I used to have this problem.
I would remember something selfish or stupid I did when I was younger and the memory would hurt. Literally. I don’t know if it was actual physical pain or just pain in my mind, but it would hurt.
I would be eating dinner or taking a shower and I would feel the memory approaching like a tidal wave. There was no way I could stop it. All I could do was brace myself and wait until the memory would go away.
I couldn’t handle the knowledge of the pain I had caused, or the wrong I had done to someone. For others, the pain of loss can be like this.
It took me a long time to realize that I was experiencing grief, and that the way I was interacting with it was not very healthy.
Stopping and clenching my fists and teeth until the pain of the memory had passed wasn’t part of a healthy life.
As somebody who tries to follow Jesus in part because I believe he loves me and wants me to have a life full of abundance, I decided there had to be something better than letting the past disaster zones of my life derail me whenever they wanted to.
As I gave thought to this issue in my life, I resolved to handle the next incident differently.
The next time turned out to be a cold winter morning as I walked across the parking lot from the subway station.
I could feel the regret and shame and blame and self loathing start to come crashing down on me. But this time, I didn’t clinch my fists. I didn’t steele myself to take the blows until the wave had crashed over me and slowly receded away.
Instead, I stopped walking, closed my eyes and opened my arms as if I was about to give someone a hug.
I welcomed in the memory of a time where I acted stupidly and selfishly and had hurt other people.
I remembered all the details and then I accepted what I had done. My screw up, my failure pointed to the fact that I am not perfect, and that I am in need of a savior.
My failure pointed to how great is the God who loves me and has offered me forgiveness and salvation.
Instead of resisting the memory, trying to keep safe from feeling bad, I stopped letting the memory own me. It became part of my story rather than a secret of ‘who I really am’.
My story is of a flawed, broken human and the God who loves me.
Your worst, most painful story isn’t who you are. It’s part of who you are, but it isn’t the last word unless you let it.
If you wrestle with this something like this in your life, here’s some recommendations I have for you as you seek to allow the ‘abundant life’ Jesus promises to change how you interact with past regrets or shameful memories.
The book of James says that followers of Jesus should “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
Don’t keep this stuff inside of you. If you’re able to process on your own with God, great. You may well need to talk it out with someone. I’m an introvert, so I usually do my processing internally. You may not be built that way. That’s okay. Just make sure you’re talking to someone who will love and accept you even when you tell them your deep dark secrets. I’d recommend a pastor or priest or minister of some sort if possible. Even then, make sure they are trustworthy. Just because someone becomes ordained doesn’t mean they aren’t broken as well. Take it from me.
Yourself. Forgive yourself. You are a broken person, no matter whether you want to be or not. You are going to mess up. I’m not saying this to give you an excuse to do something terrible. There is a difference between accepting and abusing grace.
Using grace looks like accepting you are not perfect and picking yourself up to keep trying after you fail.
Abusing grace looks like demanding everyone else deal with your imperfection and never putting any effort into growing as a human or a believer.
- Keep growing
As I said, using grace means that you’re not staying where you are, but rather not giving up. If Jesus is at work in our lives, we should look different over the course of time. Maybe in some ways that will be quick and in others it will be slow. This isn’t a race. We’re not trying to get the highest achievement score in order to earn God’s love or get ourselves to heaven.
We’re here to reflect the love of God in and through our lives. You’ll never accomplish that if you’re stuck at your worst moments.
The scriptures say that is isn’t God who will remind you of your darkest moments, but rather “the accuser” who hates your freaking guts. Don’t listen to that voice. Listen to the one who says he will wipe away every tear and make everything new again.
You aren’t just the sum of your past. You are also the product of the hope you have in the future. Anything else is a lie, and you should not pay attention.
God loves you and he will work in you and through you as long as you are willing.
(A version of this article originally appeared on iamsecond.com)