Sometimes it’s easy to be full of regret – regret for doing life a certain way for so many years, regret for just now understanding or seeing something you wished you had understood so many years ago, or regret for unhealthy relational dynamics with family or friends.
But I want to encourage you today – life in Christ is not about staying stuck in regret but about repentance. In fact, while regret keeps you stuck, looking backwards, repentance moves you forward.
That’s because the gaze of the repentant heart can only be in one place. The truly repentant heart can’t stay stuck looking at self; the repentant heart looks up and out at Jesus. And each and every time we are sorry for our sin, ignorance, hard-headedness, hard-heartedness, and stupidity, we are not met with the gaze of a disappointed God. Or with the view of the back of a God who is walking away from us. The repentant heart looks up and sees Jesus, welcoming, forgiving, inviting, warm, and embracing, every single time.
Dane Ortlund writes in his beautiful book Deeper, “The Christian life is one of repenting our way forward.”
Did you catch that? We don’t progress in our faith through perfection; we make progress through falling on our knees. We progress through the despair that we can ever get it right on our own.
If you, like me, have felt or feel that despair, I have good news for you today – you are right where you should be. Primed for growth. Ready for resurrection. And that’s because, to paraphrase Ortlund, repentance is the road by which we gain real healing because repentance is where we encounter Christ Himself.
Several weeks ago, I ran in a race called a Ragnar. The race itself was 200 miles, but it was a relay race, so my part of the race was to run 21 miles over 24 hours. That meant I ran my first route of 4.2 miles at 11:30am, my second route of 5.4 miles at 7:30pm, my third route of 6.2 miles at 3:30am, and my final route of 5.4 miles at 8:30am the next morning.
I was a bit anxious about running 6.2 miles at 3:30am for several reasons, but the primary reason is that to put it mildly, I am directionally challenged. Always have been. I have absolutely no internal compass or ability to picture any sort of map in my head. In fact, it’s a running family joke that if I think we should turn right, that’s a sure sign we need to go left.
So I was more than a little nervous about finding my way at 3:30am over rock slabs and around the twists and turns of the Ragnar trail through a dark Georgia forest. Yes, there were arrows every 50 yards or so, but small arrows on the ground in the dark are incredibly easy to miss.
When I started my route, I did great the first mile or so – I didn’t miss any of the markers. But sure enough, there came a point in the trail when I had to take a hard right and almost double back on the trail, and I missed my turn. Completely missed it. But as I ran a few yards down the path in the wrong direction, I heard a voice behind me call out, “Hey! The trail is this way!” So I turned around and headed in what I thought was the right direction. And the voice had to say again, “Not that way – this way.”
As I turned around for the second time in the dark (by this point, it was probably around 3:45am), I saw a runner with a headlamp. He had stopped his run, waited for me, and when I caught up to him, he said, “Go ahead.”
And the rest of the 5.2 miles, he ran right behind me or beside me. It makes me cry to even think about it. Because let me tell you something, I only saw 5 or 6 other runners total the entire hour I ran. And the only other thing over the course of the entire Ragnar race I ever heard a dude say to me was, “On your left,” before zipping by me up the trail.
But this guy was different. It was as if God sent him to run my route with me to make sure I made it to the end.
The whole rest of the way we simply ran and talked. I found out he lived in Denver, was a computer engineer, and had graduated from the University of Houston. He found out I had just written my first book, was married to Jason, and had four beautiful girls, the youngest of whom we adopted from China. As we ran, he corrected me at least one more time when I made a wrong turn, and every time I offered for him to pass me so he could run faster, he declined. Said my slow pace was just fine.
Towards the end of the route, about a quarter of a mile out, we crossed a sensor every runner had to step across to alert the next runner on their team they were getting close to the finish line. Right before we hit the sensor, I said, “Hey, I can’t thank you enough for running with me. What’s your name?” “Nate,” he said. Then once we hit that sensor, he took off, running that last quarter mile at a pace that far surpassed mine.
My youngest brother’s name is Nathanael, and everyone affectionately calls him, “Nate,” a name that means “Gift from God.” Not only was Nate, the computer engineer from Denver, a gift from God to my directionally challenged self that evening, but Nate showed me a profound picture of Christ.
When we lose our way or we stumble around in the dark, God doesn’t demean us, or berate us, or disqualify us. Like Nate, He runs with us. Through repentance, He calls us back to head in the right direction, and then He stays with us the whole way home until we hit the finish line.
Will I spend the rest of my life making mistakes? Yes.
Will I experience regret over the things I wish I had done or understood differently? Of course.
But I don’t have to fear regret or disqualification because I have a God who runs with me. Could His pace far outstrip mine? Absolutely. But He slowed His steps and ran the race for me 2000 years ago so that now, today, He can run the race with me.
Hebrews 4:14-16 says, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Listen to me here – everyone makes mistakes. Everyone experiences regret about the way they did or did not handle certain things. But here is where the paths divide – some people stay stuck in regret, anger, or bitterness, and some people move forward in repentance.
Repentance requires owning your part. Repentance requires humility. Repentance requires admitting you are not who you wish you were or want others to think you are and you never will be.
But repentance is the only thing that makes you whole, heals your hearts, and gets you back on the path running with the Person who has stopped, waited, and is ready to run with you, every step of the way.
Don’t stay stuck in regret. But don’t rush past it either. Linger in it long enough to own your sin, confess your part, and then be met with mercy and healed by the steadfast love, faithfulness, and forgiveness of Jesus. He is not like the other voices in your head from your past or even your present. He runs with you, He is for you, and He hasn’t disqualified you for the race because of your failures. Your failures are actually what draws Him to you, to run with you, and if you listen long enough, you will hear Him say, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).
I don’t know where you are today in your race – you might be trucking along just fine, you might be headed down the wrong way in the dark, or you might be knee deep in regret, paralyzed on the path.
But wherever you are, consider Jesus. He is your personal gift sent from God to call you back from every wrong path, then to run with you, all the way to the finish line, comforting you with His presence, giving you light in the dark, and putting you back on the path when you take a wrong step. While He is serious about sin, He is steadfast in love, constant in faithfulness, and lavish in mercy and grace (Exodus 34:6-7).
If Nate from Denver can model for me what that looked like for a few steps down a trail in Georgia, what can Jesus do for you down the path of your life?
Don’t stay stuck in regret or fear. Repent, look at Jesus, and trust His voice as He runs with you until the end of the race.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Hebrews 12:1-3
For a deeper dive into remembering the past and pushing past regret in order to repent, receive healing, and move forward in freedom into the future, consider reading my new book Restore: Remembering Life’s Hurts with the God Who Rebuilds.