Sometimes I talk with people who want healing and help from the Lord but are hesitant to “dig up the past” or who have counselors who don’t want them to “dig up the past.” For a while now, maybe over a year, I’ve been mulling over that pejorative expression.
“Digging up the past” to me conjures a picture of going to a graveyard to dig up the bones or even the rotting corpse of something that needed to be left underground to decompose the way it’s supposed to. A perverted and possibly very harmful activity.
This was my own mindset for many years. Years ago when someone who was struggling wanted me to mentor her, I remember thinking, “We won’t go back to childhood stuff. That’s just psychobabble.”
Jay Adams, founder of nouthetic counseling, now known as “Biblical counseling,” would agree. In a blog post in which he blames Freud with introducing the concept of “digging up the past” in order to find the source of people’s problems, Adams asserts that it isn’t Biblical or even possible to do so. He says it is “unnecessary, unproductive, and harmful.” (Like digging up a decomposed body.)
The only two times a nouthetic (“Biblical”) counselor should “deal with” the past, Adams says, is when the past is in the present. I would agree, but the way Adams sees it and the way I now perceive it are different. He says the past has become the present when . . .
(1) the counselee needs to repent of a sin he committed in the past, or
(2) if something happened to the counselee in the past, such as abuse, that he didn’t leave in the past so that it is now governing his present. Then the nouthetic (“Biblical”) counselor needs to help him put it back in the past where it belongs. Nouthetic (“Biblical”) counselors, he says, “encourage counselees to look to the past only to remember God’s goodness to them in past times.”
Only to repent of sin or to be rebuked for not “leaving” it in the past. What a handy tool this can be for abusers. Their victims, according to nouthetic (“Biblical”) counseling, cannot bring up the past. If they do, they are in the wrong.
Don’t dig up the past, they say, when it comes to a promise someone has made to change. Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church and member of the Gospel Coalition, advised married couples never to “dig up the past” to each other (link). Effectively this will mean that husbands and wives should never mention the past to each other. In the lives of many people who have spoken with me, this teaching has proven more than problematic, as an abusive or adulterous spouse begins to repeat old patterns, but the victimized one is not allowed to show that this behavior indicates a lack of repentance from the past abuses/adulteries. As one counselor told a friend, “He may have abused you in the past, but we need to see how you can move on from here.” The abused wife might say, “But this is just like the pattern you promised me you would never repeat again . . .” and the husband can say, “There you go, digging up the past again.”
Don’t dig up the past, they say, when it comes to addressing extreme harm someone has done. I know from personal experience talking with sexual abuse survivors who have been counseled with nouthetic counseling, especially those from the fundamentalist world of Bob Jones University, that the way nouthetic counselors help their counselees leave the past behind and put the past in the past is to
(1) urge them to forgive and
(2) tell them to put the past in the past (like Paul forgot “those things that were behind” in Philippians 3, never mind that he was talking about his great accomplishments rather than trauma), rebuking them for continuing to have flashbacks and nightmares, telling them that these rememberings mean they haven’t forgiven. (After all, forgive and forget.) Since the Bible doesn’t mention flashbacks and nightmares in regard to memories, they apparently reason, neither should they in counseling.
But as brain science has progressed over the course of decades, books like The Body Keeps the Score and What Have We Done? have detailed the effects of trauma and “moral injury” on the souls and spirits of those who have endured unspeakable horrors.
Should we ignore these effects simply because the Bible doesn’t mention “flashbacks” or “dissociation” or other terms that have come into the language by way of study of the brain and mind?
I talk with many people who struggle with their concept of God, often because their abuser was their father or their pastor or another authority figure who should have protected them. Often they believe they have forgiven, but they still struggle. Why? Is it simply because they need to memorize the Scripture and make themselves believe it, the way nouthetic counselors would teach?
In reply to someone who recently expressed hesitation at “digging up” old memories of trauma, I suggested that we see it a different way. Rather than picturing the body in the graveyard (she admitted that was how she thought of it), I asked her to think of it as taking care of an old wound that had scabbed over but was infected underneath. There is some “digging” that has to be done, but it’s to get out the infection. In the case of traumatic memories, it’s to find the lies that are attached to the trauma—lies about God, self, and the world—and by the power of the Holy Spirit replace them with His truth.
So maybe we can put aside the expression “digging up the past,” and instead use a non-pejorative expression like “dealing with” the past. But unlike what Jay Adams laid out, when you’re struggling with the past, you won’t look only for sin or lack of forgiveness in your life.
You can also, first of all, legitimately see a pattern in the life of someone who is harming you or others . . . and you shouldn’t feel guilty for noting it. (Regarding “love keeps no record of wrongs,” see this post.)
And you can also understand the legitimate need for finding the embedded lies from past trauma and replacing them with the sound truth of God, gently, in the power of His Spirit.
We want to look to the past to remember God’s goodness to us, for sure. But that is by far not the only reason to look to the past.
Dealing with the past is important, even crucial, in the life of probably every single person who walks the earth. Finding healing from a shattered heart and truly learning the truth about God, self, and the world, as it pertains to our life experiences—which have all happened in the past—is something everyone needs.
Every counselor who wants to counsel with the full body of Scripture will be deeply familiar with the promise of our Lord Jesus in Luke 4 when He quoted from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted and to announce that captives shall be released and the blind shall see, that the downtrodden shall be freed from their oppressors, and that God is ready to give blessings to all who come to him.
You can freely come to Jesus Christ and open up your past to Him. He is about far more than getting you to repent of sin and forgive. He wants to heal. He wants to gently give you truth. And He wants to set things right.
That’s good news.