How to Get Over Regrets

I have learned over the years that if someone else makes a great point, I need to share it with others. Such is the case with the following, parts of the sermon preached on last Sunday’s Lutheran Hour broadcast by Rev. Ken Klaus. His great point is one we all need to hear:

The old calendar on the wall says there are only a few days before much of the world will be celebrating the passing of another year, another year since the birth of the Savior; another year closer to His return. Now you don’t have to be a Christian to look forward to the arrival of a New Year. Most everybody I know is eager to bid farewell to past unpleasantries and are equally enthusiastic to embrace a year we pray will be packed with prosperity, peace, and potential. Yes, we are ready to begin anew and boldly stride into January one. Indeed, we would do so if it weren’t for the painful past many of us are dragging with us; you know the painful past we call, “regret.”

Permit me to tell you a story about the regret of a man named Thomas Carlyle. Although Carlyle lived in the 19th century, he could rightly be called a Renaissance Man. In Carlyle’s case, that means he was acclaimed and admired for his accomplishments in mathematics, history, philosophy, and literature. Carlyle also had a well-deserved reputation for being crabby, cantankerous, and confrontational. Although he loved his wife, he treated her more like a servant than a spouse.

Eventually the day came when Carlyle’s wife was struck down by cancer. It was a slow-moving, lethal disease which kept her in bed long before she breathed her last. After her passing, Carlyle returned to his empty house. Confronted by loss and loneliness; he eventually went to her room and sat down in the chair near her sick bed. Sadly he realized his visits had not been overly frequent and he recalled it had been some time since he had last sat near her.

As the immensity of his loss enveloped him, Carlyle noticed his wife’s diary. Carlyle thumbed through the pages. One entry caught his eye. It read: “Yesterday he spent an hour with me. And it was like being in heaven. I love Thomas so much.” Carlyle turned a few more pages and that day’s diary entry read: “I listened all day to hear his steps in the hallway. And now it’s late. I guess he won’t come to see me.” Carlyle read a few more such entries. Shocked and grieved by the intensity of her words, he left the book on the floor and ran through the rain to the cemetery. He threw himself on her newly-filled grave and repeated, “If only I had known…if only I had known.”

That, my friends, is regret. 40 years experience in the ministry, along with my own finger-pointing conscience, have convinced me that most of you listening to this broadcast are acquainted with regret for something you did wrong or something right left undone. Years ago, on the streets of downtown Chicago, there was a long-haired, roughly-dressed John-the-Baptist sort of fellow doing a strange form of ministry. He would stand in the middle of the block and wait for a person to approach. When the individual got within a few feet, our modern-day-John would raise himself up, fix his gaze on that person, point an unwavering finger at him, and, in a bellowing voice shout one word: “GUILTY!”

More than once a person was overheard to have muttered, “But how does he know?” Now there is no way this nameless street prophet knew the background of the person he was confronting. But that was okay. The prophet worked under the assumption that everyone was guilty of something; that everyone has a great regret concerning something from the past.

Now I tell you that story not just to amuse. It is shared because for a few moments I want you on that Chicago street. Imagine that, without warning, some person has blocked your path, put a finger in your face, and shouted the word, “Guilty.” Now, stop imagining. Let’s get real. Just now, when you heard the word guilty, what action of your past went through your mind? What great regret immediately popped up? No, I don’t want you to say anything out loud. You have worked too hard and too long to keep your regret a secret.

Let us simply say that you have a great regret in your life… maybe you have many regrets. I know I do, I can remember the time when an old high-school classmate unexpectedly came into my office. We reminisced about old times for a while, and then, when we hit a break in the conversation, he lowered his head, and his voice quietly said, “You were cruel to me in high school.” Well, I remembered teasing him a bit, but that was all I recalled. His memory was better. From deep within him he pulled out a laundry list of slights and slurs I had made about him. As he spoke, I was filled with regret for what I had done wrong. Then there was the even greater regret for having not remembered my cruelty and the wounds I had created. Today, after having asked for his forgiveness, we are good friends and my errors and subsequent regrets are forgiven.

Which takes me back to you. Now I don’t want you to send me a list of your many regrets, all I want you to do is admit they are there… weighing you down… burdening your soul… darkening your days. Your regret may be a big thing… it may be a little thing. Years ago I was with a Christian man who was dying. From all that I had known or been told about the man, he was a good fellow… one of the best. But now, as the end to his earthly life was coming, he had to get something off his chest. It wasn’t a confession, but it most certainly was a sharing. He told me how, when he was young, maybe 75 years earlier, he and a friend had switched the arrows at a country crossroads.

Switching arrows at a crossroad was his great regret. He had, for almost three-quarters of a century, regretted what he had done and the unknown results of his action. As he said, “I’ve often wondered, Reverend, how many people went down the wrong road because of me?”

But maybe your regret does not stem from something you have done. Years ago Cornell University researchers did a study on regret. After surveying a cross section of people they found most people’s greatest regrets were the things they hadn’t done. Like Ebenezer Scrooge from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol they looked at their past and found themselves regretful. Like Scrooge many of them spent their days wondering how their present might have been changed for the better if they hadn’t done the wrong thing or left a good deed undone. Tragically, many folks, and you may be one, identified with the ghost of Jacob Marley and felt they were condemned to wander this earth chained to their wrong choices, sad misdeeds, and selfish actions.

