We cannot begin the journey of spiritual formation pretending that what is behind our drywall really isn’t there. We do not start with a blank slate; we are never formed outside the script we currently live by.
That problematic phrase lives here: forgive and forget. While there is destructive power in letting a past failure or experience of hurt govern our lives, there is also great poverty in believing we can completely erase this experience, and therefore our stories and scripts, from our memories.
We read and salivate over texts like this one in Isaiah:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Is 43:18-19)
We see the failure behind the drywall, and we long to forget the former things. New things, yes, bring on the new things. The past is a wearying prospect.
Someone then says, “Yes, your past does not define you.” Yet as we have seen, the past most definitely defines us because it creates the context—the memories, stories, and scripts—that makes us who we are. God is doing a new thing, certainly, but he is doing it in an old us.
In terms of our formation in Christ, it seems better to say, “Your past does not determine you.” It does not set the finality, the terminus, of our life and formation. It does not end our journey of becoming.
It isn’t “forgive and forget,” but instead, “Forgive and learn to remember differently.”
A man named Paul comes to mind. Trained by the brightest of Jewish teachers, zealous beyond zeal, the former Saul created a train of shells that included persecution, arrest, and approval of the execution of followers of Jesus, the people of the Way.
Then Paul is—as many of us are—blindsided with his own reality and shown his shells by Jesus. He is invited to stop his crusade, blinded, and humbled to a place of dependency on others (Acts 9:1-9). How accurately this describes the scenes that dot many of our memories and stories!
He turns his zeal, then, toward this blinding vision of Jesus. He is baptized and receives his sight, goes into the wilderness for an extended period of solitude, and then returns to meet with the leaders of this community of Jesus followers. He was walking toward those who at one point felt the heat of his “breathing threats and murder” (Acts 9:1) from across the Sea of Galilee.
They do not forget his past.
However, someone vouches for Saul-now-Paul and a new journey begins.
Yet, as we read the story of Paul, we recognize one salient thing: no one ever forgot about Saul. Was there forgiveness? Certainly. Did anyone forget what happened prior to Damascus or during the stoning of Stephen? No. Mainly because Paul never forgot those moments and talked about them frequently. For example, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil 3:4-6).
Reading his laundry list of “accomplishments”—including persecuting the followers of the Way—you get the sense that they are in no way forgotten. They simply are no longer actionable. Paul has left behind his former ideals and sees those moments in a different light. They are remembered but are redeemed by being put in their proper place: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Phil 3:7).
Paul’s “regard” could also be translated “consider.” Both require bringing forward an idea or event, placing it on the laboratory table, and pulling it apart to see the intricate weavings within.
To consider our memories is to examine them, to see them as they are, to remember them as they are, and then to consider them differently in the light of the formation journey we are invited to in Christ.
To peer behind the drywall of our lives and see the memories, stories, and scripts that form the context of who we are means we will need to discover with Jesus the formation path that allows us to both remember and redeem the context of our stories. We consider them from a new perspective.
Jesus centers us not only within the present but within the past. He orients us toward things that we cannot change in order to be present with us in them, redeeming them as we hold them out to him. Remembering is the practice of bringing our memories forward and engaging them in the presence of God. Memories must be redeemed—and to be redeemed they have to be embraced just as they are, just where they are without gloss or ceremony, or else they become demons emboldened to pull back on the reins of our lives at will.
To redeem our memories, we must begin where we are least likely to go, the place that we feel is least relevant in the here and now. Yet we can never truly leave our “behind” in our past. Our formation in the future is waiting for the redemption of the memories, stories, and scripts that trail behind.