Back Again

Back Again

What to do when your past affects your present.

 Jasmin Stankovic has been a pastor’s wife for more than 20 years. She was born in Colombia but raised in Venezuela. She and her husband have three children, and they pastor three churches in Western Australia. Jasmin likes to preach, teach, and fellowship. She also helps manage the ministerial spouses Facebook page and is a contributing editor for The Journal. She holds a master’s degree in counseling, and in her private practice she delights in assisting others process their life’s narratives. She says, “God is in the business of restoring lives. What a privilege it is to partner with Him as He writes redemptive stories.”

I REMEMBER WALKING HOME from school on a hot afternoon, feeling tired and ready for a cool drink. I was following the path I took every day. I knew that journey so well, but on this afternoon
I was absorbed in thought. One moment I was walking with my backpack on; the next moment I saw my backpack fly in the opposite direction of me. I found myself beside the road, startled by what had just happened.

According to onlookers, a man in a car didn’t stop at the red light as he turned the corner. I happened to be crossing the street at that very moment. The vehicle hit me at a slow speed, sending me to the side of the road. The driver didn’t stop to see if I was injured. So I got up, walked to where my backpack had landed, and continued walking home.

When I got there, I told my parents what had happened. I insisted that I was fine and didn’t need any medical assistance. Seeing that I was OK, they agreed to let the matter drop, and I was left with just the memory of the event.

In my mid-thirties I noticed discomfort in my lower back when I stood for long periods or walked for long distances. Upon medical assessment, my doctor discovered that I have a lower back injury and that my back will need to be “adjusted” every so often for as long as I live. The medical team asked me if I’d had any physical trauma earlier in my life.

After I shared my story, the doctor said, “If you had received medical attention at the time it happened, it would have been corrected and you could have avoided back pain today.”

An injury that happened when I was 15 years of age is now affecting my present and future physical well-being.

When past hurt affects the present, there is a need for “re-adjustments.” When past pain is ignored, it eventually catches up with us. Incidents in your past that have been disregarded as of 

no importance suddenly show up, disrupting your life. Harvard Health published an article in February 2021 called “Past Trauma May Haunt Your Future Health.” The study indicated that traumatic events can trigger emotional and physiological reactions that can lead to health conditions.

I have lived with back pain for most of my life. The only difference is that now I know how it came about. My back will never be the same, and having three babies with my unknown and untreated back injury didn’t help my case. I cannot get rid of the pain completely, but I can follow a strategic plan to minimize it and live everyday life. This pain is part of a story, my story. I will never erase that story or ignore the physical pain. But I have learned to embrace it, manage it, and live with it successfully.

In the same way, emotional pain reflects an “injury” that went unchecked. We often downplay an event or justify it by making it our fault. Sometimes guilt and shame stop us from seeking help; this only amplifies and perpetuates the pain. Ignoring the pain or pretending it never happened is not favorable for our emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.

Our brain is created to help us deal with pain. The very efficient limbic system is a collection of structures in the brain. The amygdala and the hippocampus are part of this system, with crucial roles to fulfill. Let’s describe the hippocampus as the “librarian” of the brain, the one in charge of filing away all our memories. It allocates them to the right “bookshelf” in the brain. The amygdala oversees the processing of emotions attached to our stories/memories.

Memories trigger positive or negative emotions. When we suppress emotional pain by failing to acknowledge it, it will look like the librarian (hippocampus) left “books” lying around (unprocessed story) on the floor and the amygdala (our emotions) keeps tripping over them. When we ignore emotional pain (anger, sadness, fear, guilt, shame, etc.), we will keep hurting ourselves and others.

A familiar story in Genesis 32 reveals what happens when past hurts still hurt. What do you think it was like for Jacob after deceiving his elderly father? What emotions did he experience? In the book Patriarchs and Prophets, Ellen White talks of Jacob 20 years after that day when he walked away from his home, his father, and his beloved mother, never to see her again—20 long years of feeling awful for what he did. Twenty long years of thinking
of what could have been if only he had done the right thing, or said the right thing, or made the right decision. What would it have been like if Jacob had waited on God instead?

Some of us have spent years, perhaps decades, ruminating and feeling fearful, anxious, shameful, guilty, worried, and unsure of ourselves, perhaps self-loathing and in pain. This was Jacob’s emotional state. And now his greatest fear was encountering Esau—his past.

No matter how much time has passed, our past pain will always find a way to bring discomfort to the present. We can manage our pain or subdue it or ignore it for so long, but eventually there will be no lasting peace and resolution unless we process it and make sense of it.

The river Jabbok (Genesis 32:22) was significant in the life of Jacob. He needed to cross the Jabbok in order to continue his journey to Canaan, the land of his birth, his home. It was also the land of his past. After 20 years, Jacob finally came to terms with his past actions. The Bible says that Jacob encountered and wrestled with God face-to-face by the river Jabbok. Why is this so important? Because God is truth! Jacob encountered his own truth, the reality of his situation. The pain of his actions that was ignored and buried for 20 years.

In Genesis 32:30, it says, “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.’” This is the place where Jacob processed his past and received his liberating blessing. “Satan endeavoured to force upon him a sense of his guilt, in order to discourage him, and break his hold upon God. . . . But Jacob would not be turned away. He had learned that God is merciful, and he cast himself upon His mercy. . . . Such will be the experience of God’s people in their final struggle with the powers of evil. . . . Satan will endeavor to terrify them with the thought that their cases are too hopeless; that their sins have been too great to receive pardon. They will have a deep sense of their shortcomings, and as they review their lives their hopes will sink. But remembering the greatness of God’s mercy, and their own sincere repentance, they will plead His promises made through Christ to helpless, repenting sinners. Their faith will not fail because their prayers are not immediately answered. They will lay hold of the strength of God, as Jacob laid hold of the Angel, and the language of their souls will be, ‘I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me’” (Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 201, 202).

Sometimes we choose painful actions, and sometimes those actions are inflicted upon us. Regardless of how they happened, we need to come to terms with those actions to move forward into thae promised land. Confronting the truth of our ignored emotional pain is not easy. Facing it will not change the past, but it will surely make the present and future brighter, filled with hope and peace. It will require strength from God, willingness to open up, and determination to make things right. The result: sweet, sweet peace! One of the most significant commodities for us humans. The peace that only God can give.

The healing journey begins to take place when we confess or verbally articulate our pain. We need to acknowledge, recognize, admit, and accept what has happened. When we put our feelings into words, it activates the prefrontal cortex. A wealth of scientific research shows that the less your ability to name your emotions, the more likely they are to hook you and jerk you into self-defeating behavior patterns.

Start by noticing what your triggers are. Then note what automatic thoughts come to your mind when you are triggered. What are those thoughts saying? Are they good and positive or harmful and destructive? At that moment, you have two choices: accept them or reject them. If the messages are contrary to what God says you are, then challenge them against His Word. Repeat God’s promises. When God created, He spoke, and there was life! And this is what we should do—speak God’s truth into our souls enough times until our brain gets the message! Memorize God’s promises so you can recite them the moment you feel triggered.

Have you experienced a Peniel? A place where you have wrestled with God, got ahold of Him, and said, “I will not let You go until You bless me”? Or perhaps you are open to allowing God to facilitate a Peniel in your life. Do you want to feel the peace Jacob received when he encountered his past in the presence of God? He verbally brought it to the Lord in prayer, and so did King David. “Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s”
(Psalm 103:1-5, emphasis supplied).

Seek professional advice from a Bible-based Christian counselor to help you navigate through your past pain. You can find hope and healing, and your deepest pain will become your greatest ministry.