Regret is inevitable in dealing with the death of a loved one. Among all the memories that surface while planning the service, or just passing the day in the places once shared with the one who has died, will be ones in which we failed to love the way we ought. It is always painful to contemplate such things, but it is especially so in this situation, because it is no longer possible to apologize, to make amends, to talk it out and reaffirm your love for the one you have wronged, to “make it right.” It is done, and they are gone.
Regret is something I am struggling with right now. The day before my mom died, I was putting up shelves in her closet. After she asked me for the fifth time in a half-hour whether I was wearing my safety glasses, I irritatedly snapped at her, “Yes, yes, yes! I haven’t taken them off since the last time you asked me, five minutes ago. Would you please quit bugging me!” She got really quiet. The next morning I left my parents’ house on the San Francisco peninsula to drive home to Eugene. When I arrived, my housemate took my hands and looked into my face with great pain. My dad had just called, she said, to say that my mom had died.
From the perspective I have now, knowing that in twenty-four hours she would be dead, thinking about how I treated her makes me feel like a knife is twisting in my heart. I have shared this with several friends who tried to comfort me, saying things like, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You were tired and rushed. You’re only human, after all.” I know they mean well. I appreciate their concern for me and their desire to ease the burden in my heart, but I want to say to them, “So, are you saying that it’s all right to abuse irritating people? That we don’t have to love people when they aren’t pleasing to us? That what I did was OK?” Of course they aren’t; they couldn’t be. But that’s the problem: what I did was not OK, and that’s what hurts.
To their saying, “You’re only human,” I want to reply, “But Jesus is human, and he wouldn’t have done what I did. He would have responded with patience and compassion.” “Jesus is also God,” they would remind me, to which I would reply, “But His divinity has nothing to do with it. Jesus would have responded differently, not because He is God, but because He is good.” The fact of the matter is, I am not good. And nothing anyone can say will change that.
Given such a situation, is there no way to avoid being consumed by regret? I think so, but it’s not by minimizing reality. Rather, it’s by looking at the bigger picture, a picture that includes not only my evil, but other important facts as well. The friends who succeeded in comforting me were the ones who reminded me of those facts: God is in control, ordaining everything that happens for His own good purposes, and someday He will make me into the good person that I want to be.
God is in control
If God is in control, as the Bible teaches, we have the comfort of knowing that whatever happens, including any action on my part, someone utterly good, wise, and powerful has ordained it. Therefore it must be both purposeful, achieving something important and good, and necessary, achieving it in the best way possible. As a consequence, nothing I can do can hinder God as He moves the universe toward perfection; in fact, nothing I can do can fail to help Him in that endeavor.
But if God is in control, doesn’t that imply that man is not? If so, that’s a problem, because the Bible also teaches that God holds man accountable for his actions. If man is not in control of his actions, then he is not responsible for them. How then is it appropriate to hold him accountable?
The dilemma is especially clear in the Bible’s account of God’s bringing His people out of Egypt. God says, “Thus I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after them; and I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord” [Exodus 14:4, NASB]. Pharaoh’s choice to go after the Israelites was ordained by God for God’s own purposes, yet He punished Pharaoh for that choice when the Red Sea closed over his army. Unlike us, the Bible sees no inherent incompatibility between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. How can we reconcile these two apparently contradictory ideas? [Hordes of brilliant minds have produced libraries of books during millennia of debate over this issue. Only a fool would attempt to deal with it in 2500 words or less. Here I go.]
Let’s start with the idea of responsibility. When ought someone be held responsible for his actions? Common sense tells us: when he has made a free choice, that is, when what he has done is what he wanted to do. If a choice is coerced, it is not free, because it does not really reflect what the chooser values, that is, who he is. For example, if Sam forces Frank’s finger to pull the trigger of a gun, killing Ted, we don’t call Frank a murderer. He did not want to shoot Ted, but he had no choice.
Sometimes we justify ourselves, saying, “I had no choice” when we mean our options were limited. We see ourselves as being coerced by circumstances, if not by other people. If our options were limited to the unspeakable, like Sophie’s in the movie “Sophie’s Choice,” that might be appropriate, but having limited options does not in itself let us off the hook. I may not have the choice I want, but that does not mean I don’t have a choice. Say, for instance, that after being caught shoplifting I plead “not guilty” saying, “I didn’t really want to steal, but I had no choice because I was broke.” The jury would be right to convict me, because, although I did not have the choice I wanted (to buy instead of steal), I did have a choice (to go without instead of steal), and I freely chose the wrong thing, revealing myself to be a person who would rather have material possessions than integrity.
So, people are responsible for choices they’ve freely made, and a free choice is one that was not coerced. However, we have come to think that to be free, a choice must also not be controlled by anyone else but the chooser. This is because when we think of control, we automatically think of coercion, since it is the only way human beings have of controlling one another. While we may influence each other with persuasion, to control each other we must coerce. Consequently we think a controlled choice cannot be a free choice because, to us, control implies coercion.
The assumption that God’s control works the same as human control is at the heart of our mistaken intuition about the incompatibility of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. If God’s control required Him to coerce, His determining our choices would indeed relieve us of any responsibility for them. But God uses creation, not coercion. He causes our choices by creating us to be the kind of people who make the choices we do, and the resulting choices are free because they flow directly out of who we are. With coercion, I act against my will, but with creation, I act in accordance with my will, a will that, like everything else about me, was created by God from nothing. Put simply: I make choices; God makes me.
