Haunted - Week One: "Haunted by Regret"
This week we are starting a new sermon series entitled "Haunted" that will take us through the month of October. If you are wondering if I timed this series to happen during the spooky month of October--wonder no longer. I totally did.
But I've been thinking about the idea of this series for quite a while, in fact. Over the course of my years as a pastor I've had occasion to talk to people in crisis about the things that got them into crisis mode. Their crises could be quite different, but there's always a common thread that runs through their stories.
Maybe their crisis has to do with faith, or their purpose in life. Maybe they can't seem to get unstuck from addictive and destructive behaviors. Regardless of their actual experience, virtually every single person was haunted by something from their past that was affecting their present and ruining their vision of the future.
Some people were haunted by regret. Others were haunted by doubts--still others by fears. And some were haunted by the hurts that they'd suffered.
I started thinking about how so many of us experience these kinds of hauntings, and that even though we might not currently be in some kind of crisis, many of us are just a couple of bad experiences away from one. So many of us are haunted by regret... by doubt.. by fear... by hurts both real and imagined, but we don't have to live that way.
The purpose of this sermon series is to show how we can be free from the things that are haunting us. For those of us who choose to follow Jesus--there is a way to be free from our regret, doubt, fear and hurt. We aren't defined by them, they don't have any power over us.
Over the course of the next several weeks we'll be learning this important and powerful truth--a truth that will change your life, especially if you've been haunted by your past:
YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE HAUNTED BY YOUR PAST IF YOU TRUST THE ONE WHO HOLDS YOUR FUTURE.
As it turns out, this is a lot easier said than done for most of us. We might say that we want to trust God, that we want to be free from thing that are haunting us, but sometimes it's a lot more comfortable for us--believe it or not--to remain haunted. Some of us have lived that way for so long that we can't imagine any other way. Or we just don't want to give up whatever control we have left of our lives to God--even though our being in control isn't working.
What we'll be doing over the next several weeks is demonstrating how unbelievably freeing, hopeful, and joy-filled life can be when we simply trust God, and God's plans for our life.
And to begin, we're going to talk a while about regret.
I take no small amount of comfort in the knowledge that even Frank Sinatra had regrets---even though they were only "a few." I am with Ole Blue Eyes on this one. Regrets, I've had a few----or maybe a few too many.
Here's a short list of the things I regret in no particular order...
I regret not buying Microsoft stock before the 90's. I also regret not buying Apple stock before the 2000's. Actually, I regret not buying stock in general.
I also regret that time that I ate two chocolate chip yo-yo's in one sitting. And I also regret telling you all that--and I regret sharing with you all last week my obsession with chocolate chip yo-yo's.
I regret kissing this one girl when I was fifteen (this was when my wife-then girlfriend-had broken up with me for a year to date a guy who could drive). Anyways, the girl was missing a couple of teeth, and I didn't really notice it until it was too late.
I regret all of the bad words I've ever said when watching any/all of my favorite sports teams lose.
I regret my hairstyles in the 80's---sort of parted down the middle and feathered on both sides. I also regret my hairstyles in the 90's--short on the top and sides and long in the back for a pony tail... definitely not a mullet. I also regret my lack of hair now.
I regret very nearly every moment I spent at Nickel Beer nights in Church Street Station in my early twenties. I also regret even mentioning that because I am sure that someone here today was probably there, too, and now has some idea of what I am regretting.
I could go on... but I won't. I regret saying too much already.
Here's the thing, though. There is a good side of regret, according to Psychology Today magazine. Regret is useful if we use it properly. Regret can help us make sense of the world--when we see both the positive and negative implications of our actions. It can also help us to avoid making negative choices if we imagine the regret we would feel for making them. We can also gain insight into what it takes to grow and develop in character and a host of other things.
But what about when regrets get way too real? What about when the regrets we experience are so deep and so wounding that we can't let them go, we can't simply learn from them and keep moving?
In the same study that showed the positive impact of regret, psychologists also studied the effects of long term regret and found that they were devastating. People who are obsessed with regret and filled with self blame as a result suffer from higher rates of depression, chronic stress, weakened immune systems, depleted hormones and a variety of other mental, emotional and physical maladies. All of this contributes to a shortened life span.
As it turns out, one of the slowest ways to die is to live in regret.
This isn't something new. The Apostle Paul wrote about this very thing in 2 Corinthians 7:10 when he said, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death."
Paul was writing to one of the first century churches he'd founded in a city called Corinth. The church had been struggling with a serious problem that they'd needed to address, but had been ignoring it. Paul wrote a first letter to them and admonished them for not taking action against a terrible sin that was being committed in their midst--a sin that was tearing the church apart. In his second letter he follows up after they acted and took care of the issue--a man who had been sleeping with his stepmother.
It seems that the people in the church deeply regretted what had happened and how it had been handled. It was into this context that Paul wrote verse 10.
He used the term "godly sorrow" to describe what we have already noted as the positive side of regret. Godly sorrow, according to Paul begins with a realization that something has happened to separate us from God, which brings sadness. But this realization should lead to a response--a response to make whatever is wrong right again, which should then in turn lead us to repentance.
