Theology of Regret

*This post first began about six months ago, and has been resurrected in light of new clarity.

Regret can be crippling – for the present and for the future. By that I mean, the fear of future regret (that you will make a choice you will later wish you hadn’t) and present regret (that you have previously made a choice that you wish you hadn’t) both have the potential to stunt the decision making process and render current living clogged. Which is worse anyway: fearing the the wrong decision will be made or constant longing to change past decisions?

One day, in kindergarden, I came to school dressed as a Native American Indian – headdress … vest … the works. In a spurt of adventurous passion, the type that usually only comes when you’re a kid, I swung furiously at my crayon box with my tomahawk slicing it clean in two pieces like a block of wood. I immediately regretted that decision. And timeout. 

In the seventh grade I lied about cheating on a geography test. My friends and I didn’t get caught because my teacher trusted me. I deeply regret what I did. I wish I would have understood the value of honesty and character.

Sometimes I would lie awake in my in bed for hours at night and think about decisions I made – haunted by what I had done (or not done) and paralyzed by the reality of the permanence of time.These days are marked by major decisions – for myself and my friends. I guess we’re getting to that age deciding what we’re doing with our lives. I lie awake in my bed these days too because I’m afraid I’ll do the wrong thing and wish for the rest of my life that I had done it differently. **

Like I mentioned above, this post began about 6 months ago, right after my life had undergone some major changes – marriage, new home, new people, new school. Everything comfortable and familiar was essentially changed. I still don’t sleep that much…but for different reasons as of late.

So how do we think about feelings like these? What role does regret play as we try to understand God and ourselves better? There are a few guys in Scripture who I think dealt with these question as well. I’m gonna take a shot in the dark and assume that Judas Iscariot might have lived (however briefly or minutely) in a little regret. But seeing as how he hung himself and after falling from the gallows, his guts burst out over the ground, his story isn’t exactly our locus classicus. Peter might have dealt with regret with more maturity – first denying Christ, then becoming a key component in preaching the gospel to the Jews (though he did have an ever-so-ambiguous falling out in Gal. 2). But really, both of these examples fail to characterized the type of regret that grows out of fear of failure – which I think is the kind in question. That doesn’t matter though as it seems my methodology is flawed too – reading my situation back into the text. So how do we proceed?

Rather than using the text to diagnose a condition and find a prescription, like the Bible is the spiritual WebMD, my first instinct should be to seek to conform my life to the patterns and rhythms of the text, and thus to God himself – as Paul says, not the wisdom of the world, but to God’s wisdom: the gospel. Through identification with God through Christ, the Holy Spirit can illumine all the ways that the patterns of my life are fundamentally out of sync with the way of the cross. The Holy Spirit through Holy Scriptures shows that Israel’s restlessness in the wilderness and their reluctance to enter  the Promised Land kept some of them from God’s rest, which serves as a pattern for the type of eschatological rest that God yet desires for his church today and in the same way a pattern for my life as I am restless and reluctant to trust God in daily life, as I fear, and as I regret. 

By God’s grace, the joy that results from a contented heart is, slowly, creeping into a soul, which at its core has for many years been driven by performance and success.  And a life motived by these factors, I found, sows restlessness and doubt. But a life that is daily submitted before the God who faithfully leads and cares for his children, indeed who faithfully led his people into the promised land, whose love for an unfaithful people led his Son faithfully to the cross, and whose power defeated death and rose him from the dead and sat him at his right hand, is a one that lives with no fear of regret.

Over the course of the past 6 months, God has showed me how utterly helpless and needy I am of him. I live in a world (theological academia) that (sadly) demands a steep fee (not just money) for the product that its students seek, and I struggle to pay. But God leads and delivers me daily into his rest, into the sweet satisfaction of contentment and trust. 

Grace and Peace, 

Seth

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3 thoughts on “Theology of Regret

  1. First off: First “new” paragraph= gross.

    Second off: Well said. I would have to make the addition of “acceptance”to the list that drives my regret, or perhaps even redefine the list itself *as* “acceptance”. That’s why success and performance are so important, not because of how *I* see myself as having succeeded and performed, but as how *they* do.

    The fear I have of how others will come to judge me is crippling, and certainly a hindrance to playing my part in reaching the Kingdom’s goal.

    Thanks for this.

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