Regrets, and how to deal with them

“I have sinned…Surely I have acted like a fool and erred greatly.” 1 Samuel 26:21

The legendary French singer Edith Piaf famously declared, in perhaps her best known song, “Je ne regrette rien” – I regret nothing.

Well, I reckon you’d need to be a pretty confident person – you might even say a pretty arrogant person – to make such a claim. I know I couldn’t. It’s like claiming to have lived a perfect life.

Most of us probably feel more like King Saul of Israel in the words I have quoted. Saul has been trying to hound David to death, only for his efforts to be met with mercy. This undeserved kindness pierces his heart, so… “I have acted like a fool”, he admits. He regrets what he has done.

As you read this, perhaps you find yourself thinking of your own regrets. They probably spring from two main sources – sins you have committed, and mistakes you have made. They may be large or small – a terrible crime, or a petty oversight. They may be truly life-changing or relatively trivial. But the very fact that you remember them tells its own story: we all have consciences, and when we go against them it leaves its mark deep in our souls.

The big question that arises is simple: What should I do about those “if onlys”, those “I wishes”, in my life? I think it’s best to start with two things we shouldn’t do.

First, don’t try and forget all about them, to bury them in the depths of the past. That’s futile and self-destructive. “Be sure your sins will find you out” goes the saying. And it’s true. That nagging, gnarling feeling will always be there, destroying your peace of mind and your ease with yourself.

But equally, second, don’t allow them to dominate your life. I have known people who acted foolishly or wrongly many years ago and simply will not let go of the folly they have been guilty of. All credit to them for not letting themselves off too easily. But the fact is that this approach can be just as destructive as the first.

No. The thing to do with our regrets is to face up to them as frankly and openly as possible, to make a clean breast of them, and then, with God’s help, to move on. This, in essence, is what the Bible means by that great word “repent”. And the good news is that God loves to forgive those who repent, and to give them a new start; no-one has to live with that crushing burden.

In some cases it may be possible to put right what we did. At the simplest level a word of apology to someone may be enough for that.

But suppose the person we have treated badly is no longer around? – suppose they have disappeared completely from our lives? With the best will in the world there really is nothing we can do.

The answer is simple: lay it all before God, trusting in his understanding, and ask him for help in benefitting from the memory. If we have the honesty and humility to feed bitter experiences into the full perspective of our lives, we can become better, stronger people.

Here’s a prayer we might like to pray: Lord, you know I have been struggling under this burden of regret for far too long. I cannot turn the clock back and re-live those days. But I can, and now do, gather up all those bad and negative memories and lay them at the foot of the cross, where Jesus died for all – yes all! – my sins. Dear Father, help me to learn from them, and so to become a more humble and Christlike person. Amen.

Here’s a brief afterthought… I suspect that most of our regrets have to do with our relationships with other people. That’s certainly what I find as I look into my own life.

Yes, certainly there are regrets about under-achievement, or big disappointments. After all, I never did play centre-half for Crystal Palace… More seriously, could I have done better academically or in terms of my work?

But the really pressing “I wishes” are far more personal. I wish I had been… a better son to my parents; a better brother to my siblings; a better husband to my wife; a better father to my children; a better friend to my friends (not to mention my enemies). And so I could go on…

I know someone who has had significant success in his working life: well respected in his field, an author of several books. But then his marriage fell apart. And he said to me “I would gladly give it all up to have that relationship back again.”

Relationships – that’s the crucial thing. Oh to be able to look at our relationships and say with Edith Piaf “Non, je ne regrette rien”!

Loving Father, help me to treat my relationships with others, and my relationship with you, as absolute top priorities. Amen.

Has church become a chore?

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing… Hebrews 10:25

One of the pleasures of church life is welcoming new people to the various services and activities. Perhaps, for most of us, this doesn’t happen every Sunday, but hopefully it’s not too rare. (If it is, perhaps it’s time to do a bit of serious thinking together…)

But the downside, of course, is when the opposite happens – when people who used to be regularly with us aren’t any more. We find ourselves saying to one another, “We don’t seem to have seen so-and-so much recently, do we?” or “Do you know what’s become of so-and-so?” (Hopefully somebody is active in following these people up…)

People fade out of church life for all sorts of reasons.

Occasionally there is a problem – a disagreement, a bit of a personality clash or misunderstanding, perhaps a feeling of not being quite happy with the way things are going. There may – who knows? – be some kind of spiritual crisis going on in someone’s mind and heart.

But more often, judging by my experience, it’s a matter of plain drift. We start to get out of the habit. Other pressures crowd in and conspire to squeeze God out. Somebody I hadn’t seen for a bit responded to my enquiry by laughing in an embarrassed kind of way and saying, “Oh, I’ve been finding it hard to get out of bed recently!” (Oh well, ten out of ten for honesty.)

