Reading Too Much into the Past
By Alan P. Medinger

Those who work with children, who have been sexually molested or with their families, know that many times the manner in which parents react to the molestation will govern how the child reacts to it. If a boy is briefly groped in a city bus and the parents act like the worst thing in the world has happened and rush him off to a therapist, the boy is likely to believe that he has been seriously damaged; and this might have severe consequences for him in years to come. On the other had, if the boy’s father says, “There are perverts like that around. If it ever happens again, either tell the bus driver or get away from him.” The episode may turn out to have been of no great consequence.

Most children take cues from parents as to how they should react in all sorts of situations. I recently heard an adult ask a child whose father had left the family, “Are you angry at your father?” I winced because I was sure that the child interpreted this as, “You should be angry with your father.” If she hadn’t been angry before, she might well have been after the suggestion was made.

Children respond this way, because it is an authority figure – usually a parent – who is sending the message. The same reaction coming from a peer wouldn’t have the same power to influence the child.

I believe that you and I are vulnerable to the same type of influences. Most of us don’t have parents telling us how to react to difficult situations, of, if we do, we no longer give them the authority we gave them as children. However, we do have other authorities who can heavily influence us even without our conscious acquiescence.

These authorities are people whom we view as experts in human behavior: psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, social workers, etc. For our purposes, here, we will simply refer to them all as “experts”. These folks don’t necessarily tell us how we should respond to last week’s events, but rather to what happened to influence us ten or twenty years ago.

The understanding that the experts bring is often of tremendous worth. Elizabeth Moberly is a research psychologist, and her explanation of the roots of homosexuality described in her book, Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic, has helped countless people in our ministries. More than once, I have seen a man, 30 years of age or older, who has struggled with homosexuality most of his life, start to weep when I describe Dr. Moberly’s theories to him. He completely identified with her “defensive detachment”, her “same-sex ambivalence” and the picture she paints showing how homosexuality is a drive to make up for father deficits. He suddenly had an understanding of why he was the way he was, and he knew intuitively that with this understanding the door to his healing had been opened.

God gave us inquisitive minds. We are instinctively curious about how things work – how we work. I am sure that this desire to understand was given to us intentionally by God to be used in our stewardship of His creation. It is a good thing. But this wanting to understand, like many gifts, can also get us into trouble, particularly if we vest too much authority in the experts who try to explain our behavior. I see this happen over and over again in ministry, where someone takes a current psychological theory and reinterprets his or her own past to accommodate this theory. “Dr. So-and-So says that X causes Y. I have Y; therefore, X must have happened to me.”

The most extreme examples of this are found with the “recovery of repressed memories,” wherein sometimes a person “remembers” something that never really happened to them in the past. They are told that the event was so traumatic, that they repressed it all these years; and, now, it is only brought forward at the suggestion of the counselor. But this is becoming less common, and it is not what I want to deal with, here.

I want to address something that does happen quite often. It is someone taking an event from their past that really did happen and falsely reinterpreting it in the light of current psychological or behavioral theories. Let me illustrate how this could have happened with an example from my life.

My father often played catch with my older brother, Pete; but he never played catch with me. That’s a fact. Now, I could easily interpret this fact as meaning that my father much preferred my more physical, more athletic brother to me. Pete measured up better to my father’s ideal for a boy than I did; so my father accepted Pete and rejected me. This interpretation makes perfect sense in light of the fact that I grew up homosexual, and my brother didn’t; and it fits with our understanding that a prime cause of male homosexuality is rejection by the father.

The current theory may not be very accurate, or, if it is, it may not apply to our situation.

The only problem is that, as far as I can determine, it is totally incorrect. My father asked me to play catch with him many times, and I always turned him down. He never pushed me, which may reflect his passivity; but he was not rejecting me. Had I come to believe that my father overtly rejected me, I’m sure it would have complicated, rather than helped, my healing process.

Here are some of the ways that I have seen harm occur from the wrong application of psychological theories in past events. We give ourselves victim status. The desire to be a victim may actually be what leads some people to enthusiastically make the theory fit their situation. By focusing on what was done to us, we can take away our responsibility for our sins and lay it on others. If we are angry people, we can use it to justify our ongoing anger. Or, if we tend to be judgmental, applying our psychological theories, we can feel very justified sitting in judgment of other people. If the focus is on what our parents did, we can end up unjustly hurting them or badly damaging our current relationships with them. We may actually create a “smother mother” or an “emotionally absent father” where one never existed. We can turn an episode of mutual sexual exploration with the slightly older neighbor boy into a full-fledged case of sexual abuse.

Perhaps we remember an event in our early lives with perfect accuracy, but we may not so clearly recall our actual reaction to it at the time. One reason for this is that we forget what an amazing ability children have to simply accept what is. Their world is often narrow enough that, more often than we suspect, they don’t know that their life situation is not what it should me. Mom and Dad fuss with each other a lot, but that’s all they have know; so, if it isn’t too violent or vicious, they may simply believe that that’s how parents behave. Later, however, coming into contact with the theories of the experts, they may paste onto those memories the fiction that they were devastated at the time.

I don’t believe that every child that grows up in the terrible poverty of Bangladesh is terribly emotionally traumatized by the poverty. I am sure that a great many of them simply accept that as a part of life. They don’t know that life should be different.

Finally, reading current theories into our past lives incorrectly, could have us barking up the wrong tree entirely. The current theory may not be very accurate, or, if it is, it may not apply to our situation. We could find ourselves investing a tremendous amount of emotional energy in something that won’t pay off at all. Such might have been the case with me, if I had assumed that my father had overtly rejected me.

What, then, should we do about looking into our pasts; not do it at all? No, certainly not. Often our past can give us clues that will help us find the healing and growth that have eluded us for so many years. We should look into the past, but we should do it cautiously and prayerfully. Here are some thoughts that might help:

1. Do it with a degree of humility. Don’t take someone’s theory and your history and think you have figured everything out. We are tremendously complex creatures. Look at any theory, especially those that are new on the scene, with healthy skepticism. I find that those who devise such theories usually way overstate their applicability – sometimes saying that their theory covers everyone who has a certain type of problem. Seldom is this the case.

2. Look for spiritual solutions to come out of your interpretation of the past. If your understanding doesn’t lead you to (a) repentance for some of your deeper sins, (b) forgiveness for those who truly hurt you, (c) a closer, more intimate relationship with the Lord, or (d) significantly changed behavior, then start looking elsewhere for answers.

3. Don’t linger too long in the past. It is dwelling on the past too long that makes us victims, that starts to subtly give us justification for our sinful behavior. The past may be the nurturing place for self-pity.

Jesus hardly ever brought up anyone’s past in ministering to them. The woman at the wall is the only one I can recall. And the message of Scripture is clear: We are to focus on today. Today is the only day in which we can repent, forgive, reject old lies, make new decisions. Repent, then forgive, reject old lies, make the necessary new decisions and get on with life.

Copyright 2000 Regeneration Ministries. Used with permission