My unresolved guilt festered for nearly a decade. When we began attending a church populated by a number of adoptive and foster families, I wondered if God had hit the family reset button for us. The finances required for adoption were daunting, to say the least, but we thought we could try foster parenting and see where it took us. Our kids were excited at the prospect of having a little baby come to live with us for a while. The social worker that evaluated our family and home prior to granting us a foster license told us we were a perfect family for the task.
She knew this was going to be a part of our family’s ministry but had no idea that foster care was both penance and prayer for me. My unvoiced hope was that maybe one of the foster babies would be left with us—things like that happened once in a while, I knew—and it would be a sign that God really had forgiven me and that I was worthy to mother another child in spite of my decision to have a tubal ligation a decade earlier.
My grief in the restaurant the day Rhiannon left us was sadness at letting her go, but also a revelatory moment when I began to come to terms with the fact that I could not go back to fix the past. My regret had long anchored me to that single disobedient moment in time. My response to the remorse I felt was to beat myself up with my failure in my own wrongheaded attempt to somehow make myself right with God. I wanted so much to be able to right my wrong, to turn my “if only” into a do-over.
I felt a new wave of sorrow as I accepted the fact that there were not going to be any do-overs in this area of my life. Jesus had been waiting and working through all of this to free me from my self-punishment habit. That fresh sorrow marked the reality that I’d finally begun to surrender to God by allowing remorse to do its work in me. The Message paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 7:10 ex- plains the work of this kind of godly sorrow: “Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.”
I also began to discover that day how our loving God can redeem our regrets.
The Past on “Repeat”
Regret serves a training purpose in our lives. One of the first things newborns discover is that their cry creates a response from the world: warm milk, comforting arms, a dry diaper. This cause-and-effect interaction with the world teaches babies how the world works.
It doesn’t take long before we graduate to some version of the old “the dog ate my homework” dodge to avoid uncomfortable short-term consequences. As we move toward adulthood, one of our greatest strengths is our idealism. The passion that fuels our idealism also feeds idealism’s trigger-happy pal—impulsiveness. When we’re young, we’re prone to making quick decisions without considering long-term consequences. As a result, we’re also prone to accumulating a nice collection of unprocessed regrets that we may not fully realize until we approach midlife.
I wonder how many times Adam and Eve replayed the moment they bit into the forbidden fruit throughout the rest of their long lives (Gen. 3:1-7) or how many times Esau cursed himself for his impatience at trading his inheritance and his father’s blessing for a bowl of lentils (Gen. 25:24-34). Judas’s regret at betraying his friend Jesus drove him to suicide (Matt. 27:1-5).
In the weeks after my lunchtime meltdown, I took a small first step in facing my regrets by intentionally choosing not to keep hitting the “repeat” button on my decision. I wanted to be intentional about reflecting on the good God had brought into my life despite my bad choices, something I really hadn’t done very often. The exercise offered me a new appreciation for the sovereignty of God. If it is true that God weaves all things together for both our good and his glory (Rom. 8:28), then it follows that he is able to redeem our sinful decisions in order to serve his purposes. I realized that while my life may have been less fruitful as a result of the consequences of my choice, it hadn’t been exactly barren. Mothering three beautiful children, helping my husband as he finished college while working full time, caring for friends, doing the work God had given me, learning, serving in a couple of meaningful ministry roles—each one bore the imprint of eternity. The exercise didn’t instantly erase every regret, but it did serve to interrupt the unhealthy cycle of self-recrimination in which I’d been trapped with some spiritually nourishing, God-glorifying thanksgiving.
Pausing my endless loop of “if only” opened my ears to the lyrics of that tired song to which I’d been dancing and dancing and dancing. It was time to learn some new steps.
1. What are some of your longest-standing regrets?
2. In what ways can you see how your past regrets have affect- ed your present life? How do they shape the way you think about your future?
3. What is one positive thing that has happened in your life as a result of a past regret?
4. If you were going to write a letter to a younger version of you just before you made a decision you now know would lead to regret, what would you say to yourself? What do you think God might say to that younger version of you?
Taken from If Only by Michelle Van Loon, ©2014 by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, MO. Used and reprinted by permission of Publisher. All rights reserved. Visit our website at http://www.beaconhillbooks.com to purchase this title.