“What’s the point of going back? I don’t want to get stuck in the unpleasant memories of my childhood. I just want to get over it and move on.”
I sat across the picnic table from my friend and witnessed the conflict raging within her. Her mind wanted to be in charge, to determine what she thought about God and how she felt about herself. But her heart just wouldn’t cooperate. It kept sending her mixed messages: “God loves you. How could He? You are valuable to Him. Impossible! I’m unlovable, nothing but a worthless failure.”
As we picked together through the earliest memories of her life story, it became readily apparent to me where those messages were coming from. A terrified little girl, frantically attempting to sweep away the broken leftovers of her step-father’s drunken rage. A deeply impressionable child, consistently failing to prevent his destructive anger, forever falling short of being able to protect her mother from its violent effects. But try as she might, she couldn’t fix the problem. She couldn’t be good enough to pacify her step-father, couldn’t perform well enough to earn her mother’s love.
The scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.
Those messages of inadequacy and un-lovability were so deeply lodged in her soul that no amount of mental discipline or right theology had managed to root them out. But God was not content to leave them there. Just as He had done with countless others who came before her, He was taking her through the agonizing process of digging down through the layers of her life, unearthing the painful memories that she had kept carefully locked away and bringing her face-to-face with the damaging experiences that continued to define her.
Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” The second son he named Ephraim and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
Joseph had been just as resistant to this process as my friend was. He didn’t want to remember his childhood, the constant insults of jealous brothers, the sick family dynamics of competing mothers and treacherous sibling relationships. How could he enjoy the memory of his father’s overt favoritism when it had only made things worse for him with his brothers? How had that love protected him in the end when their jealous rage cost him all but his life?
The one stable relationship that had carried him through his tumultuous childhood and trying adulthood was the one he still shared with the invisible God. God had heard the abusive messages that his brothers assailed him with and had countered them with His own dream-time messages of affirmation. God had seen the indignity of his slavery and had shown up to make him successful in all his work. God had felt the isolation of his imprisonment and had kept him company through his darkest days. And in an unprecedented turn of events, God had raised him up into a completely new life, complete with a new name, a new family, a new community, and a new job.
When Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger… Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” …
They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.” … They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep…
Genesis 42:6-9, 21-24
Joseph had no desire to go back. But the one element of his past that he most wanted to avoid, God brought to meet him. Face-to-face with the brothers he had spent years trying to forget, the pent up emotions of his childhood came bursting forth. Under the layers of his power suit and prestigious position, his picture-perfect family and charmed social life, Joseph was still that traumatized little boy, desperate for his brothers’ acceptance, helpless in the face of their betrayal. The most successful man in Egypt broke down and wept.
Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him…
Joseph had his chariot made ready and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel. As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time.
Genesis 43:30; 45:1-2; 46:29
But Joseph’s tears were not an unproductive reversion. They were a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of his past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of his present to be made whole. He needed to hear his brothers’ confession, to see their distress over the pain they had caused him. He needed reassurance of his father’s love, evidence that the members of his family had learned to relate to each other in tenderness and compassion. Convinced at last that it was safe, Joseph was able to re-engage those relationships whose proximity had caused deep wounds, but whose absence left a deep hole.
Our tears are not an unproductive reversion. They are a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of our past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of our present to be made whole.
Sadly, not all of our painful memories find such happy resolution. My friend’s relationship with her mother continues to be characterized by criticism and rejection. But pulling back the curtains on her past has allowed her to see herself for who she really is: a child deeply loved by God, even in the midst of being horribly treated by her family. Even more, it has allowed her to experience her truest Father’s unconditional acceptance and adoring love in ways she never could before.
Damaging childhood memories cannot be erased. But revisited under the expert guidance of the Holy Counselor, the scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.