I have a feeling that we are the people we are because of past experiences. That might sound like a complicated statement—yet it’s true I believe. We all have a past, and the moments of our lives are stitched into our memories. Problems occur when we get stuck with past events—we can’t move forward and feel trapped somehow. Life can’t stay still—it’s all about forward motion. We may not be able to forget or ignore the past.
Someone has wisely said: “What you need to know about the past is that no matter what has happened, it has all worked together to bring you to this very moment. And this is the moment you can choose to make everything new. Right now”. I don’t know who wrote that, but it makes sense to me. I’m sure we can think back to childhood with its share of pain, confusion and joy as well.
Fred Craddock was a distinguished church leader is the US and he told of being in a small town preaching in some meetings. He stayed in a small motel and noticed one night a coffee pot in the lobby. He was tired and spoke to the woman behind the desk:
- “I’d like to get a cup of coffee and take it to my room.”
- “I’m sorry; there isn’t any,” she said
- “Is it all gone?”
- “No, I didn’t make any. When I was a child and was sick, my mother would give me castor oil and would always put it in the coffee to get me to drink it. Ever since then, I just can’t stand the taste of coffee—so I don’t make coffee”.
- ”Well, why do you have the coffee pot out in the lobby?” asked Fred still a bit confused.
- “The people who used to run this place had it out there, but I don’t make coffee. Maybe there’s another place nearby that is still open where you can get a cup of coffee”.
- “I sure hope it’s run by somebody whose mother didn’t give them castor oil in their coffee,” Fred said finally.
Some issues of the past stay with us for a long, long time! From the internet here are a few examples from different people:
- “I hate talking on the phone when people are around or just talking to anyone when I know someone could be listening. When I was younger my three older sisters were very nosy; always wanted to know what I’m up to, and often criticised me. Whenever I got a phone call, or even chatted with someone in person, they would chat among each other about me and make fun of me—they were often on my back and pushing me to be more social and it has ended up having the reverse effect.”
- “I think most people hate me. Growing up, my father wouldn’t really talk to me and pretty much never smiled. I would talk to him lots and ask lots of questions, but he never really talked to me to any great length and very rarely laughed with me. I thought he hated me and wished I was never born. As I grew older I realised that he is just not very social and can be like that with a lot of people. So, now because of that past experience, I think most people don’t like talking to me.”
- ”I grew up in a very negative environment, where I was made to feel that others were better than me—on a daily basis. So of course, now I always feel subordinate to others. No matter what I do, feeling equally competent doesn’t come natural. I have to give myself pep talks. Even if I did feel competent or even superior in a situation, I tend to feel that others won’t realise it, or that I have to prove myself. It’s pathetic. But, that’s life. There are people with worse problems. “
Life Experiences Shape Beliefs
The Road Less Travelled is a best-selling book by psychiatrist Morgan Scott Peck, in which he tells the stories of two different people that he knows. As children, they had very similar life experiences. Both men, as young boys, lost their respective mother to cancers; struggled with poverty; had quite dysfunctional fathers, etc etc.
One of them grew up to be extremely dysfunctional, plagued by low self-esteem, couldn’t form healthy relationships, basically was a big mess (he had come to Scott Peck for treatment). The other man became an exceedingly healthy individual (from a psychology perspective): happily married, good father, became an outstanding doctor, a cancer specialist, who also contributed to the community through other ways, helping the underprivileged.
Scott Peck cited these stories as a striking example of how the same sort of experiences can trigger off very different beliefs. One had formed beliefs —from his difficult family life in his early years—about his lack of self-worth and the harshness of life. The other man—whose family life was difficult in the same ways—formed beliefs about the importance of family; of helping others in difficult circumstances (since he had been there himself before); and of having compassion for the sick (specifically cancer patients, since his mother had died from it).
So yes, I would say that life experiences shape beliefs. How glad I am to know the Bible says in Romans 8:28: “We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” God’s word simply says that he shapes us through the experiences of life in a way we don’t always understand.
It means that every detail of our life is the object of God’s loving concern, and he is in charge of what will happen to us, regardless of past experiences. I like the way J. B. Phillips translates that verse: “Moreover we know that to those who love God, who are called according to his plan, everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.”