A Pile of Regrets
JUNE 2, 2021
I just finished going over the manuscript of my book (the one I’ve been telling you about for the last few months), Laughter and Lament: The Touchstones of Radical Freedom.
Some of it is so good I can’t believe I wrote it. Other parts aren’t half-bad. And some of it is so awful that it makes me wince.
Actually, I’m not really finished. I finished the first draft. Robin, who looks over everything I write, just finished the initial editing of the manuscript. Now I’m going over that edited manuscript and making the necessary changes. Next week I plan to send it to the publisher where their editor will take all my work and do irritating things with it. (It was a frustrated Hemingway, I think, who said to his editor, “Where the h___ were you when the page was blank?”)
In other words, I’ve done the best I could and now I (and others) will go back and correct what is wrong, eliminate what needs to be eliminated, and add what needs to be added. That can be a pain . . . but it is also a gift. I have no desire to make a public fool of myself.
Come to think of it, a lot of my life has been like that manuscript—some of it good, some of it not half-bad, and a good deal of it causing me to wince. The difference between the manuscript and my life is that I can’t go back and fix my life. In fact, one of the not-so-good things about being old is that, frankly, I’m getting tired of myself. There’s so much I regret and just can’t fix.
I bet you can identify with that . . . not the old part, but the regrets. For those of you who can’t identify, don’t read anymore. The rest of us (those who know that denial isn’t a river in Egypt) will carry on without you.
I know, of course, that God is sovereign and Romans 8:28 is true. At the heart of a Christian’s regrets there is the knowledge that God has “written the story” and overseen its development. Even when it doesn’t feel like it, I know and believe that God is good and he is good all the time. And when the sun comes up, it is a source of encouragement. But in the middle of the night sometimes the “demons” come and the “if only” thoughts overwhelm me. Maybe that’s your experience, too.
It would be nice if we could all go back and fix the bad, throw in a little good, and make it all come together in a pretty package to present to God, and receive a “Well done, good and faithful servant” in return. The problem is that life simply doesn’t work that way (and that can’t be fixed either). The divorce is final. The hurt we caused is too old to revisit. It’s too late for the things we should not have said, but did . . . and the things we should have said, but didn’t. They died before we had time to reconcile. We walked down the wrong roads for so long that there’s no way back. We made poor choices that can’t be changed. We bought and paid for sin that we can’t undo, and now we can’t even find the store owner.
And then there’s another problem. The truth is that very often when I’ve tried to fix things I’ve only made them worse. Have you ever gone back to apologize and ask forgiveness for something you said or did, and that person didn’t have the foggiest idea what you were talking about? And then, to your horror, they said, “I didn’t know you felt that way about me.” I’ve found that sometimes it’s best to just let those sleeping dogs lie.
So, what can we do about regret? Actually, not much.
One could try booze; but, once you sober up, the regret will still be there . . . along with a hangover. One could play the “makeup” game, trying to do more good than bad in order to balance the scales. But frankly, we’re all so far behind that we’ll never catch up. One could pretend that the regret isn’t there and put on a “righteous” mask, but that dog won’t hunt (assuming one is a Christian and the Holy Spirit is doing his job). I’ve found that every time I brag to God about the good things I do, he goes silent on me, and, in that silence, I remember and blush.
But then it could be worse. I could be Paul. I have a pile of regrets; but, at least, I haven’t persecuted and killed Christians. Okay, maybe I was pretty snarky to some of them and they were hurt. And sometimes I wished some of them would get the hives. That’s a long way from what Paul did. I think Jesus just said to me, “But close.” Then Jesus reminded me of some other things and, with Job after he had said some really dumb things, I said, “I lay my hand on my mouth . . . I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 40:4; 42:3). In other words, “Oops, shut my mouth!”
Actually, now that I think about it, there is something we can do. Paul, with all of his regrets, and his inability to go back and fix things to make them right, said, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). In other words, “Get over yourself and even your sins, and don’t waste your regrets.”
That works for me. It’s called repentance. As I’ve told you a number of times (you never listen to me . . .) repentance isn’t change, it’s God’s method of changing us if he wants to do that. Repentance is from a Greek word that has to do with attitude far more than actions. It means to “change one’s mind.” It is simply knowing who God is, who you are, and what you regret, and taking it to him in agreement with his assessment of why you should feel regret. After that, the ball is in God’s court. Who knows? He might fix you, he might fix what needs fixing and the things you feel so much regret about, or he might decide that now isn’t the time. Whatever. The repentance is all that is required and the rest is up to him (all that is way above our pay grade).
Two more things, and then I’m finished. When you remember your regrets and repent, then go and tell someone. Paul talked about the ministry he received from Jesus to “testify.” That means to go tell somebody. Don’t get too specific with anybody except God and the people you know and trust, or you’ll make it worse; but point to Jesus and say, “No regrets. Not because I shouldn’t have regrets, but because all that is covered. And he will do the same for you if you ask him.”
Let me see if I can lighten this up a bit. I got an email from a friend (and Key Life board member) recently. He told me about going to Costco to buy a large bag of Purina dog chow for his dog. A lady behind him in line asked if he had a dog. He wanted to say, “No, an elephant,” but he didn’t. He told her instead that the dog food was for himself. He added that it was a new dog food diet and he had lost almost 50 pounds by following it. He said he kept Purina nuggets in his pocket; so, when he was hungry, he just ate one or two of them. Everybody in line was enthralled with his story . . . but they started laughing when he talked about ending up in the hospital. The woman asked if it was the diet, and he replied, “No, I stopped at a fire hydrant and a car hit me.”
I suspect my friend regretted his humor, and the way it probably embarrassed the lady. If that didn’t embarrass her and she took him seriously, started eating dog food, and got sick from it, my friend would have even more to regret. I need to give him a call and tell him that I think he should try to find the lady to fix it before the regret eats him alive.
So there are three things to do about regret: First, repent. Second, tell somebody. And third, if you can, try and fix it as soon as you can. If you can get it fixed quickly enough, you won’t have to do so much repenting.
By the way, let me give you one more verse from a sermon Peter preached, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
A good sermon title for Peter’s sermon and, in fact, for this letter, would be “From Regretting to Repenting to Rejoicing.” Sometimes it really happens that way.
He asked me to remind you.