Reframing regret – from hindsight to insight

Psalm 51

This summer we are exploring together how we discern what it is that God calls us to do, each of us individually and all of us together. The word for this is “vocation,” from the Latin word “vocare” which literally means “to call.”  Vocation: God calls us to live our lives on purpose for the common good.

Our vocations are personal to each individual but they are discerned and lived out in community. We have multiple vocations throughout our life, and multiple vocations at the same time. We are not created for production value, but we are created so we find joy and fulfillment doing some things and not others.

So far we’ve talked about listening to our longings, being open to the past, present and future, naming and living in our values, and experiencing God’s presence in everyday life, and the holy art of paying attention. This week we are talking about regrets. Everyone’s favorite topic, because we all love to think about past mistakes. 

I say that with sarcasm, but if we are honest, it’s actually true in a kind of masochistic way. We may not actually enjoy thinking about our past mistakes, but some of us do it a lot anyway, even though we don’t enjoy it. Some of us have a habit of remembering the things we’ve screwed up, and not just remembering them, but dwelling on them. For some of us, our past mistakes are still controlling us, driving our current decisions as we try to make up for those mistakes in some way or do things to dull the pain that we feel because of those mistakes. 

Friends, I know you know this, but let me remind you again: that is not healthy regret. That is not guilt; that is shame. And there’s a difference. Shame is the idea that I am inherently and forever bad or less worthy in some ways because of the things I have done. Shame is what happens when my mistakes become my identity. Guilt is my God-given warning system that goes off when I’ve done something that violates my values. That’s what guilt is. It is a healthy internal response that we have when we’ve done something we actually don’t want to do. Guilt is good. Thanks be to God we have something inside us that cues us when we’ve gone outside the boundaries of what is healthy for us and for others. Guilt is good. Shame is not good. Reframing our regrets and allowing hindsight to become insight is how we keep guilt from becoming shame. If we focus on the guilt long enough, if we allow the alarm to keep blaring at us but don’t change our actions, or if we don’t forgive ourselves for our mistakes, then our guilt becomes shame. The way to keep guild from turning into shame is actually not by ignoring our regrets, but by reframing them and learning from them, allowing hindsight to become insight.

Reframing regret is the process of honestly naming our regrets to gain insight and perspective from the past so that we can experience the present and the future differently. The practice of reframing regret intentionally listens for how even our regrets can be lifegiving voices that call us to positive change. Dwelling in hindsight can be debilitating; living in insight can be revitalizing. 

Let’s allow some ancient wisdom to inform our thoughts on this today by reading together Psalm 51. This is the Psalm that is attributed to King David after he had sexually assaulted Bathsheba and then had her husband killed in an attempt to avoid the fallout over her subsequent pregnancy. The prophet Nathan called David out on his sins and to David’s credit, he admitted his guilt and turned to God. sincere regret also always brings us closer to God.

Let’s read Psalm 51.

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Savior,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.

May it please you to prosper Zion,
    to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
    in burnt offerings offered whole;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

I am a perfectionist. And Sam often reminds me that there are lessons we can only learn by messing up. Making mistakes, doing your best and having it come out wrong anyway, is a core part of being human. I hate that. I hate that sometimes the best way to learn is by really failing. Failure, mistakes, messing up, they have consequences: for us and for other people. Most of us really take our failures to heart, don’t we? And as long as we ARE going to mess up, we should do what we can to derive insight from the experience rather than allowing guilt to become shame. 

It’s very easy for us to allow guilt to become shame. You know how we keep that from happening, how we stop guilt turning into shame? We do it by being saved. Seriously. Ephesians chapter 2 verses 8 and 9 say “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

We are saved, which means rescued, healed, and victorious by grace through faith. The good news of grace is that God’s love and acceptance of us is not based on what we do. That’s hard for us to believe, because our standards for acceptance are based on behavior. Our individualistic capitalistic culture teaches us that people earn what they get, whether that’s money or love. But grace says no. Grace says God accepts each of us and all of us exactly the way we are in every moment. Whatever judgment you believe God is making about humanity, it is not based on what people do or don’t do and that includes praying a particular kind of prayer. And the only way to access God’s grace is through faith, through trusting that the grace is already active. The way we experience grace is by trusting that grace is really at work for us and in us. The only way we are rescued from our guilt turning into shame is by trusting that God has already accepted us, that we have nothing to be ashamed of, regardless of what we do or don’t do. We are saved by God’s grace through our faith. Period. 

Grace is essential for us in reframing our regrets. Otherwise we just get obsessed and weighed down by our own mistakes and failures. Are there standards for what it means to live in God’s way of love? There are. Does God reject us and do we reject one another when we don’t meet those standards? No. God’s judgment of us is always and only in the context of grace.

With grace firmly in place, we should have no fear of facing our regrets, honestly naming the places where we’ve made bad decisions and hurt people, examining what led to those decisions because we don’t want to do that again!  We need to ask forgiveness of God and of anyone we’ve hurt and we need to make amends, and after we’ve done that we have to cling tightly to grace and resist the temptation to keep beating ourselves up about those things. Because our value is NOT based on what we have done or left undone.

With grace supporting us, we can reframe our regrets. We can be people who are not afraid to admit when we are wrong, which is something that is sorely needed in the world right now. We need people who can freely and confidently say, “Yes, I screwed that up. I’m not proud of it. I’m sorry for it. And I’m learning from it.

Now I know that some regrets are easier to let go of than others. Some infractions against God, against others, and against yourselves have more serious and lasting results that other infractions do. If you are carrying something around, I would be honored to talk with you about that, and pray with you about that. Some regrets are big. 

But honestly, I have a lot of everyday regrets: moments when I don’t respond the way I say I want to, the way I know God wants me to. I have everyday moments when I do not act in line with my values. And I want that hindsight to become insight, then I have to pay attention. I have to slow down and think about things, in the moment and later. I have to be open to change, in myself and in others, trusting that our current patterns are not set in stone. If I am going to discern who God calls me to be, why I’m here, and what God is calling me to do, today, then I have to be willing to reframe my regrets, trust God’s grace has covered them, and allow the insight I gain from them to guide my future. Amen.

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