Repentance is described in the Bible as a change of course, a turning away from the current path, which leads to nowhere and a return to the path God has for us which leads us to life.
On the other hand, Paul characterizes "worldly sorrow" as the kind that leads us to death. There is a realization with worldly sorrow--what we have described as the negative aspects of regret--that doesn't lead to a positive response of change. Instead worldly sorrow leads us to rumination or obsession over the regret--we can't stop thinking about it. Which leads us to full-blown regret and we know based on the studies that have been done where this leads us: to death.
Now, the Apostle Paul was talking primarily about spiritual matters here when he refers to death--but I think we can read both readings into this fairly easily. One approach leads to eternal life, the other leads to slow death. One approach brings joy and hope to bleak situations, the other makes it darker, more bleak and hopeless.
This is the choice that we have--to live in hopeless regret, or hope-filled life. We can choose godly sorrow when we make a mistake, or suffer loss, or choose poorly---and let God redeem the whole mess. Or we can choose worldly sorrow and begin to whither away and die both inside and out.
Everyone knows Alfred Nobel as the founder of the Nobel Prizes--a great philanthropist whose gifts have resulted in some of the most amazing advances in human history. But what not everyone knows is that Nobel made his fortune because he manufactured explosives, particular dynamite. When Nobel's brother died, the New York Times ran the obituary thinking that it was actually Alfred who had passed. The paper described him as a dealer of death, a butcher of millions whose sole contribution to the world had been to create more elaborate ways for humans to kill other humans.
Nobel read his obituary and realized that this was how he was going to be remembered, and it shook him to his very soul. He spent the rest of his life establishing the awards that he would become famous for long after his death. Shakespeare's Mark Antony was wrong--the good we do does live after us. Nobel proved this by exhibiting godly sorrow. He had a choice to make when it came to his regret and he chose to change what his obituary would read.
At this point you might be wondering---what can we do to make the kind of choice that Nobel made? How can we be set free from haunting regrets?
There's probably a number of ways to approach it--but I kind of see three ways to choose the kind of "godly sorrow" that Paul talked about, the kind that Nobel experienced that led him to change his life.
First, if you can't change it, let it go. If what has happened can't be fixed, changed, done-over----then there's no sense in stewing in it. As much as I regret kissing that girl with the missing teeth--I can't change it. It happened. Short of inventing a time machine to go back in time and prevent fifteen year-old me from that horrible mistake---I can't change it. So when you can't change it, let it go. You might have to actually forgive yourself. Every week at our traditional service we have a time of confession where we confess our sins to God and one another. Then I say some kind words about forgiveness before saying this, "Know that you are forgiven and be at peace." Don't take on too much blame when nine times out of ten what happened wasn't all your fault. And if it was all your fault, own it, forgive yourself as you have been forgiven, lean on Jesus and keep walking.
Second, ask yourself "What I am learning?" Like all emotions, regret serves a vital function when it comes to your very survival. Regret helps keep us from doing stupid things again--supposedly. When you were a kid and you were told not to touch the hot stove in the kitchen and then you did because you were stupid--you regretted that immediately. You also learned not to do it again. Don't be afraid to be curious about what you are learning in the midst of your regret that would help you become a better person, a more faithful follower of Christ in the future.
Lastly, find the hope. You should ask yourself how your experience has shaped you positively for the future. It could be that whatever has happened to you seems to have nothing good to teach you. There's nothing but badness and ugly in it, and there's very little that seems redeemable. This is the point I think it's important to ask what God might be doing in the middle of it all. Jesus taught us that God has this penchant for showing up at the eleventh hour---when all is lost. When we are at the end of our rope and trudging back home in shame--God meets us on the road. What about this thing you regret teaches you more fully about the grace of God? What new thing can be resurrected out of what may have died in you?
God, after all, is still in the business of resurrection. And God never stops pursuing us, reaching out to us, offering us salvation and new life.
A man asked the 18th century Jewish Rabbi Shneur Zalman about the Genesis story and why God needed to ask Adam and Eve where they were after they hid from him. After all, if God knew all things then shouldn't have God also known where they were?
The Rabbi replied that the story was written for all people in all times because it is our story. It is the story of people who find themselves separated from God because of their own pride, their own desire to live their lives on their own terms... and they are filled with regret.
And God calls out to them--calls out to us. "Where are you?" This question is one that already has an answer. God asks simply so we will know something very important: God's greatest desire is for us to be whole--to live fully--to be in joyful, hopeful relationship with God.
Can you hear his voice calling you today? Maybe you've been living in regret. You've run to hide in the garden of your life--ashamed of what you've done, what you've become... Hear the voice of God calling you today. "Where are you? I love you. I have forgiven you. I give you hope and a future. I want so much for you. You are not defined by your regret. My son came to set you free. Will you trust me?"
Beloved, you don't have to be haunted by your past, by your regrets if you trust the One who holds your future.