Thursday, January 13, 2011

Regret and Repentance

Regret is not exclusively a Christian emotion and, some argue, is not necessarily Christian at all.  We spend a lot of time with our own regrets and we look for signs of regret from others in order to determine if, indeed, they should be forgiven of their wrongs toward us.  I must admit that I am not much of a fan of regret.  I know of many times when I have regretted something but not because it was wrong.  My regret is motivated more by my frustration at the outcome of my flawed decision or poor choice.  My regret is not virtuous at all but really rather self-serving.  I regret hitting my thumb with the hammer because it caused me pain -- regret does not mean that I have dealt with my failings as a carpenter.

Sadly Christians have jumped upon the regret bandwagon along with the world around us.  We feel better about the terrible things people do if we sense in them a genuine sense of regret.  The senseless violence of a Timothy McVeigh or, more recently, Jared Lee Loughner, would be easier to deal with if we heard them express regret over their murderous ways.  In courtrooms, a sentence is often contingent upon regret shown by the perpetrator.  Indeed the ability to show regret or remorse is often tied to a conclusion that the individual was "sane" when he or she is charged with some crime (heinous or ordinary).  So often we look for this regret or remorse before we are willing to forgive people their hurtful words or actions against us.  It has become for Christians an essential ingredient to repentance.

After being turned on to a discussion and, in particular, Tomáš Halík’s book Patience with God is an extended meditation on Luke’s account of the conversion of Zacchaeus, I find this preoccupation with regret to be most unhelpful in understanding repentance or dealing with the call of Jesus to forgive others as He has forgiven us.  The author spends some time dealing extensively with the Biblical text and possible scenarios surrounding it and comes to the unmistakable conclusion that regret or remorse seems completely absent from Zacchaeus's repentance.  Indeed, it seems he was never "convicted of [his] sins at an evangelistic meeting and cry out for forgiveness, or experience protracted anguish of soul that was then relieved by finally hearing and accepting the gospel..."  He did not pray the sinner's prayer or languish on the anxious bench or even cry out for mercy in the torment of his guilty conscience.  He did not tell the story of his terrible past or point to a moment when it all came crumbling down upon him until he turned his life over to Jesus for redemption.

This got me thinking.  Page back to the prodigal and you find a similar absence of the kind of regret and remorse with which we are preoccupied today.  The condition of the prodigal had caused him to reflect upon his situation and when he stared at the food of the pigs he was slopping, it led him to a remarkably self-serving conclusion.  How many of my father's hired hands are well fed and here I am starving.  Why, I will go back to my father and tell him the words he has longed to hear -- "I was wrong; I am sorry; I am a jerk.  Let me be like one of your hired hands, okay?"  A certainly accurate assessment of his circumstance but hardly the kind of thoughtful and heartfelt remorse and regret we would hope to find.

So he headed off "home" and his father embraced him long before he had a chance to perform his well-rehearsed speech.  There is no record of a response from the waiting father in this parable -- except the directions to the servant to wash him up, clothe him, and feed him as the son he was born to be.  Again, the focus is less on the marks of his repentance than on the generous heart of the father whose welcome was more than the son deserved and, apparently, more than he expected.

Halik observes: In Luke’s account of Zacchaeus’ conversion there is no mention of contrition in the sense of “feelings of penitence” that so many homilies and pious writings have tried so fervently to foster. Zacchaeus does not agonize: when he talks about giving half of his property to the poor and compensating those he cheated fourfold, it is due to the euphoria he feels at the presence of Jesus in his home. He acts more like the man in Jesus’ parable who found a treasure hidden in a field and in his elation sold everything in order to buy the field and thus acquire his rare find. (p.183)

Again, the central emotion of the stories of repentance from Jesus is the sense of joy -- even celebration.  We do not hear so much of a tortured soul, the anguish over past failings, the angst over what will happen to the guilty, the fear of punishment, or fateful promises of never again, never again.  Could it be that we have so shifted the focus of repentance from the one forgiving to the one who needs forgiveness that we have distanced ourselves completely from the stories and parables Luke records?  Could it be that we have confused the ordinary human emotion of regret or remorse with the repentance only the Spirit can work in the heart of the sinner?   Could it be that sin only becomes clear in our eyes when it stands in stark contrast to mercy?  Ahhhh, something to think about here...


A Prisoners Friend said...

This is a very timely post for me. Just two days ago I sent a letter off to a prisoner--who seems to me to actually be kind of proud of how he pulled off his crime. His girlfriend says it was the "nicest" one ever! I told him I didn't think it right that I heard no regret from him; rather, I hear only a bit of pride and excuses for why he did what he did. So, I should just tell him Jesus forgives him and let it go at that. Well, I know that yes, Christ's forgiveness is that simple. I guess for me in this situation it is a matter of wanting to trust this person. He claims to have changed, but if he still only offers excuses for his crime, can I trust him? I'd find it easier to trust if he expressed at least some regret, some sense of "I made a serious mistake, I acknowledge that, and I'm moving on to learn from this." BTW, his girlfriend is also in prison and I visit her as often as possible. Your post gives me something to think about.

Pastor Peters said...

I did not say that regret or remorse is a bad thing; I only asked why we equate regret or remorse with repentance, agonizing over our sin with repentance, or promises to be better with repentance. Yes, we look for these but repentance proceeds from faith and faith is worked by the Spirit...

OldSouth said...

Well said, and thanks for your insights.

A Prisoners Friend said...

I didn't mean to be critical. Was just thinking out loud. I need to sort this out more in my own mind--with guidance from Scripture. Your explanation helps. Thanks for that.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

"For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death." 2Corinthians 7:10 (ESV)

I think you're right in that regret, or guilty feelings are the 'worldly grief' for sins that don't lead to repentance.

Remember what Walther said: “When a vain person is thrown into sorrow over his own sins because he has lost somewhat of his prestige; when a thief sorrows over his thieving because it has landed him in jail;--that is worldly sorrow. However, when a person sorrows over his sins because he sees hell before him, where he will be punished for having insulted the most Holy God, that is godly sorrow, provided that it has not been produced by imagination through a person’s own effort. Genuine godly sorrow can be produced by God alone. May God grant us such sorrow!”
C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. Dau ed. Pg 246

Anonymous said...

Regret= Sorry I got caught doing evil
Repentance= Sorrow over disobedience
of God's Will and turning to Him for
His forgiveness.