The Path from Bad Memories to Future Hope
You are flourishing a joyous, “forgiven and free” life, when all of the sudden a memory of one of your past sins sends you into a spiral. The memory makes it feel as if you had just sinned all over again. Sound familiar? You’re not alone.
According to Pastor D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The problem here is the case of those who are miserable or who are suffering from spiritual depression because of their past – either because of some particular sin in their past, or because of the particular form which sin happened to take in their case. I would say that in my experience in the ministry extending now over many years, there is no more common difficulty. It is constantly recurring and I think that I have had to deal with more people over this particular thing than over anything else” (as quoted in Bad Memories).
This is happening to people who have already confessed their sins, repented, and placed their faith in Jesus Christ. They know, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9),” but they just can’t seem to move past their past.
For many, the memories of their past sins become their own kind of prison. But it doesn’t have to be. While it is highly unlikely you can simply forget what you did, there is a path from these bad memories to hope.
To help us gain understanding, we are using Bad Memories: Getting Past Your Past by Robert D. Jones.
Redeem Your Bad Memories
There is a lot of bad advice about how to deal with memories. Jones explains, “If eradicating the past is your goal, the world offers a menu of escapes” such as drugs or alcohol. But a just-forget-the-past isn’t helpful in the long run.
Jones writes, “God does not want to remove your memories; he wants to redeem them. He wants to transform them into something good, something that will make you more like Jesus. […] God’s goal is neither memory erasure nor memory denial, but memory redemption.”
A Biblical Perspective on Memories
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! – 2 Corinthians 5:17
Memory redemption begins with gaining a biblical perspective.
Even if you were not a Christian at the time of the sin you can’t forget, it’s important to understand that God was still there.
Even if you consider yourself the worst of all sinners, Jesus’ blood on the cross has redeemed you and you are a new creation. Therefore, your past cannot control your future.
Even if your memories seem as real today as the day they occurred, they are actually the-past-as-you-interpret them. Jones explains, “This means that they are capable of reinterpretation. […] The hope of the gospel can help you put the right interpretation on your past and make it into a good thing for you.”
Let’s look at what the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy.
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
– 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Recognize the Shame of Sin
Jones writes, “Paul doesn’t hide his sinful past; instead, he presents a gospel interpretation of it.”
This gospel interpretation is necessary because it prevents us from living in a prison of shame.
But, there is a fine line between living in shame and being ashamed of our past sins.
Jason Meyer writes for The Gospel Coalition, “When we put our sins on repeat mode, we wince and groan over and over again because it triggers sharp pangs of guilt and shame. Our guilt brings past sins into the present and says, ‘Look, you made a mistake.’ Then shame joins the conversation and adds, ‘Yes, and you are the mistake.’”
In the message to Timothy, Paul acknowledges his shameful sin, but he acknowledges them through the lens of forgiveness and salvation.
According to Jones, “Properly remembering our past sins with shame will deter us from repeating them and help us receive God’s saving grace. When we recall our failures through the lens of Christ’s mercy, God produces in us ongoing repentance and deepening humility.”
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
The memories of our past should be followed by the memory of God redeeming us, which should then increase our gratitude to God for the mercy he showed us. Jones adds, “There is no contradiction between a present enjoyment of justification and a proper sense of shame about past sin. Both mark the maturing Christian.”
Instead of getting stuck on the shame of the past sin, Paul moves it by praising God for his mercy. Jones writes, “[Paul] does not forget or avoid his past. He freely admits he was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man. On the other hand, he does not dwell on these facts. He dwells on Jesus’ saving work and on God’s mercy in sending such a savior. Paul lets his past highlight God’s grace.”
When you get caught thinking about your sinful mistakes in the past, thank God for forgiving you and showing you mercy even when you didn’t deserve it.
Use Your Memories to Help Others
Finally, your past memories can help you minister to others in the present.
As a sinner, you can relate. You know the shame of sin, so you can be more sensitive to others.
Moreover, “you can offer hope by holding out your life as an example of God’s hope at work” (Jones).
You can show others how God redeemed you and made you a new creation, as well as how you deal with the shame of your past in a God-honoring way.
When you are tempted to dwell on bad memories of your past, think of Jesus.
As Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “For every one look at your sin, take ten looks at Jesus Christ.”
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. – Philippians 4:8