Before I got married, my future wife challenged me with a simple request. She suggested that I go on a retreat to work on my faith and revisit some issues that I had experienced in my past. I laughed. I reminded her that I go on retreats all the time. In fact, I was just on a retreat the previous weekend. She then pointed out that I was not on a retreat, but that I was giving a retreat. (Working in Catholic youth ministry, I tend to lead a lot of retreats for young people on a regular basis.)
Now, not including the retreats that I had led, she asked me, “When was the last time you had gone on a retreat for yourself?” At this point, I was no longer laughing. In fact, I was ashamed. It had been years. I liked to believe that I was future-focused and so I felt that I did not need to revisit the past. However, my fiancée noticed what I could not—that even though I had moved forward in my life, I clearly had a hard time looking back. God was at work through her. To really grow deeper in my relationship with her and Him, I had some work to do.
So, I signed up for a retreat. And not just any retreat, I went all out—I signed up for a silent retreat. In the ensuing weeks leading up to it and the months preceding it, I discovered many things about God and myself.
First, even though I did not care much for silence—let alone silent retreats—it was good to give God permission and opportunity to encounter me in ways that are not always comfortable. A silent retreat is not my style. No talks. No music. No other people. No thanks! And yet, this is what was necessary. To sit with the awkwardness of a week of silence and let God dictate the terms of the experience—that was weird.
After the retreat, I realized that though I had a personal relationship with God, my relationship was pretty much on my terms. God was my friend, but whenever we spent time together, the time was always planned out by me. I always made sure our time was moving and meaningful. But on this silent retreat, it was as if God just dropped by unannounced and plans were not in my control. It was just God. And it was just me. For days. Only by absence—the absence of dynamic talks, powerful worship music, and small group interactions (all good things, mind you)—could I encounter His presence in a new way.
Second, I discovered that God wants to save us not just from sin, but from the (well-intentioned) incorrect views of how healing works. See, I had these experiences as a teen that ranged from addictions to failed relationships, which led to some serious spiritual and emotional issues. As I got older, much of the advice and direction I was given led me to believe that when God forgave me of my sin, if I truly believed it, then I would receive instant healing and wholeness. A secondary consequence of this was the following: if I am still struggling, then something is wrong with me and my faith.
I was told elements of truth, but the bad theology that underlined what was said to me was manipulative and harmful. Things about God were said in a way to convince me that faith worked like math. It was a formula that I needed to understand and apply. All I needed to do was “let go and let God” or some other trite quasi-spiritual sounding phrase and everything will be better and I will be good.
I think it is fair to say that real life is not so easy and choices and outcomes are not so binary. Some of our most painful experiences can be so complicated that we cannot clearly see the who, what, where, when and why’s for a really long time, if ever, this side of heaven. And when you consider that there is a world of people around you dealing with similar realities, things get even more complicated.
Sometimes the other people in our lives commit harm with direct intention, but sometimes they do not. Sometimes they harm, betray, or burden us because they themselves are affected by things beyond their immediate control. And so even as we work towards forgiving and asking for forgiveness, we cannot ignore the fact that choices have consequences that do not always self-correct immediately after. We may be left with outcomes that require healing, or grieving, or counseling, or time, or … This is often what the well-intentioned people with their bad theology omit in their formulas about faith.
The effects of sin, psychology, place, perspective, purpose and a host of other things that are part of the human experience are not so easily untangled. A lack of empathy and awareness is why their quick calculations and right sounding answers do more to bind us in guilt, confusion, and frustration than bring us into the freedom we see offered in the Scriptures, saints, and the teaching of the Church over the centuries.
The third thing that I discovered is that God’s love works in and through all our experiences, not outside or apart from them. He does not see me as a project with a deadline for completion. I am neither surprising Him nor disappointing Him when I finally admit that parts of the foundation is not as secure as I pretend it to be. My past is the very thing that I am invited to share with Him. He does not tolerate it. He treasures it. My experiences, including the unresolved ones, are mine. And I am His. So then, all of this is between us. It is ours. That is how He works.
That is also how He heals us. Not by waiting outside of our experiences, but by being present in those experiences. Think about that. He is in the storm, and He is there not only to lead us to the shore. He is in the storm because He wants to be with us. And where He is, where He longs to be, is where and when the healing begins. The God who begins the work of healing will see it to completion, but the timeline is His, not ours.
The fourth and final thing that I learned is how to bring my past before the Lord in a way that is authentic and consistent. It is a simple thing, but it has allowed me to actively fight my unhelpful tendencies by being mindful of God’s presence. Here is what I did.
On a sheet of paper I briefly wrote down a specific unresolved issue from my past. I had to limit how much I wrote because I needed to relearn to trust that the same God who is here with me as I write things down was also (and in a mystical, but real way, still) there with me when those events happened. This meant that once I finished there would be no adding or omitting. No additional explanations necessary. Then I folded up the paper as small as I could and tied it together with some string. I carried it with me constantly and as often as I became aware of it, I would present it to the Lord. Some days it was easy and some days it was not. Sometimes at Mass, I would use my imagination and place it in the collection basket during the offertory. It was a good way of reminding myself that everything that is given to God as a gift is united with the sacrifice of Christ and made pleasing to the Father.
Other times, I would suddenly be aware of this letter sitting uncomfortably in my pocket and would make myself speak words of truth and say something like:
“Jesus, I love You and I trust You with this. Jesus, help me to love You and trust You with this.”
“Jesus, I can’t undo this knot. I’m tired of reliving this. I’m tired of trying to resolve this. I surrender this to You.”
“Jesus, thank You for what You have done, are doing, and will do in my life.”
“Jesus, here is my heart. Here are all the pieces. My heart isn’t strong enough to survive this. I need Your heart to love again.”
And somedays, all I have are words like this:
“Jesus, I’m so broken. I’ve got nothing left. Save me again.”
“Jesus, You are so good and faithful. Make me good and faithful. Finish what You started.”
“Jesus... Argh!.. Mercy.”
Of all the things I learned, this practice of carrying my past in a physical and concrete way and presenting it regularly to God kept me from denying God what was rightfully His. Me. And eventually, in God’s time, He has, He is, and He will fulfill His promise and set me free.
© JOE PHILIP (Twitter @joephilip101) is a theology teacher and retreat coordinator for Powers Catholic High School in Flint, Michigan. He holds his M.A. from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. He and his wife, Tara, travel and share their love for Jesus and the Church by leading and speaking at retreats. They are happy parents to three young children. Philip served as host of the Shalom World TV original series, “SEEKERS.” H serves as Contributing Editor to “Shalom Tidings” magazine.