God is indeed in control of my actions, and I can take comfort in that. If He arranged for my rebellion to work its way out in hatefulness, it can only be that such a thing needed to happen. As the object of such hatefulness, my mom was doing a job for God, not a fun job to be sure, but one necessary nonetheless for the perfect universe He is still in the process of creating. Consequently, if I cannot “make it right” with my mom because she is unavailable to me, it doesn’t ultimately matter, because God has taken care of it.
This could seem a very convenient conclusion for a victimizer to reach; might not the victim feel quite differently? Perhaps, but not if the victim had God’s perspective, as did Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. By the providence of God he rose to a position of influence in which he was able to prepare Egypt for a famine. When his brothers came to buy food and found themselves in the power of the brother they’d wronged, they were understandably terrified. But Joseph comforted them, saying, “Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here…. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God…. Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” [Genesis 45:5-8; 50:19-20; NASB].
Instead of being angry with his brothers, Joseph is concerned that they not grieve on his account. He does not say that what they did was right—for them to have “meant evil” was evil—but he does not see himself as their victim. Rather, he was just being the servant of God, doing the work God gave him to do “for good.” Revenge would be utterly inappropriate since he wasn’t “in God’s place.” Implied is that his brothers still have to deal with God, the real “victim” of their malice, but Joseph is adamant that they have no unfinished business with him. So would I expect anyone with a heavenly viewpoint to feel about those who’d wronged him. Or her.
Does this sound too easy? An instant, all-purpose, giant economy-sized balm to soothe an irritated conscience that is all too ready to be soothed? It could be. There is no truth that cannot be perverted to serve the purposes of depravity. Later we will see Paul dealing with people who were doing exactly that with the idea of God’s sovereignty. And probably all of us have run into people, ostensibly Christians, who blithely respond to confrontation with bumper stickers: “I’m not perfect, just forgiven!” Clearly, the thing about Christianity that most appeals to them is not having to pay the price for their evil. But that is not all there is to the Gospel. The good news is not that “now we can get away with it,” but that someday there will be no “it” to get away with. In other words, someday I will be good. Anyone whose primary hope is anything different is fooling himself about being a Christian.
Because a truth can be abused makes it no less true. The fact of the matter is, I find myself helpless in the face of my failure. While God’s sovereignty does not excuse it, it does explain it. When I hear God say, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to do evil” [Jeremiah 13:23, NASB], I say, “Amen!” and am comforted, because it makes sense of my experience, and now I have somewhere to go for help.
I will not always be this way
Understanding the radical nature of God’s control, including as it does my innermost self, provides a comfort beyond knowing that it is not possible for me to leave a legacy of senseless pain and destruction. For if God made me before with a rebellious heart, He can make me again with an obedient heart, as He says in Jeremiah: “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it” [Jeremiah 31:33, NASB]. This is why it makes sense for Isaiah to ask, “Why, O Lord, dost Thou cause us to stray from Thy ways, and harden our heart from fearing Thee?” [Isaiah 63:17, NASB], and for David to plead, after he’d sinned with Bathsheba and had Uriah killed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” [Psalm 51:10, NASB].
To some, this doesn’t seem fair: God creates me a sinner, then punishes me when I sin. This objection is at least as old as the book of Isaiah, to which Paul refers (Isaiah 29:16) when he deals with it in Romans: “You will say to me then, `Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’ On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, `Why did you make me like this?’, will it?” [Romans 9:19-20, NASB].
For a long time I found Paul’s response unsatisfying. I wanted him to explain how God could control man’s choices without nullifying his responsibility for them, but he seemed to sidestep the question. Now I understand that he wasn’t being evasive; that just wasn’t the issue. Paul was not dealing with philosophers seeking understanding but rebels avoiding responsibility. In order to distract from the question, “Are you a good person?”, they were responding, “Well, if I’m not, whose fault is that?”
It’s not that there isn’t a legitimate philosophical question about how God can be responsible for the existence of evil without being evil Himself, but it seems pretty absurd for us to be pointing fingers in our current condition. And our current condition is what Paul wants us to focus on, because, as Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician” [Matthew 9:12, NASB]. If you don’t know you’re sick, you’re not going to seek help.
Do not regret regret
This is why it is so important not to shrink from the reality that we have not loved the way we ought. Without a grasp of the bad news, that I am not a good person, it is impossible to embrace the good news, that I will not always be this way. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” [Matthew 5:3, NASB]. Those people who know their spirit is impoverished, that they are not the people they should be, they are the lucky ones, because they are the ones He came to save. Viewed this way, regret is a blessing from God, a gift of the truth that Jesus said would set us free.
John Newton recognized this. A slave trader in the eighteenth century, in his later life his eyes were opened to the evil he was doing and turned to God. He recorded his experience in the hymn “Amazing Grace”:
Amazing gracehow sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
Newton says God’s grace allowed him to see himself as God saw him. Only then did he ask for the mercy we all need, the mercy there for anyone who asks, the mercy that is the only true comfort for anyone who regrets.