Some Christians talk a lot about the forgiveness of sin, but I don’t know many people who actually worry about that very much. I do know quite a few who can’t imagine overcoming their regret.
The difference between sin and regret appears quite readily in those moments (surely we all have them) when we’re plagued by the “might have been, but wasn’t” or the “could have happened, but didn’t.”
To be sure, sin and regret are deeply intertwined, but I still think there’s a distinction worth making between them, not only for our personal spiritual lives but also for the planetary quandaries and crises we face today.
Consider the Easter lectionary for this coming Sunday, which gives us a regretful Jesus. The scene comes from the “Farewell Discourse” in John’s Gospel (chapters 14-17), right before the crucifixion, when Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends and giving them some parting thoughts.
In Schindler’s List, Stephen Spielberg’s film portrayal of Oskar Schindler’s life, the final scene depicts Schindler surrounded by hundreds of Jews, the ones he’s helped to escape from Nazi Germany. One of those gathered there thanks Schindler for what he’s done. Schindler realizes, however, that he could have done more – “I didn’t do enough,” he says. He begins to weep, realizing how many more he could have saved.
I do think John’s Jesus was feeling much the same thing as Schindler; it’s a moment of poignant regret. I can certainly sympathize.
As I write this blog right now I realize that I might have arranged my day differently and accomplished more. I could have taken less time for that so I could do this better (just fill in the blanks for “that” and “this” any way you choose). All those “might have” and “could have” phrases can terrorize us, especially at 3:00 in the morning.
John’s Jesus can help because he’s not just poignantly regretful but also, queerly enough, buoyantly hopeful. In what many of us will hear on Sunday, just one week from Pentecost, Jesus promises that all his friends will be one, united with him and God (14:20) and that all of them – and us – will receive the Spirit of truth (14:16-17).
I take those convoluted verses in John’s gospel to mean at least two key things. First, none of us can bear regret alone, and shouldn’t, because none of us can do everything. In fact, the only way the really important stuff ever gets done is if we do it together – united to Christ and one another in the power of that Spirit.
Second, each of us will always need to pass the torch on to others even though all of us play indispensable roles in God’s wild, crazy, loving, and gracious plan for the world. No matter how big or how small you think your role is, it’s absolutely necessary.
So what does any of this queerly Christian stuff have to do with the global conundrums we all presently face? Quite a lot, actually.
Regret often surfaces in the wake of risk avoidance. If you’re plagued with regret (like I am), you know exactly what I mean. The “might have been” moment usually occurs because we gave in to one of three fears: 1) the fear of losing something; or 2) the fear of looking foolish; or 3) the fear of making a mistake. Or perhaps all three at the same time.
If the queerly regretful Jesus teaches us nothing else about God and faith, surely it’s this: none of it comes with guarantees. We simply have to plunge in and forge ahead with the vulnerability of trust and take risks. Or as Martin Luther once reportedly said, “Sin boldly – and throw yourself on the mercy of God!” Constantly worrying about the possibility of failure, in other words, will usually prevent us from doing anything at all. (I like to think that the tagline for Pacific School of Religion, where I work – “A Tradition of Boldness” – reflects Luther’s insight.)
Our politicians, elected leaders, legislative bodies, international consultations – everyone, really – needs to start sinning boldly. Holding back, avoiding risk, not taking chances, worrying about what people will think – we don’t have time for that anymore. The planet itself is begging us to be bold. If we don’t do that, the regret really will be unbearable.
Sure, mistakes will happen and everyone will fail now and then. But we don’t have to worry about that. God is always more ready to forgive than we are to take risks. And the confidence Jesus offers about forgiveness also just happens to be the way to fend off regret for good.