All my life, I have heard people say that you will never regret doing the right thing. But is that really true? Does everyone look back on the good decisions that they have made with unmingled satisfaction? Or do we sometimes wish that things could have been different?
I know how I would have to answer such questions. As much as I would like to say that I always feel good about the good that I have done, and especially about the sin that I have avoided, it simply isn’t the case. Sometimes, I reflect on the sacrifices that I have had to make in order to follow Jesus and wonder whether they were really worth it.
Maybe you have wondered the same thing. Maybe you wonder sometimes how in the world the message of Jesus can be considered good news in comparison to the allure of money, sex, and/or power (the three temptations addressed by Richard Foster in his book The Challenge of the Disciplined Life). Or maybe there is a specific decision that you are relatively certain God told you to make, but you wonder what your life would have been like if you had taken a different path.
Doubts like these will undermine our efforts to be faithful followers of Jesus if we let them. We need to trust God with our past. But how can we do that? I have found three habits of mind and heart to be of particular assistance when I begin to question the choices that I have made.
Remember Who God Is
First, I try to remember that God is good. I think that we need to be honest about how we evaluate our lives. We know that God’s ways are sometimes difficult. We may even feel that there is ample evidence to suggest that the pain they cause us in this life is not in any sense good.
Nevertheless, if we are following our Savior faithfully, we know that God is good. We know it because His Word says so, but we also know it because we have experienced His goodness in our own lives. Our task is to take what we know about God’s character and apply it to those parts of His behavior that we do not understand.
Second, I try to bring myself back from the world of fantasy into the world of reality. The human imagination is one of God’s greatest gifts, but it can also be a substantial obstacle when we are trying to trust God with our past. Our mind creates alternative worlds in which anything is possible. The more that we live in these imaginary worlds, the more that we lose sight of what we know about the real world. We stake illicit desires, never considering the damage that fulfilling them would bring to us, to others, and to God’s Kingdom. And, pretty soon, we are asking why God could not have arranged things in such a way that we could meet the psychological needs that we have through our favorite pleasure.
I try to remind myself of what would actually happen if I had pursued a particular course of action. Given the power of the human imagination, this is not a difficult thing to do. We do not have to be paranoid stick-in-the-muds to realize that acting in a way that is inconsistent with God’s calling on our lives will have a wide range of negative consequences. True enough, our brain will object, we know plenty of people who do not seem to have experienced those negative consequences that we imagine sinful behavior would bring. But we also know that appearances can be deceiving. And we also know that, even if they do not experience the negative consequences of their sin, others do.
Remember Who We Are
And this brings me to the third prong of my strategy. In the words of Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder in their book Rare Leadership, I try to remind myself of who I am and of how me and my people act. This plank of the strategy is essential, for it is entirely possible for us to know that God is good and to know that sin is bad and to still not care. When we experience pain or loss related to our decision to follow Jesus, it is all too tempting for us to decide that experiencing the pleasure of sin is still better than the pain of discipleship. We decide that it is too hard to care about how our sin will impact those around us or the Kingdom at large.
By remembering who we are, we remember what a profound betrayal of our own identity such a course of action would be. We are children of God, which means that, to a lesser or greater extent, we participate in His life and share His character. Just as God displayed sacrificial love in sending His One and Only Son to die for our sins, so also we must show sacrificial love for one another by renouncing sin as a means of getting what we want. Does that mean that there will be some deeply felt needs that will never be met? Probably. And we should be honest enough about that fact to bring it to our Father in prayer. But we can make the sacrifice knowing that it is not in vain.
Encouragement from a Fellow Traveler
I do not share these insights as a spiritual superhero. Rather, I share them as a fellow traveler and a fellow sufferer. Just like you, I am touched by desires that I cannot totally relinquish and, occasionally, by regrets over the road that I have chosen. Nevertheless, I hope that these words will help you to not give up the fight. Your heart, your mind, and your eternity are worth it.