I’ve known a small handful of people who’ve had lives remarkably free from trial, reversal or loss. One woman I used to know had her entire life mapped out using the blueprint of the American Dream, Conservative Christian Version, from a very young age. Her life has gone pretty much the way she’d planned it: marriage, two kids, a dog, lovely suburban home, stable career, a bit of travel, a cozy group of friends. It was pretty amazing to witness over the years. If your life unfolds precisely as you’ve determined it would, there are two ways to respond. You either believe that you deserve the life you’re enjoying, or you can be humbled by it.
I haven’t known many who’ve walked through decades of life without picking up a few war wounds, but the ones I have known who have lived inside a blissed, blessed bubble usually carry a sense of entitlement about them by the time they hit midlife. In the case of the woman with the bulletproof plan, as the years went by she grew less and less compassionate toward the struggles of others. Though she said the right things, she’d also mix in enough sugar-covered snark to show her true feelings: If only the poor schmo had followed the proper formula, he or she wouldn’t be suffering now. When the apostle Paul urges his friends in Rome to weep with those who weep, he wasn’t advocating crocodile tears.
We see this sort of follow-the-formula-and-you-will-succeed thinking at work in the church, most obviously in the Word of Faith movement. But it is not limited to the name-it, claim-it crowd. When we sit through a well-intended, practical sermon series or two that preaches principles instead of Jesus, we’re likely to walk out of a church service with a to-do list: If you could just fix _____(fill in the blank with the name of the issue you need to remediate using the principles drawn from Scripture), you’d be on the road to happily ever after, too. Implied in this messaging is the idea that even if Jesus himself tells us “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45), really, it’s the deserving who’ve earned those gifts of common grace and the blessing of the bubble.
Principles aren’t bad, of course. They’re true in the same way the book of Proverbs is true, serving to train hearers in wise living by using observations about how the world works combined with illustrations that reminds us that God’s ways are not like man’s ways. Wise principles provide a healthy foundation and boundaries in our lives. They can keep us from folly and guide us away from poor decisions.
But they aren’t a bulletproof shield, protecting us from accumulating regret in our lives. When I look at the actions of those closest to Jesus during his earthly ministry, I see people who had more than a passing acquaintance both the principles of a Torah-observant life and the opportunity to know the One who fulfilled those principles. And yet, the lot of them bolluxed things up again and again. Read the Gospels and watch how the very human struggles of the disciples to believe and to act are highlighted. His blessing never, ever looked like a bubble. It looked like exposure of their brokenness, their egos, their struggles – all while being restored to shalom with the Father through his love and forgiveness.
As I’ve researched and written about regret during the last year, I’ve heard again and again how meaningful spiritual and emotional growth is a particular challenge when you live your life inside that privileged bubble of blessing. Our faith communities need to remember that we’ll always have a few high performing “A+ student girls and boys” who color in the lines of the bubble. In God’s sovereignty, perhaps some are spared big trials during those years. But surprise! The bubble is not a reward, though it can be a particular temptation to add together a good grade in coloring within those lines with the sovereignty of God and end up with a sense of entitlement.
At midlife, our regrets may be the key to reconnecting us with our need for a Savior. Not in the same way we might have in our youth, with our lives stretching before us filled with possibility, but as we come to the end of our plans, ambitions – ourselves.
This week, a friend sent me a link to this story entitled, “Five Things Older Prisoners Want You To Know”. Maine-based photographer Trent Bell began the project after a friend of his was incarcerated. Bell asked second-half-of-life prisoners to reflect on what they’d learned through their failures and regrets, write about those lessons on a blackboard, then he created portraits of them with the lessons they wanted to pass on to others.
“Our bad choices can contain untold loss, remorse, and regret,” says Bell in a statement about the series, “but the positive value of these bad choices might be immeasurable if we can face them, admit to them, learn from them and find the strength to share.”
Donna Sapolin, who wrote the piece about the photo project linked above, noted, “Even people who are not behind bars can be in a prison of their own making — but this kind of incarceration is reversible.” She’s right. Though regret can be a prison, I contend that a blessing bubble may be a far more difficult prison to escape, precisely because it masquerades so effectively as a reward.
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If you or someone you know is in search of a conversation that highlights how God redeems our regrets, please check out my book, If Only: Letting Go Of Regret. (And if you’ve read it, I’d love a quick review on Amazon or Goodreads.)