Everyone has had the experience of a smell or sound bringing an unexpected and long forgotten memory to the surface of your mind. “Where did that come from?” you wonder.
If it’s a good memory, you smile fondly, trying to savor the last drop of happiness possible. If it’s a negative memory, you quickly try to push it down and suppress the emotions that go with it.
We would all prefer to have selective memory, but it doesn’t work that way. We get the good with the bad. Neuroscience tells us that there are two parts to memory: The first part is an actual recording of the event, which occurs in one area of your brain, and the second part is the emotional reactions that go with that recording, happening in a nearby, but separate, area.
All memories have emotions attached to them. Sometimes memories have such strong emotions that they can have physiological reactions, for instance, your heart beating faster or sweaty palms when you recall something that has made you anxious.
As is true with most of life, the negative seems to affect us much more than the positive, and it takes no effort for emotions such as anger, shame, guilt, anxiety and bitterness to rise to the surface unbidden. Interestingly, these emotions can be as strong or stronger at a later time as were when the event happened, nearly taking on an entire existence of their own.
How memories affect us today
Can a memory of something that happened 25 years ago still affect a person’s life dramatically? Recently I watched a television show out of Great Britain where a number of people who had experienced negative pasts talked about how memories were still affecting them. One person was an emergency responder, one was a police officer and another retired military from the Iraq war. One woman had been in a car wreck more than a decade ago which caused the death of another person, and another young woman had been sexually abused as a child.
So many of them were still experiencing debilitating emotions that affected their day-to-day lives in varying degrees. Their vacant expressions and lack of joy were evidence that something from long ago was still deeply affecting their here and now.
It would be easy to say, “Just get over it! Put it behind you,” but we can’t turn our emotions on and off, and memories aren’t something we can erase.
God must have an answer for this dilemma because He tells us not to be dejected and sad, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10, TLB) A sense of guilt and shame will always make us feel “less than”and keep us out of the presence of God, a place where there is fullness of joy.
An unforgettable night
All four gospel stories record an event about one of Jesus’ closest followers, which took place after Jesus was betrayed and arrested. Simon Peter, who was one of the inner circle, follows at a distance into the High Priest’s courtyard where Jesus is being questioned in a sham trial. A servant girl, then others, begin recognizing him as a follower of Jesus, but he denies it, not once but three times. He gets desperate and begins to swear that he never knew Jesus — the one who had changed his life and shown him only love, grace and mercy.
Earlier when Jesus was predicting his arrest and death, Peter blurted out, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” (Luke 22:33) Jesus knows better, however, and tells him that before the rooster crows twice, he will deny Jesus three times. In Luke’s account of the story, Jesus turns and looks at Peter with the words of betrayal still in his mouth as the rooster is crowing, and Peter goes out and weeps bitter tears.
We may not have denied Jesus to His face, but we all can feel something of what Peter felt at that moment — letting God down, self-loathing for trying to save our own skin at the expense of someone else, despair about the future. We can well imagine the guilt and condemnation he is feeling — hating what we have done, hating ourselves and trying to find a way to mask those feelings that seem unbearable to live with.
When Jesus is executed, Peter’s despair must have gotten even deeper. When he hears that three days later Jesus had risen from the dead, any hope about Jesus’ resurrection power must have been tinged with trepidation about how the Master would view him. Would Jesus consider him an unreliable traitor and despise him?
It’s no wonder that people self-medicate with drugs and alcohol or do other damaging things to escape the memories and emotions that we hate. This isn’t how we were made us to live. God has a way for Peter to recover from negative experience and become a person that changes history, and He has that for each one of us, too.
There have been some interesting new findings into how our brain processes memories. Scientists are learning that every time you bring back a memory to your conscious mind, you can either strengthen it or modify it. It can be 30 years after the event occurred, but science is discovering how the emotional part of the memory can be changed. That is good news!
If we ask God to get involved in that negative memory, to modify the emotions that are involved in it, how could that change our present circumstances?
I read a story of a young man who was going to school full time and driving a school bus to support his family. He was not on his regular route one day, but was a substitute drive for someone else, and although he made the correct stops according to the map, it was different than what the regular driver did. Much to his surprise, the kids began verbally assaulting him and calling him the worst sorts of names. He felt totally humiliated and shaken up, so much so that he wanted to quit his job when he got finished.
