Monday, September 19, 2005

Guilt, forgiveness, and regret

If you have lived long enough, then by now there will be something you have said or done that you truly regret. It may be unkind words that were out of your mouth and you could not call them back. It may have been something against your conscience. Maybe nobody knows about it except you.

Guilt is a miserable thing. And as awful as guilt is, it's strange how little comfort people -- even Christians -- draw from God's forgiveness. How often is God's forgiveness actually embraced with gladness and relief? How often is forgiveness, instead, looked on with suspicion and distrust? Distrusting God's forgiveness leads very directly to an apathy towards that forgiveness. How can you receive something gladly if you doubt that it applies to your own sin, or when you doubt that it is here to stay?

There are various reasons for this. The one on which I wish to focus now is regret. When we do something wrong, we regret it. We wish we had never done it, or said it, or felt it, or thought it. We imagine, because we still regret it, that we are not truly forgiven. When we are plagued with regret, we take it as evidence against our forgiveness. We imagine that, if we were in fact forgiven, that we would no longer feel that way.

But the more we look at that idea, the more plainly we see that it's wrongheaded. The more pure-hearted we become, the more we will regret ever having hurt another person or ever having contaminated our lives with sin. I would be much more worried about a sinner who never regretted wrongdoing. A pig who rolls in the mud doesn't mind being filthy. If he hates being filthy, it's a good sign that he's not at home in the mud anymore. The day will soon come when the mud disgusts them so badly that he can never go back to it. The more strongly we have repented of our sins -- the more we have turned away from what is wrong and turned again towards God -- the more strongly we will regret ever having done evil things.

Are we able to turn our backs on our regret? Should we even try? Turning our backs on regret does not mean turning our backs on a person we have hurt. If we have harmed someone, they should know our regret. If it is in our power to do anything to make things right again, we should do it. For whatever is beyond us, we should pray for God's help and healing as often as it comes to mind. And whenever we think of what we did, the proper feeling may in fact be regret. It doesn't mean we are not forgiven.

Two more things remain to be said.

First, this does not mean it is right to stay mired in regret. Our goal is not to feel regret, but to turn towards God. A mind filled with regret is a mind still filled with thoughts of the sin that is past. It's better if we fill our minds instead with God, reminding ourselves of his power, his majesty, his holiness -- and his compassion on our weakness. When we look at the world he has made and see how full of goodness it is, we know that all the sins of all of us combined will never destroy his goodness. So we can allow our hearts to be glad in God, even give the heart a nudge if it needs it.

Second, our regret may remain after we are forgiven. Regret does not mean that we are not forgiven. We have a covenant with God; Jesus is the covenant. That covenant is for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is our ransom and our atonement. When plagued by regret, I remember the account of the sinful woman who came and wept at Jesus' feet. She was so full of regret that she couldn't hold it in, even in front of critics. Jesus told her, "Your sins, which are many, are forgiven." There was no "maybe" in his words. We might find that our minds trust in forgiveness sometimes and doubt it at others. Regardless of the whirlwinds in our minds, we can stand on God's promise: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us ..." (Been there, done that.) "... But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:8-9). God will forgive us and cleanse us ... whether my spinning mind can grasp it or not.


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Jamie said...

this really helped me... thanks.