Trying to Put the Past Behind Us
Putting Our Past Behind Us, Suppression, and Other Forms of Denial
One common solution for dealing with a painful childhood has been to try to put our past behind us. For those who will be honest about it, it really has not worked very well. Those who advocate this “solution” typically misinterpret the Philippians passage that says, “… one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:13), which is proof-texting this passage and taking it out of context.
I am not exactly sure where this place identified as “behind us” actually is, since everything we remember is contained somewhere within the gray matter between our ears. So “behind us” cannot be that far removed no matter how hard we try to distance ourselves from it. Actually attempting to put our past behind us is a mental process known in psychology as suppression. As well meaning as people who advocate this practice may be, suppression is not a good or healthy thing to do and eventually takes a toll on those who do it. (Google “The Harmful Effects of Suppression.”)
People who advocate putting the past behind us are actually emotion suppressors more than memory suppressors. The only reason we would need to put the past behind us is because of what we feel when we think about it. If a memory caused us to feel nothing, remembering it would cause no problem. It would only be a passing thought and nothing I would need to avoid. So then, it seems we don’t put the memory of the actual event behind us, we attempt to forget or avoid the painful emotions we feel when we give attention to the past. Somewhere along the way, we discovered that if we don’t think about the unpleasant aspects of our past, we don’t feel so bad— or not so often. The problem is, we probably still feel bad anyway, regardless of our avoidance of doing so.
This then begs the question, why does thinking about the past cause us to feel bad anyway? If the past was indeed the reason for our bad feelings, then there would be no other option but to put the past as far back there as we can in order to keep the bad feelings at bay. However, if the past is not the problem or the reason that we feel what we feel, then putting it behind us will have no impact on our emotional status. Blocking out a memory won’t eliminate the emotional pain problem, but it can remove the very means by which we might have identified the real cause of the painful emotions we are still experiencing.
Fighting with the Lights Off
Putting our past behind us might be compared to fighting someone in a boxing ring with the lights off. If the lights are on, I can see the person swinging and anticipate the punch. I know why I feel what I feel in the moment because I can see who is hitting me. However, in the dark I can no longer see who is hitting me or even anticipate the blows, but I still get clobbered. We may put our past behind us—turn off the lights—but we cannot leave the boxing ring. Choosing to forget something does not protect us from what we have suppressed. Even more important is that we come to realize our memories are not throwing the punches anyway. They pose no threat and cannot hurt us. There is a deeper problem. Our beliefs are wearing the boxing gloves.
If we make the memory the problem then we have an unsolvable condition. Our memory cannot be willfully changed or augmented. We are stuck with what we believe to have happened. The good news is, it is not our memories—all that we remember having happened to us—that cause us any present difficulty. Memories themselves do not produce emotional pain. Rather it is the interpretation we gave to what we remember that is the root of our emotional pain. This interpretation became our core belief (also referred to as heart belief). It’s this same belief we continue to carry all through life up to the present moment.
We may successfully suppress the memory of what happened, but we cannot suppress what we came to believe in that context. “Putting our past behind us” has no impact on what we believe. Our current lie-based core belief remains ready and available in our present. Our core belief is not contained in our past, but it dwells in our ever present. We may suppress our memories, but we CANNOT put our belief behind us.
So then, choosing to suppress a memory solves nothing since the memory is not the problem anyway. If indeed what happened to me as a child is the reason that I still feel bad today, then there would be no place for freedom since I cannot change the past. I feel bad today because of what I currently believe—the belief I established at an earlier time in my life—and not because of what happened to me.
So we see that people may succeed in suppressing their memory out of their conscious mind, but no one succeeds in blocking out what they believe. What we believe spontaneously and effortlessly finds its way into each of our new life experiences. Our current core beliefs are the lenses through which we interpret each new life experience. This is how God designed our minds to function.
Suppression of memory solves nothing, but there is a remedy available. God’s solution is that we identify the lies we believe, look to Him, and exchange these lies for His truth. When this occurs, our minds are renewed and transformation will follow. The memory will still be a memory, but it will not be a problem. But then, it never was.
