Your Past in the Shadow of the Cross
- 2003 19 Sep
What event has most shaped who you are? Ask this question in a church small-group study and you are liable to get a universal response: The day I became a Christian. But if you asked the same people in private, or if you were to follow them around and observe their lives (not recommended!) you might well arrive at a very different answer. While every Christian's actual most important event was the day he or she received Christ, for many the functionally most important event might be altogether different.
Maybe it was the day when those cherished hopes of making the high school football team were smashed, or the day the family dog died. Maybe it was when the sexual molestation began. Or it could be something far less traumatic-one person's most important event might seem trivial to someone else.
Before I became a Christian, I was in a run of relationships where I was the "dumpee" (that is, she broke up with me). After I was married, I counted the occasions. The total was something like 18 dumpings before my high school graduation, compared to only one time when I chose to end a relationship. That's a .056 batting average! Maybe I was overshooting my social limits. Maybe I was just a dweeb. Probably both.
In any event, that has to be some kind of record. It sure felt like one, and over time this abysmal streak of dumpings contributed to suspicious and manipulative tendencies in my relationships with women. Other things have happened to me that you might consider far more devastating, but for years nothing affected me more in my day-to-day life than that pitiful .056.
We all have experiences that have written themselves into our lives. Everybody has a story, and that story has enormous implications for who we are and where we are going. As counselor John Bettler describes it, "Sometimes your story looks like science fiction. Sometimes your story looks like fantasy. Sometimes your story looks like tragedy. Sometimes it's a comedy. But your story is a story, and your story is yours."
Dr. Bettler goes on to note that our memory of events is "active, selective, and creative." When it comes to the stories of our lives, we are not just camera operators, we are directors, scriptwriters, editors, and actors. We determine which scenes to keep and which to cut, how much weight to give to various plot lines, and what emotional score should fill in the background. No one can tell our story like we can! Based on my own experience and that of people I have counseled, here are a few other helpful observations about what gets written into our personal stories.
First, your perception of who you are tends to be shaped by things that are negative. If you could list the 10 most vivid memories of your life, how many would be positive? How many negative? For me, all the many wonderful moments from my past kind of blend together as "good times." My sharpest memories tend to be of unpleasant things. It's like the movies. If you watch a good comedy, you might recall some funny moments. But a frightening film can leave mental images that echo in your mind with alarming power for days and weeks to come. If left to write your own script, you will tend to write it as a tragedy.
Second, your perception of who you are tends to be shaped by what happened to you, not by what you did. In college I was on the soccer team. When I began to feel the coach was out to get me, I did the only thing I knew to do. I quit in a huff, a martyr to the cause of Me. As far as I was concerned, that coach had ruined my promising career. When he left before the next school year began, I returned to the team, my righteous stance against unjust persecution vindicated.
Years later it hit me: the coach had only treated me as my behavior deserved. I was a slacker! I didn't deserve even to be on the field. Yet for years I held a bitter attitude toward that man. If not for God graciously showing me how I squandered my soccer opportunity because of pride, I would still be bitter today. There were two sides to that story. Mine was wrong.
Third, a negative view of your past is often based on some perception of a "normal" experience that you were "denied." One of the leading Culture of Self buzzwords is "dysfunctional." The theory of the "dysfunctional" family assumes there is such a thing as a fully functional family, and that every human being possesses some inalienable right to have had one. Have you ever met a normal family? I haven't-and that includes the one I'm raising. That's because original sin has "dysfunctionalized" every relationship.
While the label "dysfunctional" is gradually receding into the waste bin of overripe fads, we still tend to think along these lines (people always have and always will), because sin drives us continually to feel sorry for ourselves. We tend to include in our personal definition of a "normal" life precisely those things we didn't get. A father who expressed biblical love; parents who stayed together; being accepted for who you are-statistics and experience show that such "normal" expectations are more the exception than the rule. Still, our sin nature insists we have somehow been cheated. In the final analysis, we are blaming God for messing up our lives.
Next time, we'll explore how our outlook on life is often held hostage by the decisions we made in the past.
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