Has a relationship with a family member or an old friend ended on a harsh note or nasty disagreement? Have you said and done things which are a sin against God or another person? Have you stolen? Cheated? Regrets are real because they darken our days and rob our nights of rest. Regrets are great weights on our hearts and heavy burdens on our souls. Regrets stayed with us through the old year and give every indication they will be with us in the New Year and all the years which follow.

Pretty depressing, isn’t it? It sure takes the oomph out of “Happy New Year!” Well, if you feel that way, I understand. I know you’ve tried to bury your regrets; you’ve tried hard. But no matter how hard you tried to plant them six-feet under, they still kicked and clawed their way to the surface where they taunted you for even attempting to get rid of them. And now, before this New Year, the regrets remain; which leaves you with two choices. Either you keep your regrets and let them take a little bit of joy out of each day or you let them go. Believe me, just because up till now you haven’t found freedom from the couldas, shouldas, wouldas, and oughtas, that doesn’t mean your sins and the subsequent regrets are indestructible. They aren’t.

How do I know? I know because I have seen it and read about it in the Bible. You know, when most people think of Bible stories, they think of all these heroes who have a super faith which does mighty miracles. The truth is, with an exception or two, I can’t think of many heroes of faith who have lived their lives regret free. Adam and Eve had it made in the shade, and then they broke the one command God had given them. Theirs was the granddaddy of regrets. Cain murdered his brother. He should have regretted that. Noah’s obedience created an ark, but his love of new wine caused some problems. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are patriarchs for God’s people, but they also are liars and thieves. I could go through the whole Bible this way.

Instead, let’s just focus on three individuals. The first, from the Old Testament, is King David. God had picked him when he was young. As a young man, David had done his best to live up to the honor. But when he became king, well, you know what they say about absolute power corrupting absolutely. King David had a wandering eye and ended up with another man’s wife. Fearing he would get caught, David did what any man without a conscience would do: he had the man killed. Eventually the Lord called him to account and David spoke of his regrets in Psalm 130. There he said, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”

Regrets are not the unique property of kings. Fishermen have them too. Look at Jesus’ disciple, Peter. The Savior had picked Peter; had taught him, nurtured him, allowed him to hear of God’s love, and see many miraculous manifestations of that love. Peter professed undying loyalty, but when things got tough, Peter bailed and ran. The night Jesus was betrayed, when Jesus asked Peter to pray for Him, Peter slept. When Jesus was arrested, Peter ran away; when Jesus was on trial, Peter swore he had never met his Master. When Jesus was dying on the cross to take away the sins of the world; Peter was hiding behind a closed and bolted door. Did Peter have regrets? Matthew 26 tells us that after he had denied his relationship with Jesus, Peter cried his eyes out.

Let me share one more man who had his regrets. His name was Saul. A Roman citizen, an educated and learned man, he was dedicated to ensuring his religion and way of life wouldn’t change. This noble cause inspired him to arrest men and women, to take them to trial, and to have them executed. It was a hard life, but a life he felt was noble and God-pleasing. Saul kept at it until the Lord struck him down; blinded him and told him he was wrong. Big time. Was Paul filled with remorse? Looking back on those times, he confessed, (1 Corinthians 15:9) “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

There you have our spiritual rogues’ gallery of regret; an adulterer, a traitor, and two murderers. Honestly, how does your regret stack up to them? In all probability, compared to them you’re an amateur. Well you’ve heard about their sins and their regrets; now let me tell you what the loving Lord did with each of them. God sent a prophet to straighten out David. The King repented and was forgiven. You remember his words, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!” God heard David’s cry, which is why, later on the King could encourage: “O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” David wanted us to know God can erase our sins and our regrets.

As for Peter… after the Savior’s victory over the grave, Jesus forgave a sorrowful apostle and took care of those regrets. On Pentecost, a renewed, restored Peter boldly proclaimed the risen Redeemer and the life-changing faith God’s Holy Spirit wishes to bestow. Years later Peter wrote to Christians in every generation and location. He said, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3a). Did you get that? Those who know Jesus are reborn and part of that rebirth is the forgiveness of sins which has given birth to our regret.

And what about Saul, the ex-murderer? Yes, he called himself the “chief of sinners,” but God changed his name. Saul became Paul. And as Paul, he wrote, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” Paul is saying God picked him so he would be an example of how a great God can forgive great sins.

Now I don’t know your sin or your regret, but I do know that Jesus can erase both. The Savior Who has carried our sins and defeated death offers us a new life… a life free from condemnation and damnation. That means, my friends, you can leave those regretful burdens at the foot of His cross. Drop them off and leave them there… and if Satan comes calling and tells you to pick them up again, don’t you do it. You tell that weasel, “I won’t carry those things because Jesus has already done it for me.” And say it with confidence, because it’s true.

At the end of December, 1772, an Anglican priest in Olney, England was preaching on the forgiven sinner, King David. As the priest worked, he thought of how the Lord had also forgiven him. He remembered how he had been publicly whipped and kicked out of the British Navy; how he had been involved with mutinies and had been captain of a slave ship. Yes, that priest might have written about his many regrets. Instead John Newton wrote a hymn to be sung in his congregation on New Year’s Day, 1773. This is part of what they sang, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, His grace will see me home.”

This New Year you can sing that hymn, “Amazing Grace,” as your own. By God’s amazing grace faith in the risen Redeemer can forgive your sins, erase your regrets, and lead you home. If regret-free seems like the right way to enter the New Year, please, call us at The Lutheran Hour. Amen.

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