Shame of the Past
1 Corinthians 15:9,10 I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.
I have memories with which I struggle. I have caused others horrible pain and misery in my addiction. This month, it has been three years since life fell apart and I find it difficult to avoid memory. Sometimes I need to remember. As much as I would love to be able to undo the hurt I caused, I cannot. Though I am unable to change the past, I can choose whether or not I continue in recovery. In this, my memory can be useful.
Paul too, must have been haunted by memories of the past. We are told that after his conversion, Christians feared and did not trust him (Acts 9). He had frequent reminders of of those whom he had once killed and imprisoned.
Paul did not wallow in his guilt, but neither did he dismiss the past. These seem to be the two extremes in which we err in addressing our shame and guilt. Either we choose to pretend the past did not happen, or we find ourselves crushed by its weight.
In treatment, I was told repeatedly that I must forgive myself. Struggling with the misery and pain I had caused, I saw others just dismiss their guilt with a wave of the bible. God has forgiven me and I have forgiven myself, so, I no longer have any guilt or shame. This carefree attitude bothered me. What about those whom they had hurt so badly in their addiction? Forgiveness, for them, meant dismissing the reality of the past. Sure, I may have robbed someone while high yesterday, but last night I found Jesus and now I am forgiven. Forgiveness means forgetting.
This self-imposed amnesia though, is just a convenient manipulation to avoid facing my own evil. Forgiveness does not undo the pain I caused and it does not change my destructive behavior patterns. If I ignore the past, I will likely repeat it. When I ignore the misery I caused, I will return to it. Forgiveness does not mean I ignore the past.
The other error I can make, is to wallow in my guilt, being crushed and paralyzed by it. Some of you have seen me in this place and have told me so. Paul committed his worst crimes prior to his conversion. He did not know any better. I, on the other hand, knew what I was doing and did it anyway. I knew right, I just wanted wrong more. I have been in that place where I had difficulty moving forward as I was immobilized by this shame. The past can become a destructive force, preventing me from finding faith and recovery.
Paul did not seem to take either extreme and thus, is a model for how I am to handle my past. Paul acknowledged the evil he had done and simply clung to God’s grace and forgiveness. By the grace of God, I am what I am. He realized that though he did not save himself by working, he must work at repentance. As zealous as he had been in pursuing evil, he worked that hard at pursuing God.
It is appropriate to be sorrowful for my addiction, while being thankful for what God has done with it. Like Paul, I must cling to God’s forgiveness and grace. It is appropriate to remember my misdeeds as long as they motivate me to continue to deny self and follow Christ.