40+ And The Church / Regret

40+ And The Church / Regret June 18, 2013

Though the surfacing of regret is certainly not limited to one particular age group, it is a mile marker that often signals that we’ve passed a spiritual halfway point in our life’s one-way journey and, to hijack a familiar metaphor, there really are no U-turns allowed.

Those who follow Christ trust that his life, death and resurrection saves us from our sins—the ultimate U-turn, if you will—but he often uses the consequences of those sins as refining tools in our lives. A life lived under those consequences can rack up some hard miles on our emotional odometers. Many Evangelical churches are good at showcasing the stories of “once was lost, now am found”, which often highlight the effect of the crush of regret as a result of acknowledgement of sin in a person that drives them to Jesus. When we’ve made poor or sinful choices after we’ve come to faith in him, let’s face it – we who are the big “C” Church aren’t always so great at peeling away the shadow of shame and helping one another process our regrets before God and with each other. The more we expect one another to be exemplars of abundant life, the harder it will be to recognize that this life has very little to do with acting in a 24/7 commercial spotlighting the “benefits of Jesus”.

Regret may be the gateway into midlife for some of us. It has to do with consequences of our actions. At midlife, the consequences are more pressing and inescapable. Our souls recognize that there is no do-over when it comes to our life choices, and we must find a way to reconcile with that reality.

Regret and remorse are two different things. Regret is based in the loss we experience in the wake of our poor or painful choice(s) as we realize what has followed in the wake of our decision: “I wish I wouldn’t have eaten that cold pizza out of the office refrigerator for breakfast because I felt like puking for the rest of the day.”

Remorse is regret’s kissin’ cousin, but has to do with sorrow over the choice itself, rather than the consequences: “I shouldn’t have stolen that cold pizza out of the office refrigerator and eaten it for breakfast because it didn’t belong to me.” Remorse and regret often bleed into each other in the same way blue and violet bleed into one another on a rainbow.

If it is God’s purpose to grow us into the image of Christ, it may be that regret can be used by him to move us toward maturity. It readies us for his pruning shears that can rid us of deadwood as he prepares us to live a parable, bearing fruit from places made barren by regret.  

We all need faith communities sensitized to the kinds of struggles and failures that mark our existence. Too many tend to oversell a decision to follow Jesus as a promise where all your problems will be solved, provision miraculously appears, relationships will be restored, and your teeth will become four shades brighter. (Cue angels singing in barbershop quartet-style harmony.) One unintended consequence of this is there tends to be a Before Christ and After Christ two scale system for the way we treat sin. The A.C. curve is much steeper. (In fact, Scripture supports this, as can be witnessed from Paul’s handling of the sins rife in the congregation at Corinth. But remember, Paul wrote and spoke with the goal of fully restoring sinners to fellowship: “Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.”

Paul recognized that the community served an important role in helping this man face his sin, but also helped him process his regret in a redemptive manner. Modern-era churches that include times of corporate confession and assurance in their liturgy at least offer a nod in this direction, and congregations who can point members toward well-trained spiritual directors (many of those who are interested in spiritual direction tend to be second-half-of-life Christ-followers) or counselors are improving the possibilities for helping those blindsided by regret at midlife to flourish in their second adulthood. A trusted small group of listening, praying, discerning friends may work informally in much the same manner.

If you are a midlife (or beyond) adult, how has God used other people to help you face and reconcile with your regrets? Have you found your local church has helped or hindered this process in your life? 

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  • Dan Dahling

    In this regard, private confession/absolution has its place in the life of a congregation and the individual lives who attend the parish.

  • Tim

    I think I’m mid-life, if not beyond, Michelle. You tell me, since we’re the same age!

    As for regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention. Ok, ok, I’m stealing Paul Anka’s lyrics. But truly, I can’t say that I find myself dwelling on regret or remorse much any more. I dwell instead on the joyous fact that Jesus reconciles me to himself.

    Am I living a dream? You bet. And happily it’s not because I did it my way, but because Jesus has had his way with me. It’s the real life dream we have because of all Jesus has done.


    • Michelle Van Loon

      It’s occurred to me on more than one occasion that since my dad died at 64 and my mom at 68, I may be beyond midlife. Of course, genetics and environment only tell part of the story. Our Creator gives us each breath, and knows the span of our lives.

      It is indeed a joy (and wonderful recalibration) to be reconciled to Him. Amen, Tim.

