Making regret work for you

As a younger minister, I used to love reading “If I were starting out again” type articles. They always held out the promise of secrets, learned of course by hard experience, of how to live and lead successfully. I still like to read articles like that. It also has to be said that my age would qualify me to write an article like that!

The trouble is, however, we don’t get the chance to start again. Life might be like a board game in some respects, but when you’re playing a board game you can decide to start a new one without any consequences or implications from the previous game. New starts in life don’t happen like that; the history is permanent.

Of course this brings us to the whole issue of what might have been or what might not have been and the unwelcome spectre of regret.

Regret is a very powerful emotion. According to Hebrews 12, Esau spent a life locked in a kind of tearful regret:

You well know how Esau later regretted that impulsive act and wanted God’s blessing—but by then it was too late, tears or no tears. (Hebrews 12.17).

Regret drove Judas Iscariot to suicide.

How do we deal with regret?

Firstly, recognise regret for what it is.

Regret is, like unforgiveness, in that it is something that causes us to live in the hope of a better past. The foolishness of hoping for a better past highlights the pointlessness of regret. It has no power to change the past, but it has the power to keep us chained to the past.

Living in regret is like keeping driving around a roundabout and never taking an exit – you might be moving but you are going nowhere.

However, we can also redeem regret.

How can we do that? We can learn from our experience. It is one thing to make a mistake and learn from it, another to go on making the same mistake over and over again. If we have the courage to dissect our regret and the events which sparked it we might discover ways to avoid setting ourselves up for future disappointment.:

Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. (Proverbs 4.26)

We can also use our regrets to help others. If we have a strong enough connection with others and the courage to reveal our regrets, we might help them to avoid the mistakes we have made.

The reverse is true as well. We can learn from the regrets of others. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul said that reflecting on the history of Israel could be used as a learning exercise.

And it is possible to be released from regret.

Paul decided to forget his past:

But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3.13-14)

The context makes it clear that Paul hadn’t forgotten the events of the past. What he had done was to change his focus towards a future spent serving Christ. Past performance would no longer shape his future expectation. He was not what he had done.

Our prayer might be “Lord give us the grace to forget.” And He will.

Stretch

Here is a trustworthy saying: whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. 1 Timothy 3.1

Most of us at sometime or other in our lives have found ourselves taking on new responsibilities or had them thrust upon us. It might be a new job. Marriage. Children. Church. Or we find ourselves picking up the pieces for someone else’s mistakes. In any of these contexts we can feel the pressure of entering territory we haven’t been in before. It stretches us. And because we feel the inevitable tension that comes with stretching, we can wonder where on earth God’s grace is!

But the tension isn’t unusual. And the stretching isn’t ungodly.

Speaking in the context of church leadership, Paul says that whoever desires to be an overseer (leadership role) desires a noble task. The word translated aspires literally means to stretch oneself out to touch something. We could very loosely paraphrase what Paul said in the words “whoever is prepared to strech himself out to be an overseer…”.

People who aspire to any kind of role of responsibility have to be prepared to stretch themselves.

How?

Let me give you three ways in which we will be stretched if we want to take on more responsibility, especially spiritual responsibility:

Firstly, there is the stretch of self-discipline.

One of the pictures Paul uses of the Christian life, on more than one occasion, is that of the athlete: run in such a way as to win the prize (1 Corinthians 9.24)

No athletic success is gained without self-discipline. The body and its desires have to be mastered and trained. Effective Christian living requires that we train [ourselves] to be godly (1 Timothy 4.7).

Secondly, there is the stretch of the Spirit.

The Spirit sometimes takes us places we wouldn’t normally choose to go. The Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan (Luke 4). The Spirit led Philip out of a revival to talk to one man making a journey to Africa (Acts 8). The Spirit challenges our thinking. He stretches us as He takes us into new locations and new experiences.

Finally, there is the stretch of circumstances.

Incredible apostle as Paul was, his whole apostolic career propelled him into circumstances that sometimes stretched him to breaking point. 2 Corinthians 1 records that when he was in Asia, he despaired of his life:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1.8-9)

There he was in the centre of God’s will – at breaking point!

You might wonder what the upside is in all of this. Simply this: stretching releases God’s grace into our lives. We train ourselves to be godly – and we experience the grace of God. We open our lives up to the Spirit – and we find we are flowing in the grace of God. And even in difficult circumstances we find that His grace enables us to build faith.

Go on – stretch. It will make a bit more space for the grace of God in your life.

One day the world will know

Just recently Melvyn Bragg narrated a documentary about the English reformer William Tyndale.

Tyndale entered the priesthood in the early sixteenth century at a time when people were rediscovering the Bible across Europe. He set out to translate the Bible into everyday English so that in his own words even a plowboy could understand. Noble as his purpose might seem now, in his day, Tyndale’s ideas were revolutionary and not only a perceived threat to the political and religious establishment, but a real threat.

He was forced to flee to mainland Europe, settling in Belgium, where eventually the authorities caught up with him and had him burnt as a heretic.

