According to his mother, ML was a wonderful son who, at 14, turned to alcohol and drugs. In the years that followed, he made a series of troubled choices. Caught in a downward spiral, he eventually was arrested and convicted of armed robbery. To his parents’ relief, he got a suspended sentence and seemed to be doing better—until he suddenly ended his own life. He left a note saying he was sorry for all of the pain and problems he had caused. Looking back, his broken-hearted mother said, “We had forgiven him . . . he couldn’t forgive himself.”
Like this grieving mother, we may know what it means to feel helpless while watching a family member or friend lose hope. Or we may have seen the same emotions in the mirror. More than a few of us have probably discovered that it can be far easier to forgive others than to stop beating ourselves up for what we have done or not done.
Along the way, we may have heard others talk about their own struggle to let go of the past, or, better yet, to find ways of using what they have learned in their own losses as a way of helping others find their way forward. In the process, many have found that there are two kinds of regret. One ties us to the past, weighs us down, and makes it hard to live in the present. The other frees us to learn from our failures, helps shape the way forward, and gives us wings.
But knowing that we need to let go of what we can’t change is easier than doing it. If hopelessness sets in, there may be a need for professional care, a time and place to heal, and the ongoing, patient encouragement of family and friends.
In the middle of the struggle, many have found help in the merciful wisdom of the Bible. For example, the apostle Paul’s second New Testament letter to the Corinthians describes two kinds of regret (2 Corinthians 7:8-12). Paul, however, does more than describe the difference between the kinds of regret that make or break us. He also describes a kind of sorrow that gives God a chance to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves (2 Corinthians 7:10).
To understand what Paul had in mind, it’s important to know that he was writing out of his own experience. He would never forget the wrongs of his own past. Years earlier, when he was known as Saul, he had been part of a religious crowd that had stoned a man to death (Acts 7:57–8:1). Later, in a murderous rage, Paul went from house to house dragging out men and women who were known followers of Jesus (Acts 8:3; 9:1-2).
What happened next took Paul by surprise. He would never be the same again. By his own account, it was on the road to Damascus, Syria, that he met the resurrected Christ (Acts 9:3-9). Years later, Paul would write with deep affection for “Christ Jesus [who] came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15 NKJV).
Even though Paul never forgot the terrible things he had said about Jesus or the harm that he had done to those he now considered family (1 Timothy 1:13), he spent the rest of his life trying to help those he had persecuted and loving the Jesus he had once hated.
But how do we explain the extent to which Paul went to help those he had once hated? Did he go on to suffer more for Christ than anyone else of his generation by redirecting the natural zeal that had once made him such an angry man?
Paul gave his readers the answer to that question. He was convinced that while the wrongs he had done had been his own, the credit for his changed life belonged to God. While acknowledging both regret and deep gratitude, Paul wrote, “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10 NKJV).
For Paul, regarding himself as a murderous religious bully who lived long enough to see the forgiveness and life-changing grace of God wasn’t just about him. It was His gift to those who find themselves overwhelmed by their past, unable to let go, and desperately needing the help that Paul now offered as the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:7-8).
Father in heaven, thank You for not asking us to merely think our way into the kind of forgiveness and hope we desperately need. Please show us again today what it means to experience in our regret the grace that enables us to let go of the past and to reach forward to what You want to do in and through us.