I recently became aware that I’ve been holding onto regret about some decisions I made in Milwaukee a decade ago. Someone asked for prayer about self-forgiveness, and I agreed to pray (and have been doing so) but I literally had no other help to offer. God has dealt with a ton of garbage in my life – and continues to do so – and I try to remember the steps he’s taken me through to eradicate these problems. I like to share what I learn to help others know God better and live a fuller life.
But I literally had nothing to offer. This state bothered me. Not because I couldn’t offer wise counsel or suggest things that might help, but because it pulled back the curtain covering how I felt about my Milwaukee summer. The request for prayer revealed something I’ve been struggling on and off to give to God.
I just wanted to forget (for the most part) that I had gone on summer project, and I really wanted to forget the words I’d harmed with, the way I’d overspent money entrusted to me, the way I’d become hard-hearted about the things I saw around me and didn’t know how to reconcile, and the general way that I allowed myself to ignore the Holy Spirit instead of submitting myself to God completely. I wanted to forget all of that.
I was praying in the middle of the night a couple of nights ago (long story, which I’ll save for another time) and I was contemplating why it was so hard for me to pray for my upcoming trip to Uganda. I literally have barely prayed about the trip at all, and that is not like me. I tend to smother my life in prayer. Prayer is just talking to God about things, I like to talk a lot, so I tend to talk to my heavenly Dad because he’s always near.
Uganda is not something I’ve been praying about though. This is not good. In talking about this to God I realized that I’m afraid I will make the same types of mistakes in Uganda that I made in Milwaukee.
I have been struggling to forgive myself for Milwaukee, and it is causing me to be afraid I will mess up in Uganda. Realistically my response to the fear of messing up should be “Of course you will mess up!” But we never think that clearly. What I do know is that when I asked God to help me learn how to forgive myself, he brought to my mind that beautiful verse (a favorite, I confess) Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those called according to his purpose.”
I think that in order for me to forgive myself I need to trust that God is working even my mistakes out for my good. I can step back from the guilt and shame and say, “It’s not pretty, but it will be reconciled and redeemed by Christ.” I can also apply God’s grace to the situation, and he asks, “What made Milwaukee any different from any of the other times in your life when you messed up? I forgave you past, present, and future!” He sees it all the same. Sin is sin is sin. The things I did wrong in Milwaukee are no worse than the things I do wrong in my house every day. Public or private, he’s working to eradicate my sin and make me holy. He does that by a) responding with grace when I fail to live up to his beautiful standards, and b) teaching me from my mistakes.
Later I was assessing how I felt about Milwaukee now that I’d had this lovely moment of Holy Spirit clarity, and I realized that the actual word ‘Milwaukee’ still makes me cringe slightly. I asked God what I should do. He indicated that I should thank him for the summer spent there.
“What?! You want me to thank you for it?!”
“Because I’m working it out for your good.”
Sometimes we need to trust his ability to turn bad into good so much that we go so far as to thank him for the bad stuff. For the mistakes and guilt and the things not going as we hoped or dreamed they would. Sometimes we need to remember that he isn’t leaving us there in the yuckiness, and that he’s not going to let us remain the same after recognizing our part in the bad situation. Sometimes we need to thank him for the work he has done, and the work he has yet to do in us. And we need to thank him that in 10 years of earnestly avoiding a replay of those things we regret doing, we’ve actually changed. He has caused us to be different people than we were 10 years ago. Still deeply flawed, and still unworthy of his generous love that isn’t based on our worthiness, but different than we would be if we hadn’t gone through our difficult times.
God loves us so much that he allows us to go through difficulty to shape the way we see, love and serve others and himself. If we didn’t go through difficulties we wouldn’t know what our weaknesses are. When everything is going just as we want it to it’s easy to be kind and loving and patient, but it’s things like stress and regret that bring out our not-so-pretty sides. Bad decisions and difficult life phases bring out the worst in us so that we can know what God already knows is there. That we’re flawed and sinful human beings that need his help to be better.
Also, if we were perfect all the time there wouldn’t be room for God’s grace and love to shine bright in our lives. In 2 Corinthians 2:9 Paul writes, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” God’s capacity for grace can only be demonstrated in lives requiring that grace. I can be thankful for and positive about my summer in Milwaukee because it brings glory to God by showing his great ability to forgive and make things right.
As I was praying in my bed that night, after God had showed me so clearly that I’m to trust him with my difficult times and regrets, I asked him, unthinkingly, “So, do you ever regret the cross? Do you ever cringe at the memory of it’s pain?”
The Holy Spirit laughed, “Regret?! It’s the only way I get to know you!”
Initially I was swept up in the Holy Spirit’s laughter. How ridiculous that Jesus would have regrets! Then I started bawling. That Jesus would think about that horrible time and just be glad that he gets to know us forever. Can you believe that? Knowing us makes him glad he went to the cross. I can’t comprehend that love, but I am going to try to trust God with my future and my past more completely. Even when I mess up and do stupid like a pro, I’m going to try to remember that he still loves me, loved me in the moment I messed up, is teaching me from my past, and will continue to love me and remain faithful to me even when I am not faithful. Thank you, Jesus.
Ultimately the story of our lives aren’t about us and our unfailing success as Jesus-followers, or even our ability to become, against all odds, “good” people. The over-arching story that includes all of our lives is about Jesus and his willingness to look past all that we do wrong and value us anyway. He values us because he is good, even when we’re not. His love is bigger than our failings. If he forgives us and believes we can do good, we need to trust him and let the past be another opportunity for him to show his power to work good out of a bad situation. I need to trust that even when I do, say, or think the wrong things in Uganda he is going to make that good in the long run.
As I was pondering all of these things I couldn’t help but think of Psalm 22. This Psalm David wrote that has become such a beautiful series of prophecies with the overall message that Jesus never abandons us, and he came for unity with the whole world.
David might not have known that the poetry he was writing was prophetic. He was writing about his own pained and broken experiences in that time of intense hardship. I wondered as I meditated on this Psalm if, sometime after writing it David looked at God and said, “Will you redeem this time in my life? I felt completely abandoned by you, and I know now that you never abandoned me, but it felt that way. Will you take this excruciating time and make it good somehow?”
I wonder if God thought for a moment, then smiled gently and said, “Oh yes. I have a great plan to make it good.” He then nudged Jesus, who is sitting next to him, with his elbow and leaned in to whisper to him. Jesus listened to the plan and noded slowly in agreement. “Yeah, I’m down with that.”
God looked Jesus in the eye and said, “Are you sure? It’ll by necessity make the experience more difficult. More painful. The piercing, mocking, your bones will be dislocated. You’ll be beaten. You’ll also feel completely alone and like I abandoned you.”
Jesus looks thoughtful a moment. “Yeah, but if we do it, it’ll be glorious. I mean, no one else could take that ugly situation and make it so perfectly beautiful!”
“Alright” God looks certain. “That’s the plan then.” And he smiled again at the thought of redeeming us to himself.
God uses our pasts to shape our futures for his glory and our good. Thank you, Lord, for Milwaukee.
Sometime after writing this I was praying about it, and I asked God of I did right to write about David’s involvement in the story of Jesus in this way. (Of course it was fictitious, but I still worry about these things.) God indicated that I had it backward. That David was allowed to suffer so he could better prophecy about Jesus, not that Jesus’ life and death was shaped by David. David shared in the sufferings of Christ, not the other way around.