  • This is very interesting, Michelle. As one in the, gulp, second half of life I know some regret. Funny how decisions, or non-decisions, that made sense years ago look a bit different from this vantage point. Honestly, the church has been a non-factor in my recognition and handling of regret. I figured it out myself, with God’s help of course, and have come to terms with my regrets by recognizing that the sum of my life’s decisions have placed me exactly where I am today and that God has a good use for it all. Without confidence in God’s sovereignty and goodness, regrets would be far more difficult to face. I take courage in Paul’s exhortation to forget what is behind and press on toward what is ahead.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Good ol’ Romans 8:28 is not the stuff of coffee mugs and cliches, is it? 🙂 It is the Gospel at work in our individual lives, bringing the kind of redemption that is the oxygen of kingdom. (Sometimes, we need some CPR to be able to inhale it, don’t we?)

      I love your words “…confidence in God’s sovereignty and goodness”. Oh, how we need to keep pointing one another and ourselves toward those realities!

  • Boyd

    Many Evangelical churches are good at showcasing the stories
    of “once was lost, now am found”

    I’ve been around the block enough times to know that churches like to trot out the “Jesus forgives you of your sin” sermons, but those sermons conveniently forget to say that Jesus doesn’t wave a magic wand and instantly remove the consequences of that sin. Week after week people often only hear the happy, fluffy, bunny side of God’s forgiveness. Frankly, this one-sided approach does little to prepare people for regret.

    Genesis sermons that talk about God’s merciful provision after the Fall always fail to highlight that part of the immediate consequences of choosing sin that were left in place by that same God. Parents experienced family relationships murderously ripped apart, but that pastors don’t mention that those relationships aren’t ever said to be mended. King David is this wonderful giant slayer and good-looking king, and the sermons about his youthful advance of the kingdom are
    glowing. But once Bathsheba is dealt
    with and David asks for and is given forgiveness, pastors seem to spend considerably
    less time connecting the dots between sin and consequence. When the Bible starts to focus on how the later part of David’s life is spent dealing with all sorts of consequences set in motion by his earlier sins, sermons either disappear or get very thin with respect to an absence of a “do-over when it comes to our life choices, and we must find a way to reconcile with that reality.” The New Testament is treated no differently. Sermons about the woman caught in adultery speak of Jesus’ lack of condemnation of her sin, but I’ve yet to hear one that includes the fact that the woman then had to live in a community that knew all about her sin.

    I wonder what those first parents told others about the ramifications of choosing sin— every time someone went hungry, every time someone maliciously hurt someone, every time someone died or was killed, did they look at each other and say, “We set this into motion” and have long, regretful talks about the not so happy, fluffy bunny side of things? Did at least some people learn to consider
    the consequences of sin simply because those consequences weren’t brushed aside in a “once lost, now found” talk about how wonderful things were since they
    were forgiven?

    David’s consequences weren’t magically wiped away and left out of the chronicles of his reign–someone wrote them down … in detail. His family repeats the earlier pattern and ends up being murderously ripped apart when a brother rapes a sister and then a brother kills another brother. Throw in that the Bible is clear that David’s relationship with the surviving son does not miraculously end up with a fairy tale rainbow and unicorn type ending, yet sermons gloss over this point because it would take away the fantasy that Christianity equals a happily ever after golden ticket for this life.

    The adulterous woman is brought into the Temple Courts for all to see, and while she walked away without a stone being thrown, it’s not as if she left the Temple with no one ever mentioning the incident afterwards. Who knows if she ever
    married because of her actions, which for a 1st Century Jewish woman
    would not have been an insignificant consequence? Did the man she was caught with abandon her to distance himself from the scandal, or if he did stay with her, did he treat her differently afterwards? Did other women no longer trust her or want to associate with her? Becoming a Christian didn’t mean instant holiness, so the idea that whatever group she found herself with instantly surrounded her with warm embraces seems unlikely. The possible consequences, however, never get mentioned during sermons since those things would distract from the “once lost, now found” aren’t-we-wonderfully-happy-now message, but surely that woman would have had a whole lot to tell others who might be
    considering doing what she did. I’m sure that the eventual fellowship she
    shared with other Jewish Christians was not limited to happy, fluffy bunny
    aspects of life since her warnings to people would include the fact that while she
    had been forgiven and her life spared, and that she owed God all of her life
    because He had given it back to her, her testimony also included the truth that
    a short handful of moments of sinful bliss came with a hefty price.