The Problem with Suppression
I think what people mean when they say “put your past behind you” is to choose with your will that you will not let your past affect you. We may succeed in not allowing our memories to dictate our current behavior, but we will have great difficulty in not being influenced and impacted by what we believe. Actually, it is impossible to violate what we believe at the core level. Core belief is our heart belief—what we believe to be the absolute truth that supersedes our intellect and is the crux of our final decisions.
This is made evident in how we respond to daily life experiences. I can say I believe the truth that God loves me, is watching over me, has a perfect plan for my life, and is in ultimate control of all that is occurring in my life, but this does not mean I believe it in my heart. If I don’t believe these truths in my heart, then they will have little to no impact or influence in the decisions I make. I can choose to perform according to the expectations that these beliefs may warrant, but if I’m living in fear, worry, stress, or anxiety, my core belief is dictating my inner choices and behavior. On the outside I may be “acting like Jesus,” but on the inside it all looks very different.
Some people believe that suppressing their past is an act of self-control and, therefore, beneficial and maybe even spiritual. Who wants to be out of control? The very fact we find it necessary to suppress a memory or emotional pain suggests it is wielding some force against us that we are having to manage. So who or what is actually in control?
Suppression is a defense against something we are avoiding. We do not like feeling bad and assume the past is the reason for the pain. Therefore, suppress the memory and avoid the pain. The problem is the only thing we have avoided is the visual images of the memory. The belief remains.
An obvious problem with putting our past behind us is that it’s neurologically and physiologically impossible to do. There is no place to put your past since it is stored and recorded as memory in your mind. If you successfully put your past as far back in your mind as is physically possible, it’s never any further than about eleven inches from the tip of your nose (depending on how long your nose may be). Rather than running from our past that is eleven inches behind us at all times, we need to identify what we are actually running from. Our belief is the source of our troubles. We feel what we believe, not what we remember.
The answer is not in denying our past or suppressing our painful emotions. The answer is in taking ownership for what we feel and choosing to allow these feelings to help us identify our lie-based beliefs. When we are in this place, we can look to the Lord for His renewing truth to free us from the lies we currently believe. Our past remains the past and we don’t need to do anything about it because it’s not broken or in need of “healing.”
What was Paul Putting Behind him if not His past
There is a glaring problem with using the Philippians 3:13 passage to support the practice of putting the past behind us. First, Paul was clearly not talking about putting his painful memories behind him in this passage. There is nothing in the context to support this. To make it say this is to misinterpret this passage, making it say something that was not intended by the author.
The Apostle was actually talking about putting his past efforts in self-righteousness behind him, that is, his efforts in trying to keep the Law. Like the Apostle Paul, we too must lay aside our futile attempts in attaining self-righteousness so we may, as he did, “… Press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:14). In this passage, Paul lists all of the things that he did in his past in an effort to achieve some manner of righteousness. This is what he is putting behind him. In other words he is saying, “All the things that I did to try to attain self-righteousness, I am putting behind me and am pressing forward in Christ.”
Nothing to Fear About the Past
There is nothing contained in any of our pasts that we need to be afraid of, bury, or suppress. The only thing that remains a concern, is what we believe. It is our current belief that is the cause of anything we may feel when visiting any memory. However, memory can serve us well by helping us understand how we came to believe what we believe and why we feel what we feel. When we rightly identify our lie-based core belief, we are in a position to look to the Lord for His renewing truth.
A Quick Bible Study
If we are in Christ then we have been given everything heavenly possible. There is nothing that we do not possess, since we possess Christ. If we feel we are lacking, this is because of our belief and is not the truth. What follows is a lengthy passage declaring some of the abundance we possess in Christ. What you are about to read is the absolute truth, even if it does not not feel true. When ever the Scriptures do not feel true to us, trying harder to believe will not avail much. The reason they do not feel true is becasue we believe something contrary to what they are saying. The answer is to identify what we believe and be persuaded in our hearts of the truth by His Spirit. The apostle Paul declared,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Eph. 1:3-14—Bold facing is mine)