As we were talking, I noticed that he grimaced.
“Are you okay?”
“Because you just looked like you were in pain.”
He wasn’t aware he did it. He wasn’t aware because it happens all the time, dozens of times an hour. He thinks about past regrets—and he winces.
And if this is what he thinks about his past, imagine what he thinks about his future, that is, his thoughts about death. He must be undone by the thought of seeing Jesus face-to-face. If my friend winces at all his past regrets, he certainly believes that the Holy One does too.
My friend embodies what so many of us are feeling. There is a lot of subliminal wincing going on.
Here are a few ground rules that might help.
- Regrets should never be left unattended. On their own, they multiply and lead us to believe that the Spirit will never let us be fruitful.
- Regrets should never have the last word. The last word for those who trust in Jesus is good news.
- Regrets do not exist in heaven, so we should be working toward their eradication on earth.
Each regret has its own reasons for being so intransigent. My friend’s regrets are connected to his sense of being a failure. In his mind, he had been a poor parent, a feckless husband, a bad Christian, and a failure as a provider. That covers a lot of territory, essentially his entire life.
Having words that identify his failures is a necessary place to start, but that’s easy for me to say. I brought these matters to his attention as a first and, I thought, very hopeful step. Yet he left my office feeling more hopeless than before. Those regrets, which had been in the background causing only subliminal wincing, were now unavoidable, loud, and debilitating.
So the next time we meet, we follow the ground rules: the last word must be good.
“We are not leaving until you have hope.”
And we sit in silence because hope seems distant. He feels unworthy of hope.
Now I feel like a failure!
If you were sitting with him, there might be one of two things going through your mind. One possibility? Nothing. You don’t know how to give him hope. If you fall into this camp, don’t worry. You have the map in front of you—you are pointing the way to hope and you know that it has something to do with the cross. If you don’t know the exact way, you at least know that hope is there. You are certain of it. So you know how to pray for him, and you are committed to discovering a way of hope together. The two of you leave committed to keeping your eyes open for it.
A second possibility is that your mind is reeling with lots of ideas about how to give him hope. That is more comfortable than being clueless, but it is not necessarily better. You might overwhelm him with possibilities, which means that he will hear nothing. Or you might identify a truth that is hopeful to you but meaningless to him.
I was in the mind-reeling camp for once, and I floated in a direction that I thought might be hopeful.
“Do you love Jesus?”
There are three options on this: yes, no, and sort of. I knew him well enough to know that he would say yes.
“Then feed his sheep.”
I am invoking John 21. In this passage, Peter’s regrets left him merely fishing rather than fishing for men. He was unworthy to represent Jesus, so he defaulted to his old occupation. When Jesus said this to Peter, it was infused with forgiveness and belonging. It was as if Jesus was saying, “What past? What denials?” His words gave Peter the privilege of looking outside himself rather than being submerged in his own regrets. I wondered if my friend would be able to hear those words as his own.
He did hear them.
We both knew there would be other words. We knew there had to be other words. But he had a spark of hope, so I released him from his counseling purgatory for a day of fishing.
Is there still wincing? I would like to say that wincing is now illegal and banished. But we will settle for one wince an hour, for now.