What to Do When a Memory of Sin Paralyzes You

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I’ve been married for 19 years, and I have many happy memories with my wife. Cara is my best friend by far. We especially enjoy looking back and reliving some of our favorite dates together.

One treasured memory is the time I found out she once dreamed about being in the Air Force. By that point in our relationship, I had learned to plan dates we would both enjoy rather than dates only I would enjoy—no extra charge for that little piece of advice. One of my close friends was a pilot, and I asked him if he could take us flying. He delivered in a big way. He flew us to a nearby regional airport, I took her to a Mexican restaurant, and he flew us back. I have a picture of Cara and me standing next to the plane, and we both have beaming smiles. I love to look at that picture and relive the date.

Memories can be a precious gift that allow us to enjoy the same event multiple times. But our memories can also be a curse.

Curse of Memory

One of the most painful moments of my life came during premarital counseling. I tearfully told Cara (my fiancée at that time) about some of my past pornography usage. By God’s grace, porn was no longer a problem in my life, but it was an issue in my past. I wanted her to know the truth about my old struggle, and I earnestly desired her forgiveness for that sin. I will never forget seeing the pain etched on her face. She freely forgave me, but it was a heart-wrenching for both of us.

For several days, I struggled to apply the gospel to my situation. I wanted to beat myself up. I remembered the pain on Cara’s face, and I replayed it in my mind over and over. I raked myself over the coals again and again for the bad choices I’d made years before.

Don’t sit in your sin. Take it on a journey all the way back to the cross and see it nailed there.

Our memories can serve as a kind of time machine. The time machine of memory can be a good thing when we go back and replay the good times. It can help us enjoy a pleasant experience in exponential ways. But the time machine of memory becomes twisted when we use it to relive our past failures and punish ourselves multiple times for the same mistake. When we put our sins on repeat mode, we wince and groan over and over again because it triggers sharp pangs of guilt and shame. Our guilt brings past sins into the present and says, “Look, you made a mistake.” Then shame joins the conversation and adds, “Yes, and you are the mistake.”

Why do we torture ourselves by going back to places of failure in our memory banks? Why do we continue to push the play button and experience it all over again? We wish we could go back and erase our failures, but that’s not an option. We can’t seem to get over it, so we go over it in our minds again and again.

Embrace the Full Truth

Here’s the problem with the twisted time machine of memory. We travel back in time under the pretense of a half-truth. Yes, we sinned. No, sin should not be taken lightly. There is appropriate guilt and shame that flow from sin, but as Christians, we know that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). We can’t allow our past shames to cloud the fact that Christ has come.

Discouragement gets stuck in the half-truth that says, “Go back and see for yourself that you failed,” but we can take heart when we realize the full truth that our problem is not that we look back, but that we don’t look all the way back.

Yes, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23)—but our debts have been paid. Don’t sit in your sin. Take it on a journey all the way back to the cross and see it nailed there. Then, and only then, will you be ready to move forward in the forgiving love of Christ.

Editors’ note: 

This is an adapted excerpt from Don’t Lose Heart: Gospel Hope for the Discouraged Soul, published in partnership with Baker Books.

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