away. I wasn’t sure how to counsel her.
In the end, I couldn’t deny she seemed genuinely happy. She said she didn’t feel the need to think any more about those abusive episodes, so I wasn’t about to tell her she should. If God had healed her, who was I to suggest otherwise?
I wish I knew then what I know now.
For one thing, I have since looked more carefully at the Philippian passage and discovered we both completely misunderstood it. Paul didn’t say to ignore past hurts and look only to the future. Instead, he was talking about his past accomplishments—the things he might brag about. Those are the things to keep in the past.
The reason for doing that is because we can be tempted to rely on those things and become stagnant. Focusing on those things might keep us from growing. So Paul said he put all those “spiritual merit badges” behind him. He reminds himself—and us—that he hasn’t—and we haven’t—“arrived ” yet.
Paul actually called such prideful measurements of spiritual accomplishments what they really were: rubbish. And more to the point, he was saying nothing in the passage about what to do with past hurts and wounds.
The other thing I know now is the undeniable connection between current problems and past unresolved trauma. When I think now of that woman’s situation, I was completely overlooking two important realities: she was remarried to yet another manipulative, egocentric man; and her grown children were estranged from her because they never saw her stand up for them—or for herself—growing up (and were disgusted with her current husband).
It seemed to me that in her conscious mind, she honestly and truly felt no pain. But she was also clearly mismanaging her life and relationships in such a similar way to how she had done 20 years earlier. The lack of pain didn’t mean she was over what had happened. It simply meant she had found a way to mask it.
By way of analogy, a Band-Aid can cover a wound but that alone won’t heal it. All the systems God put into our bodies are needed for true renewal and for our flesh to become healthy. In the same way, just burying trauma is not the same thing as healing it. God put into the body of Christ systems for making us whole again, among them: connection with others, compassionate counselors, safe friends who will “weep with those who weep”, and validation of our pain from the many passages of Scripture that reflect a longing for God and crying out in anguish when he seems not to be present.
If your life is still affected by traumatic experiences from your past, it won’t work to ignore those painful episodes. God wants to bring his medicine to you and apply it directly to those hurts, so they can be cared for. Surprisingly, he does so through the most unlikely channel—his people. His “Plan A” for delivering his restorative grace is through the flawed, imperfect members of the body of Christ. The apostle Peter says we as followers of Jesus collectively bring “God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10).
To my knowledge, that woman I talked to so many years ago never faced her past hurts with the help and support God wanted to give her through the love and compassion of others. Her stoic resolve could drive her forward, but her marriage and estranged children never got the benefit of her being all she could have been.
It didn’t have to be that way for her. And it doesn’t have to be that way for us.
By Judson Poling
Judson met Greg Huston (The Crucible Project’s founder) in 2002 and staffed his first initial weekend the following spring. Judson is a founding board member of The Crucible Project and co-developer of The Crucible Project’s four second-level weekends. He also served on staff of Willow Creek Community Church for 29 years. Judson is now a best-selling author and President of Cambia Resources, LLC, doing consulting, coaching and freelance writing.
Photo Credit: Markus Binzegger via Creative Commons