The rearview mirror

Only when past negative experiences fade in size can new life begin.

By Bill Wilson

These were hard conversations. This minister had been dismissed from his church many months ago, but the wounds had refused to heal. Hurtful things were said, friendships were broken, trust was betrayed and he walked away wounded and bitter. Over the ensuing months, we had talked regularly and honestly. Gradually, he could feel some healing beginning, but it was slow.

On this day, he announced a breakthrough. “I can finally tell that the objects in the rearview mirror of my life are starting to get smaller.” In an earlier conversation, I had observed that his constant attention to what had been said and done to him reminded me of the old warning label on the rear-facing side mirror of many cars: “Objects in the mirror may appear larger than they actually are.” By fixating on them, he gave them power over him that was crippling.

Forgiveness is the amazing gift God has provided for dealing with hurts in our past that wound us deeply and leave us emotionally and spiritually crippled. In our work with clergy and congregations, we find a steady stream of men and women who have been deeply and profoundly wounded by others. For some, those wounds become the source of great gifts of compassion and understanding. Henri Nouwen gave us the indelible image of a “wounded healer” to describe what happens when we give our pain to God and it is transformed into a source of blessing and hope.

For many, however, the wounds of the past are never resolved and continue to wreak havoc in their life and ministry. Some clergy find themselves acting out similar scripts again and again. Every church eventually becomes a battleground with disloyal or uncommitted members. For some the pattern involves codependent or narcissistic behavior. The inability to reach back and deal redemptively with the past dooms us to repeat it.

Lewis Smedes said (Forgive and Forget) that those unresolved issues sit like “undigested lumps” in our soul. Rather than healing over and forming a never-to-be-forgotten scar, they remain an open wound that causes continuing grief. Congregations and clergy alike live with unresolved anger issues that erupt in a multitude of ways.

Some congregations repeat patterns of toxic behavior across decades. Never facing their root issues, they act out a toxic pattern of dysfunction that impacts a steady parade of laity and ministers. “We just can’t find a good pastor” was how one church leader explained the painful end of their pastor’s tenure. He was their seventh pastor in 17 years. “Maybe we’ll have better luck with the next one.” I doubt it.

The failure to come to grips with our own guilt and/or the sad truth that some things will never be resolved this side of eternity is an invitation to allow the past to control both our present and our future. My clergy friend finally came to the understanding that his fixation on the past empowered those who had wounded him to continue to hurt and influence him moving forward. When he was able to name that truth and lean into the idea that forgiving those who had hurt him was actually the path toward healing his own heart, he began a welcome move away from anger toward peace.

Frederick Buechner (Wishful Thinking) put it this way: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

Most of us lack the objectivity to deal with our past wounds in a healthy fashion. We need a guide, coach, counselor or facilitator to make that journey. If you are living a life that seems to be controlled by events from the past, perhaps it is time to seek guidance and assistance in breaking that unhealthy pattern. It takes great courage and strength to admit our need and our own responsibility. It is worth the effort, however, for without it we face a dismal future.

I hope you will soon come to know that grace-filled moment when you realize that the negative people or experiences in your past are slowly fading in size and influence over you. On that day, your new life will begin. Thanks be to God.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.