When the Memories of Sin Remain
Words by Lara d'Entremont
It takes us by surprise—the cringe-worthy memory of a past sin we wish we could forget. Maybe you were picking out clothing to wear the next day, packing a lunch, doing housework, watching TV, or playing with your children. One thought quickly connected to another, and suddenly a horrible memory resurfaced. The pain, the regret, the shame, and disgusting feelings all returned as if you had just committed the sin again. The memories are so vivid you could shudder.
Each of us were sinners who hated God before he saved us, and we still sin now even though we have new hearts. Like Paul, we will continue to battle sin until the day of redemption (Rom. 7). Therefore, each of us will battle the memories of sin. Not one person can say they have no memory of sins they have committed. So what do we do with these memories that make us cringe? How do we face the memories in Christ?
Refusing to Dwell on Sin and Remembering Redemption
We do not want to remain in the memory of the sin. Philippians 4:8 commands us to dwell on that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise—and sin fits into none of those categories. Instead, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). We must strive to obey Christ even with our minds.
Rather than dwelling on sin, we need to replace those memories and thoughts with something higher. We let those memories point us back to redemption.
The other morning as I got ready for the day, my mind wandered back to my past sins before I was a believer and the pain I had caused others. My heart felt heavy with shame and disgrace. But then I remembered my salvation. Though I was a horrible, sinful person, who not only hated and hurt others but also hated God, God saved me. Looking at my sin, there was nothing good in me or worth saving. Yet God, in his abundant grace, saved me. I had been a false convert with a holier-than-thou attitude—I had no reason to believe I was going to hell. God didn’t have to open my eyes. He could have left me in that blinded state and still be just.
But he chose to save me.
Such a realization could only evoke praise. The shame and disgrace I felt over my sin turned to rejoicing as I considered the outpouring of grace on me by a holy and just God. As I remembered how deep in sin and pride I was, I praised God for his power in softening my hardened, blackened, coal-like heart.
Take your memories of sin and do the same, friend. Let your shame and cringing be turned into rejoicing as you are reminded of the abundant grace shown to you. Let your sadness be turned to joy as you consider how the Almighty God softened even your stony heart.
When sinful memories rematerialize in our minds, we need to guard against self-condemnation. Self-condemnation may appear an appropriate and good response to our sinful memories; it’s a way of punishing ourselves so that we won’t fall into that sin again.
But self-condemnation only makes the problem worse by trying to find a solution within. We try to find forgiveness or redemption in ourselves rather than in the only Savior. Self-condemnation forgets the cross and the work of Christ and seeks to pay the penalty for our own sins—which is what Christ has already done for us.
Once again, the only solution is to preach the gospel to ourselves, to remember the grace by which we have been saved. Our hearts often lean towards legalism and a works-based gospel, but we need to continually be trusting in the gospel of Christ. We could never atone for our sins; any kind of sacrifice or self-condemnation we could muster up will always fail God’s standard. We need a perfect sacrifice for our sins, which is Christ and Christ alone. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). This is where true justification and freedom are found.
When Others Bring Up Our Sinful Past
Our wandering minds aren’t the only ones who will remind us of our sins. People also will bring up our sinful past—whether it’s out of bitterness, to blackmail us, to shame us, or to make themselves look better. Sadly, we are not the only ones who remember our sins.
My initial response when others bring up my sin is to try to make myself look better. I may try to justify my sin with excuses. Well of course I blew up at her; she deserved it. I am often tempted to cover my shame with pride. At least I’m not like that anymore. I’ve overcome my anger since then. I am such a calm and gentle person now. And sometimes, I simply try to hide it. That’s not really how it went. I didn’t really sin that time.
As you can probably guess, these responses aren’t godly. Each of them boils down to ourselves; we want to protect our own reputation and make ourselves look better. But God doesn’t call us to glorify ourselves—he commands us to glorify him.
When others remind us of our sinful past, regardless of their motive, our response should always be to point them back to the Savior. Rather than heighten our own pride and find reason to boast in ourselves, we should strive to boast in Christ. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31).
We can boast in Christ even when reminded of our sins. We can admit that we are sinful people and that we have sinned in the past, but remind them of the amazing grace we have been shown: “Yes, I did sin that time, not just against that person, but most importantly against God. I wish I had never dishonored him in that way. But thanks be to God, who continues to show me grace and mercy and grant me forgiveness each time I sin.”
Don’t try to cover up your sins or make yourself look better, but point people back to the Savior.
The Good in the Memories
I once heard Voddie Baucham declare in a sermon that he was thankful for the memories of his past; he doesn’t want them to ever go away. I was shocked by this at first, and thought of the many times I have wished away my memories as I cringed through them. But he went on to explain that those memories of his sinful past are a constant reminder of God’s grace. When he looks back and considers where he once was and the life he could have remained in, he is brought into humble praise to God for saving him.
Friend, your memories may never go away. But they do not have to be a cause of shame and self-condemnation. You do not need to dwell on them. Instead, let them be your reminder to praise God in eternal thankfulness for the grace he has bestowed on you.