When the love of Christ flooded my soul, I knew I was accepted. I was overwhelmed with joy. I was radically converted. Unfortunately, I was encouraged to negate, deny, and ignore my personal history. I became locked in what James Fowler called “synthetic-conventional faith.” I was committed to the group. My theology was unexamined. Reflection, critical thinking, comfort in liminal spaces, and a radical openness to truth regardless of its source illuded me.
Bereavement, loss, and trauma shook my foundation and awakened long dormant critical thought. I reëxamined my theology, shifted perspectives, and became quite comfortable with paradox. I welcomed hitherto untapped sources of truth. I learned contemplative prayer and imaginative scripture meditation. An ongoing series of conversions erupted. Life became a glorious adventure. My willful self required transformation, not negation.
You cannot negate your past life and obliterate your personal history and grow spiritually. Many Christ-followers who struggle with anxiety, depression, confusion, lack of purpose, and difficulties in their relationships have been convinced by their faith communities that the past, “with its affections and lusts,” needs to be negated, denied. As a result, they read the Bible, pray, go to church, and try to live decent lives while feeling guilty or ashamed of the turmoil. They think, “if only I had more faith.” They confess being new creations in Christ but they don’t feel very new.
One of the worst things we can do is try to ignore or minimize how affected we were by the events of our childhoods. Negating the willful self is always a mistake. Dismissing your personal history always stunts spiritual growth. You cannot negate your past life and obliterate your personal history and grow spiritually. We are not called to negate. We are called to be transformed.
What we need is ongoing transformation – ongoing conversion. Ongoing conversion requires training in contemplative prayer and imaginative Bible reading. Contemplative prayer is sitting silently in the presence of God with a heart tuned to listen to the eternal voice of love. By “imaginative” Bible reading, I mean slowing down and letting the stories of scripture sink in. Imaginative Bible reading involves seeing yourself as part of the story. It involves making the biblical story your own. Training in contemplative prayer and imaginative Bible reading is the stuff of spiritual direction. For those of us whose past includes abuse, neglect, familial dysfunction, divorce, bereavement, or trauma, psychotherapy is needed as well as spiritual direction.