Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!
Regret over past evils can destroy a person’s psyche. The narrative that a person spins in his or her head, recounting past wrongs and accusing oneself in the present threatens to unravel a person’s sanity. This is because humans are their own worst critics. Or, to be more accurate, humans who have met the divine, who have compared their thoughts and actions against a standard of perfection are their own worst critics.
Christians who have seen God’s face know that they have nothing to offer God. Christians are human, and as humans, they have done grievous evils. They have robbed, hurt, aborted, and devised so much evil that if memory perfectly recounted every event in someone’s life, any Christian would be unable to bear the burden.
Forgetfulness is a blessing that God shares with mortal-kind. Be thankful at 40 that you cannot remember what you had done at 20. But some memories are so vivid, so impactful, that forgetfulness will not save you from your own memory.
This is when regret strikes. It uses our own memory as a weapon against us, defeating the armies of forgetfulness. We cannot escape the gaze of a regret-filled memory, which accuses us with the harshness that only our own conscience could unleash against us.
Consciences are not solid, stable things. They grow and change, depending on how our mind responds to experience. If we train our minds to consider something as wrong, it will be. The key is to make sure that our mind rightly condemns something as wrong and rightly vindicates something as right.
Regret can be the conscience’s teacher, and when this happens regret trains the conscience to do its owner harm, because regret hasn’t learned how how to integrate itself, memory, conscience, and God into a complex whole. Life is not easy. It’s overwhelmingly complex.
But God makes life’s complexity simpler by revealing to humanity a particular path, in which he leads humanity: “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way” (Ps 25:8). I suppose it would be important to note that God instructs “sinners.” God does not assume that people are blank slates with a perfect past. He knows who his people are.
He yet forgives us of guilt: “For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great” (Ps 25:11). I correct myself: God pardons our great guilt. God’s pardon should direct us to choke out our conscience if regret tells our conscience to condemn us. There can be no higher power, civic or otherwise, than God. If God has pardoned you, it matters very little what some human court or social stigma declares. Those realms of authority only last for a short time, but God’s declaration lasts an eternity.
Memory too plays a part in releasing our conscience from the self-flagellating voice of regret. Psalm 25:6–7 reads: “Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!” God remembers mercy and steadfast love but forgets sins, and he remembers according to something that cannot be shaken or change: his steadfast love.
If God remembers mercy and love but forgets sins, what makes us think we have the right to remember our sins? Would it not be the height of folly to remember something God forgets? And from another angle, would remembering our sin make us somehow more holy than if we did not? Does regret make us holy? If God declares us just by faith and therefore holy by forgetting our sins, then our remembrance of sin seems something of a moot point. To be like God would require the crushing of regret by the forgetting of our sins.
There is, however, a kind of godliness that involves regret. But this godliness engages with grief and disengages with regret: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor 7:10). Godliness requires grief over sin, just as much as it requires the smothering of regret.
Worldly grief over sin produces regret, or in Paul’s language “death.” Whatever Paul means exactly by death, the word itself seems to be an appropriate appellation for regret, because as anyone knows who struggles with regret, regret feels like death. It chills to the bones, cripples movement, and consumes free thought.
Everyone has something they can regret; nobody escapes this doom (1 Cor 10:13). Some may live blissfully unaware of their own malfeasance. They may not even get to the point where godly grief produces repentance without regret. And yet all people are much worse than they think they are. This should come as something as an encouragement to those who think they are worse than anyone else.
When every pig is wrestling for the crown of muddiest swine than it matters very little if one pig is less muddy than the rest. Some people are relatively better or worse than others, but we are still filthy pigs at heart. It matters very little whether or not you are worse than someone else.
Memory, regret, conscience, and God. Without God’s revelation, we would be left to suffer with our memory, regret, and conscience. With God’s revelation, he has simplified the pain. He has given us the path that leads to life. Forget sin, forget regret. God has, and we should follow suit. To suffer the pains of regret is self-flagellation. It only serves to punish us for something God has forgiven. It makes us have a higher standard than God. Godly grief, however, leads to salvation and pushes away regret. We can grieve over sin. Then forget it because God has forgiven us.
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