One of the themes for this month on our blog is “things you don’t regret”. At midlife, many of us are coming to terms with the choices we’ve made, and regret can shadow us like a stalker. In 2014, I wrote a book called If Only: Letting Go of Regret that has the message that God can redeem every single one of our regrets and repurpose them for our good and his glory. Today and tomorrow, I’ll be sharing one chapter from the book that I pray will encourage you if you’re finding that the voices of your past choices are shouting at you in the stay-put-ness of home quarantine. –PerGen co-founder, Michelle Van Loon
Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.Henry David Thoreau
Reconciliation with our past if only’s changes the way we live here and now, in the present tense. When we are unshackled from our past regrets, we are able to experience shalom even as we walk out the consequences of a poor decision or sinful choice. We are at liberty to follow Jesus out of the prison cell and into the world he loves.
There may be times when those first stumbling steps may make us look a little foolish to others. But if we’ve faced our fears, a bit of awkwardness is nothing in comparison to the fear that held us in chains for so many years.The best example of this is a story drawn from news headlines. While the names and party affiliations may change, the storyline stays the same. It is the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters and gossip columns.
The plot goes something like this: A young, promising politician – let’s call him James – has a secret life. He’s having an affair, and he has a little recreational cocaine habit. James has got to fund this crazy lifestyle of his, so he “borrows” money from his campaign fund. The money, sex, drugs and political power are a potent cocktail that anesthetizes his conscience.
That conscience is slapped into wakefulness when a blackmailer who is only interested in selling his services to the highest bidder shows James he’s got proof of his many indiscretions.
James, then, decides he must be the highest bidder. This decision traps him in a cycle of paying the thug, then paying and paying and paying some more. Whenever James tries to end the relationship, his blackmailer threatens to take the evidence to the press. James’s existence is ruled by fear and the need to keep feeding the bottomless pit of the extortionist’s demands for cash.
If this were a movie, the story would go one of two ways. Either James would kill the thug, or James would refuse to pay, and the man would go ahead and do what he’s been threatening to do all along.
A third option awaits, but no studio head would probably ever green light this kind of story. James could go to his colleagues and the press and confess it all, hanging every last scrap of dirty laundry on the line. He knows it will end his career and ruin his reputation, but living with his secrets and the threat of exposure is suffocating him.
James chooses the third option. The story makes headlines for a couple of weeks. After the headlines fade, there are consequences of all kinds waiting for the former politician in the wake of his resignation. But the fears that controlled James as if he were a marionette for most of his adult life – both the brokenness that led him to make so many bad decisions in the first place as well as the fears of exposure – no longer have the final word in the way he lives.
As the credits of this movie roll, audiences can see that James is at peace. What will happen next in his life? All kinds of new, hopeful possibilities await.
A sequel is in the making.
What if they find out who I really am?
Our regrets whisper to us that the world will find out what kind of people we really are. If others find out the truth about us, will rejection follow? Fear holds us captive.
The shalom of Christ removes the chains from us. The peace he gives to us flows out of his love for us: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18) As we receive his peace, his perfect love for us has the power to banish the fear our regrets hold over us.
Unresolved past regrets will deplete our ability to live in the present. Shalom is not just making peace with our past. Shalom allows us to live with courage and confidence right now. Because of Christ, our regrets do not get to have the final word about who we are today.
Joseph’s story offers us a remarkable example of this reality. Genesis 37 tells how this grandson of Abraham, son of Isaac had his life stolen from him by his ten jealous brothers, who’d conspired against him with intent to murder him. They instead sold him into slavery and explained his disappearance by telling their father that a wild animal had killed him. The injustices directed at Joseph piled up as he was imprisoned in Egypt for a crime he didn’t commit. He languished forgotten in that place before his eventual release into a role of great responsibility in the country (Genesis 38-41). Even so, he wasn’t free to return home. And even if he could, how could he go back to a place where his own siblings loathed him enough to exchange his life for the ancient equivalent of pocket change?
A famine in Canaan brought Joseph’s the brothers to Egypt in search of grain. In a scene with echoes of the parable of the prodigal sons (Luke 15:11-32), Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and forgives them for what they did to him (Genesis 45). The entire family, including father Isaac and the younger brother he’d never met, Benjamin, is reunited in Egypt.
But it wasn’t quite “happily ever after” for the brothers. When Isaac died of old age, the ten feared for their lives. Joseph was in a position of great power, sort of a Vice President to Pharaoh, and they knew he had every reason under the sun to nurse a grudge against them. They couldn’t believe he’d completely forgiven them. I suspect that was because they couldn’t forgive themselves for what they’d done to him and for the years of needless grief their father had experienced.
The ten sent Joseph a delicately worded message that most likely wasn’t true: “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” (Genesis 50:16-17)
Once they were certain he’d received the message, they went to see Joseph, and prostrated themselves in his presence because they feared for their lives. No small irony in the fact that they told their brother that they’d be happy to be his slaves.
Joseph’s response to them is one of the most beautiful expressions of trust in God and complete forgiveness in all of Scripture: “’Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.” (Genesis 50:19-21)
Meant for good
With Joseph’s story in mind, Preacher F.B. Meyer asked, “We are apt to see a malicious meaning; are we equally apt to detect the Divine and benevolent one? Our enemies are many, and they hate us with perfect hatred; they are ever laying their plots, and working their unholy purposes. But there is a greater and wiser than they, who, through all these plottings, is prosecuting His Divine purpose. There is another and deeper meaning than appears to the short sight of sense.”
Commentator Dave Guzik noted, “(Joseph) plainly declared, ‘You meant evil against me.’ Although this was true, it was not the greatest truth. The greatest truth was ‘God meant it for good.’”
The apostle Paul reminded told his friends in Rome much the same thing: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (8:28) The Message paraphrase adds a fresh shading of meaning to these oh-so-familiar words: “…every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.”
Many people drain the eternity from this truth with a generic “It all worked out for the best”. But even among believers, the idea that God is at work in everything – everything! – for the benefit of those who have responded to his call of them with their love sounds suspiciously like something a motivational speaker might say. Perhaps because the words have been overused and misapplied, or perhaps because our present reality may lead us to wonder if this really is what all things working together for our good means, we may be tempted to dismiss this truth. Misapplied sentiments grate against our regrets; rightly so.
Paul, who knew his share of suffering after his Damascus-road experience, and Joseph, who lived most of his adult life as either a slave or a prisoner, had plenty of reasons each one could have questioned God’s goodness. Their words were forged on the anvil of years of affliction. They were not speaking motivational platitudes. They were speaking trust. This trust that helped them forgive those who’d wronged or hurt them. This trust invited shalom into what could have become quite a collection of if only’s.
And because shalom existed in their lives, both Joseph and Paul were free to speak and act in ways that reflected the character of God.