When The Past Hasn’t Passed
Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead…(Philippians 3:13).
Have you heard the now “old hat” line…”Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt”? I’ve used it before in speaking to groups. It’s funny and gets a good chuckle, but the fact is it’s not just a joke. It’s also true. Denial is alive and well.
In its proper context, denial is a God-given defense mechanism. It is meant to help protect us for a time from a reality that is too great to comprehend all at once—a death, a tragedy, a shock of some kind. It’s not meant to hang around for a long time. It’s supposed to be only a temporary, initial step in the journey toward acceptance of reality and healing.
However, we can make denial into an art form when we keep it going for decades instead of moving toward resolution. And, let’s face it; some things are not fun to deal with. Healing from a reality we don’t want to admit can be painfully hard.
Here are some of our “art form” variations of denial:
- Simple denial: Pretending that something doesn’t exist when it really does, as in ignoring physical symptoms that may indicate the presence of problems.
- Minimizing: Being willing to acknowledge a problem, but unwilling to see its severity. (Yes, my husband does hit me, but he doesn’t do it very often.)
- Blaming: Placing blame on someone else for causing the problem. The behavior isn’t denied, but its cause is seen to be someone else’s fault.
- Excusing: Offering excuses, alibis, justifications, and other explanations for our own or someone else’s behavior.
- Attacking: Becoming angry and irritable when any reference is made to a problem, in order to avoid the issue.
Some folks try to promote continuing in denial by “shaming” others into keeping quiet about their hurts. They say, “What’s the matter with you? You just need to get over that!” “Keep quiet! Don’t you dare talk about that outside our family.”
In churches, we even use scripture to help promote denial. I’ve heard the apostle Paul’s words in Philippians used trying to convince a wounded soul to “forget” past hurts. Here’s how it goes: “Just forgive and give it to God.” “That happened a long time ago. Why are you still going on (whining, wallowing, carping) about it?” “When are you ever going to get over that?” Many sweet, hurting folks have tried to do what they were told, but had to use denial to do it. Others were too overwhelmed by their pain to even make a good pretense of it.
Was Paul telling us to go swimming in that river of denial? No, he spoke truth. I believe the key here is in how we define the past. The past that can be put behind us is the past that has been dealt with and is no longer a source of reactive influence or pain in the present. When we recall it, we don’t “fall into it” again with the emotions intact. On the other hand, when past painful events have caused us to form unhealthy or untrue beliefs or judgments that we continue to act upon each and every day, those hurts are not past; they are still present. That “past” has not “passed.”
For example, an adult who experienced any kind of abuse as a child formed false beliefs and judgments about himself or others. He might believe, “I’m so worthless, I’ll never amount to anything.” She might believe, “Men only want me for my body.” A child may have transferred the untrustworthiness of a parent onto his view of God so he doesn’t believe God can be trusted. Until those judgments are identified and brought into the light of God’s Truth, the wounded adult lives with a past that hasn’t passed. It’s alive and well in their present and isn’t ready to be put behind.
To be able to do what Paul suggests, we must let God’s love and His light of truth shine on the areas previously kept in the darkness of denial. And we must choose to enter the process of healing. It is a journey not without pain, but well worth the effort. A past that is behind us can be a teacher that continues to produce growth and wisdom.
Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Psalm 51:6