    We do no service to people if we don’t let consequences
    speak, if we try to create an environment where no one counts the cost out
    loud, if we focus solely on the bliss of forgiveness. There will be no “peeling away the shadow of shame and helping one another process our regrets before God and with each other” if the Church tries to remove the messy facts of life and present an illusion of life as easy and pleasant and fully of snuggly puppy moments.
    And it can’t just be everyone singing the “I’m broken” song with other people in church providing back-up vocals. The purpose of discussing our brokenness isn’t to wallow in our brokenness, which is something that is often left out of the discussion, too. If all we do is sit around and share our brokenness with nothing in mind except the idea that we are somehow growing to maturity by “sharing our broken lives with each other,” we’ll just wallow in the muck of brokenness and never be transformed. The sharing has to serve a higher purpose than just sharing for the sake of sharing.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Boyd – Such great observations about consequences. THANK YOU. We call parents who try to make everything cushy, sweet and fair “helicopter parents”. Your words made me think that there are some churches who bring this same dynamic to their messaging. Good parents allow consequences to do their teaching, character-shaping work without shaming their kids.

      And you’re right, too, that wallowing in brokenness is not an alternative. There is no flourishing life going on when a person is stuck in his or her mess, surrounded by Job’s comforters.

      We need people to proclaim God’s forgiveness to us when we’re in that place, and help us to see God’s redemption working for our good.

      • Boyd

        My friends throughout academia tell me that more and more
        young people not only lack specific scholastic skills to be successful in school; they desperately lack the maturity necessary to persevere, which does not bode well for their future. Paul’s comments in Romans about God’s plans for the Christian life include suffering: “…but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” And the attempts to remove suffering from a generation’s childhood will have long-term consequences, not only for the educational system and the country, but for the church as well.

        Adults seem to have somehow bought into a kind of myth that in
        a highly competitive world a “good parent” has the job of creating a perfect childhood free from mental and emotional pain, and the promise held out by the myth is that creating such an environment ensures an iron-clad guarantee of a happy and successful adulthood for the offspring. Happiness is the highest goal.

        People who believe this myth consciously or unconsciously make
        the decision to actively try to remove suffering from the equation since suffering is viewed not as a foundational element to build perseverance and character and hope. Suffering is the enemy
        to happiness, and happiness is the ultimate goal; so in terms of dealing with their children’s day-to-day lives, they become “helicopter parents” who habitually intervene in all sorts of ways to remove the bumps and bruises and emotional pains of life. As a result, these young “adults” do not plan ahead nor think things through—their parents do that for them—so these new “adults” never learned the lesson themselves. The result is that quite a significant number of young people have an outlook on life where everything is about “now” with no thought to the implications of their actions.

        They are also quite accustomed to someone always stepping in to do all the less-than-pleasant work for them so that they can continue to “play” and enjoy themselves rather than learning to accept that they have to submit to the discomfort and pain of suffering through working out their lives. And because they were denied practice in learning to think about the ramifications of
        choosing or not choosing various options in the name of “good parenting,” their emotions and feelings dominate their decision-making process.

        Such people are ill-prepared to deal with adulthood. They have blown out increasing numbers of candles on a cake, but have not come to maturity while doing so. The growth pattern which Paul describes in Romans was never part of their childhood, so their foundational outlook on life is unstable and their decision-making process is fickle. As these ill-prepared “adults” interact with the
        church, there will be ramifications. And my guess is that these ramifications will arrive sooner rather than later.

        Some of these “adults” are already part of the church since they
        “grew up” attending, but even their childhood experiences with church were governed by the “helicopter parent” mindset that often made happiness the goal. Any “bad decisions” were whisked away so that suffering was avoided or at least minimized. Or they were hidden in a dark closet so as not to shatter the “perfect parent” myth. In addition, happiness and enjoyment (not the same as joy, btw) were the hallmarks of their growth within the church.
        Raising such a generation WITHIN the church will not be without implications. Others who have been raised in the helicopter
        environment will become the “target market” of evangelistic efforts to reach the unchurched. Regret only happens if one looks backwards, and since this generation has been conditioned to live only in the “now” of life, regret is an unlikely element to develop in churches that market to this group. So after decades of traveling down the “how can we make church appealing to this group?” road of increasing attendance, things will likely have to shift to entreat this fickle bunch to “seek” God. There will be consequences of those shifts, just as there were consequences for previous shifts.

  • Don

    Regret has no place in the theology of “Victorious Christian Living” … somewhere along the way I had embraced this idea that every story has a happy ending and that deliverance from suffering is the ultimate outcome of being a faithful Christian. That is obviously fiction, belonging somewhere between the “This Present Darkness” and “Your Best Life Now” … I now believe regret can be a healthy realization of my inherent brokeness … but still I find myself needing to push through it to see Jesus ultimate suffering to avoid self-pity and the fear of taking new risks. Regular confession is a key to allowing regret to work for me in the never ending goal of being made holy … and not letting regret bury me in guilt and shame for what I wish I could have done better. Confession is something every Christian needs, but is a tricky thing if you don’t have certain confidentiality.