Many years later, that memory with all of the pain came up to him while he was in prayer. He asked a simple question to God: “Lord where were You when this happened to me?” That is the right question to ask because even though we may not have known God when bad things happened in our lives, He knew us. And when we acknowledge His presence with us, we will begin to see how He has been at work, even when we didn’t know Him!
After this question, the young man saw in his imagination the same scene as the original incident with him in the driver’s seat but, instead of being alone, he saw Jesus Christ standing behind him, taking the barbs and the foul language for him like fiery darts in his back. Jesus took the pain and the sting of the experience for him. When he saw this picture in his imagination, it immediately set him free from the hurt and anger he felt. He could release the pain and no longer have a negative emotional experience, even when he remembered it later.
Peter needed to have a personal encounter with the risen Christ in order to get past his past. Jesus gave him a chance to rewrite that horrific chapter in his life by associating different emotions with it.
This story is found in John 21 starting in verse 15. Jesus is having a one-on-one with Peter and asks him a point-blank and relevant question: Peter, do you love me? The word for “love” that Jesus uses is the Greek word agapao, meaning the unconditional love of God. Peter answers, “Yes, I love you,” but he uses a different Greek word for love, phileo, which means brotherly affection. It is likely that he is still smarting from his failure to love Jesus a few days earlier, and he doesn’t think he can live up to the high standard that Jesus offers.
Jesus doesn’t correct him. Instead, He commissions him and affirms him. He tells him to feed his lambs, that is, God’s precious people. Jesus apparently is not holding any resentment against Peter. He gives him forgiveness and entrusts him with God’s mission. Jesus not only wanted to replace Peter’s negative emotions, but he wanted to give him positive emotions of love, affirmation and confidence.
He then asks him again using the same word of undeniable commitment and Peter gives the same response. Jesus again commissions him for ministry. He says, you’re OK. I accept you. I trust you. I am going to have you feed my sheep.
The third time Jesus asks, the Scripture says that Peter was grieved. The three-fold ask of Jesus no doubt brings up the memory of his three-fold denial. He doesn’t want to face that memory, but Jesus wants him to no longer fear it but have different thoughts associated with a dark chapter of his past. Jesus wants to take the shame and condemnation out of it, otherwise, Peter is going to be stuck emotionally and not going to be able to fulfill God’s plan for his life.
On this third question, Jesus changes His choice of words and asks, do you phileo me? He comes down to meet Peter on his level and identifies with him. Jesus loves him so much and restores him to dignity and a place of no shame.
Jesus then predicts that Peter will die a martyr’s death for his Lord, and will ultimately demonstrate the unconditional for Jesus that Peter didn’t believe himself capable of. Truly, Jesus knows Peter much better than he knows himself and believes in his potential!
Peter went on to have a tremendously fruitful ministry, establishing the early church and writing part of the New Testament. And he does die a death of unconditional love and commitment for God. Because of Jesus bringing love and healing into a bitter memory, Peter is restored and commissioned to serve.
Healing from negative emotions
God wants to do that with each of us. He wants to bring us to a place of no shame and no unworthiness, a place of affirmation, a place of wholeness. It is not God’s will for you to live with negative emotions from past memories. There is healing for you! We don’t have to live as victims of the past, whether of our own doing or because of things that have been done to us. We don’t have to resign ourselves to live crippled lives emotionally and consider it normal. There is victory for us over shame, guilt, anger, bitterness and self-hatred.
We can bring our damaging memories before God, inviting Him to come into these experiences and show us His truth. Many times negative experiences have lied to us and told us God did not love us or that we are not worth being loved or taken care of. We need God to show us the truth and replace negative emotions with His peace, love and joy. After all, God is the master of changing memories!
For I will be merciful and gracious toward their sins and I will remember their deeds of unrighteousness no more. (Hebrews 8:12, Amplified)
God has changed His memories about us! He is the only one capable of forgetting our sins, and He wants to come into our lives to restore what has been stolen to us through negative experiences. We can invite Him to do that today.