Some years later when Henry VIII decided to change his faith for marital reasons, he finally agreed to the production of an English translation of the Bible.

Myles Coverdale was given the task and the plaudits when the new translation was produced, despite the fact that he had drawn heavily on Tyndale. Tyndale’s name never was mentioned. When the Authorised Version of 1611 was produced in the next century, Tyndale’s contribution was again ignored, despite the fact that, according to the latest scholarship, about seventy-five per cent of the translation came from Tyndale’s earlier work.

Melvyn Bragg maintains that William Tyndale stands alongside Shakespeare as the person who most influenced the development of the English language. For all sorts of political and religious reasons, however, he has been almost air brushed out of history.

Some people never get the recognition they deserve. These people are found in families, workplaces, churches. They work hard without thanks, serve in secret, sacrifice without acknowledgement. Like Tyndale, they have a good cause. They have a noble purpose. However, the worth of what they are doing is seldom recognised, for whatever reason.

The pastor in me is at this point screaming “Find these people and thank them! Encourage them! Tell them that they are doing a wonderful job! Tell them to keep doing it!” And so we should. We should encourage one another. You don’t really need me to quote Hebrews to prove that we should do that.

However, now that I have got my inner pastor under control, my inner prophet has an entirely different take on this. He says something like this: “There are some things worth doing because they are worth doing, whether anyone at anytime recognises what you are doing or affirms what you are doing. You need to discover a level of dedication that exceeds the need for gratitude or encouragement.”

When we can say about our service or ministry or work, “This is worth doing – whatever”, we have touched something very powerful and very strong.

And even though we might never be recognised in this life, we will certainly be rewarded in the life to come. Tyndale was never recognised or remembered in a way that was his due, but you can rest assured, his reward is great.

Jesus said as much in Matthew 6:

 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly (Matthew 6.3-4 NKJV).

Your good work might go unnoticed now, but one day the world will know.

“We believe in God the dysfunctional Father”

I was driving home late in the evening after a meeting. As usual, I switched on the radio and tuned into 5 Live, probably in the hope of catching some sports’ headlines.

Instead, I found myself listening to a debate on pornography. Initially it was quite encouraging listening to people make powerful arguments against pornography, people who were neither openly Christian nor religious. Then a man phoned in and what he said shook up the comfortable consensus of condemnation. He explained that he did not think pornography was in any way harmful. After all, he argued, it is perfectly normal for most blokes at some time in their lives to view porn.

It wasn’t that argument, however, that caused the shock. He went on to reveal that he had introduced his teenage son to pornography and viewed it with him.

You can imagine the reaction. No-one came to his defence. Everyone was quick to question the responsibility – or lack of – of his actions. Exposing his son to pornography, in the minds of those taking part in the discussion and in my mind as well, was an irresponsible and reckless thing to do as a father.

No-one would ever say that God is an irresponsible Father. In fact some might not even have read this far because of the title of this post. Let me say clearly that I do not believe God’s fatherhood is dysfunctional or his fathering irresponsible, but the way we think about God and the way we think about how he relates to us can make Him look like an irresponsible or dysfunctional father.

How we believe God feels about and reacts to our behaviour reveals how we really see God’s fatherhood.

In our reaction to an overemphasis in the past on God’s role as judge and as a result of our rediscovery of the intimate love of Abba Father, we seem to find it hard to say that though God is pleased with us as we are, he is not always pleased with what we do. For some, the last clause of the previous sentence spells a return to cold religion or harsh legalism. I want to suggest, however, that it marks progress further into the deep and true love of God.

I think we can get ourselves into a bit of a spiritual fix because we interpret God’s love as simply affection. God’s love is more than that. God’s love is affection plus direction.

We know that God has lavished His love on us. However, if we see that as simply a matter of affection it potentially alters our image of Father God:

God becomes an incompetent Father. If God just allows us to carry on in sin without making any attempt to direct us otherwise, it might suggest that He doesn’t have the parenting skills needed to help us mature into productive, faithful disciples.

Or it turns God into an uncaring Father. What earthly father, would turn a blind eye if his child was behaving in a self destructive manner? Even the dad who encouraged his teenage son to view porn did so because he had been deceived into believing it wasn’t harmful. God doesn’t turn a blind eye to our self destructive behaviour. He gives us direction, through His Word and His Spirit, both often mediated through his people.

Perhaps even more seriously, it might make God out to be a co-dependent heavenly Father. One aspect of co-dependency is that we become so preoccupied with the needs of others that we neglect our own needs. God doesn’t have needs in the way that we do. However, if we don’t add direction to affection in the divine love equation, it can look like God is so desperate to retain our affection that he overlooks his own glory.

God provides direction as well as affection. He isn’t an incompetent Father. He knows what He is doing:

Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phillippians 1.6).

He’s not uncaring. He really does care, in fact He cares enough to upset us and cause us temporary grief in order to direct us into patterns of life that are productive rather than destructive:

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death (2 Corinthians 7.10)

And He’s certainly not co-dependent!

God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12.10-11)

Let’s never forget that God’s eternal love for us is made up of affection and direction.

“We believe in God the Father…”