The fact is that initial enthusiasm can fade. We can, as the New Testament puts it, “lose our spiritual glow”. It’s all there in Jesus’ parable of the sower, Matthew 13.

Well, if it’s any consolation, this verse from Hebrews suggests that the same problem existed just after the birth of Christianity.

We are tempted to imagine that in those heady early days everyone was bursting with red-hot zeal for God. But apparently not so: there were those, it seems, who were “giving up meeting together”. True, they may well have had a far better excuse than us – the church was experiencing persecution, or at least the threat of it, just as it is today in many parts of the world. Going to church could be dangerous. But, whatever the reason, this is a danger we can all fall into.

I remember a Sunday School teacher telling us that the church is like an old-fashioned wood fire. If you take a burning stick off the fire it will carry on burning for a bit, but very soon it will die and just be a bit of charred wood. We, said the teacher, are like that. If we get separated from the church we won’t suddenly stop being Christians, no – but little by little the glow will fade until there is nothing left. Sad!

Do you ever find yourself thinking “Perhaps I’ll give church a miss today”? Or that some television programme is more attractive than the prayer meeting or house-group? Of course you do! We all do. We’re only human. As Jesus put it, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).

But it’s at times like that that we need to be careful. This is where Hebrews 10:25 is the jolt we need. (And bear in mind, by the way, that often, having made the effort, we end up saying “Well, I didn’t feel much like going to the service today – but I’m so glad I did!”)

I always feel that holiday time is a real test here. Can I ask a direct question? If you are able to go away for a week or two, do you plan to be in worship on the Sundays? Or do you think of holiday time as a holiday from church? Shame on you! How can that be right?

It can in fact be really refreshing and stimulating to go along to a church other than your regular one – quite possibly to one from a different denomination or tradition – and experience another kind of worship style and spirituality. Not to mention the encouragement you can bring to that church by saying who you are and where you’re from.

One last thought. It may be that as you read this you are in fact one of those who has gone missing. Well, what can I say? Just this: You need us, and we need you. It would be great to see you back!

Dear Father, it can sometimes seem a bit of a chore to keep “meeting together” with my fellow-Christians. Please forgive my lukewarmness. But help me to remember that sometimes what I do as a duty quickly becomes a joy. Amen.

When faith and suffering meet

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. Romans 8:18

When I was a teenage Christian one of my favourite hymns had a chorus which went like this: “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light,/ And the burden of my heart rolled away,/ It was there by faith I received my sight,/ And now I am happy all the day”.

We used to sing it with great enthusiasm, and it wasn’t until I was quite a bit older that the troubling thought occurred to me that there was in fact a problem with it – it simply wasn’t true, not that last line, anyway.

Oh yes, it was good to be a Christian, and to know that God loved me and was concerned for me. But I simply wasn’t always “happy all the day”, and, so far as I could see, neither were most other Christians I knew.

There’s a much newer song that contains these words: “And in his presence our problems disappear”. I have the same problem here – it makes knowing God seem a bit like having a magic wand waved over us. Putting it simply, it’s too good to be true.

Please don’t get me wrong. In certain respects these songs are fine. They view the world very positively, and with real faith. But when you really stop and think, you realise that they claim too much; they are just not true to life, even committed Christian life.

Which is why I like what Paul says in Romans 8:18. There is a great blend of realism on the one hand and faith on the other.

First, the realism…

Paul recognises that life contains its problems and hardships. He speaks quite matter-of-factly about “our present sufferings”. And he knew what he was talking about. He had been thrown into various prisons, flogged and beaten, lied about and despised. Just read your way through Acts again, or take a sober look at 2 Corinthians 6:3-10.

Most of us modern, comfortable, western Christians know virtually nothing of sufferings in comparison with this. Certainly, we do have various things to put up with, some of them very severe – sickness, unemployment, money worries, family problems, you name it. But these are things we share with everybody, Christians or not; they are part of the lot of humankind. Sufferings for the sake of Christ are virtually unknown to us. So I think Paul can speak with authority on this subject.

Second, faith

The great thing is that against this sombre backdrop Paul also has a wonderful vision of “the glory that will be revealed in us”. (Note, by the way, those words “in us”; not just “to us”. It’s as if the glory is actually going to be part of us, and us part of it.)

What does “glory” mean here? – well, that would take too long to go into. But, we can be sure, it will be good, good beyond all our imaginings and expectations.

And – the point Paul is making here – it will put into perspective all the sorrows and troubles of this earthly life; they won’t be “worth comparing” with it. In 2 Corinthians 4:17 Paul expresses the same truth even more strikingly when he describes them as “light and momentary troubles” (yes, really!) and says that they will “achieve for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

I heard recently of a woman who, on three separate occasions in her life, had suffered with cancer. When asked how she felt about her ill-fortune she replied, “There’s nothing there the resurrection won’t put right!” She didn’t try to deny the reality of what had happened to her – but she had the faith to put it in the perspective of eternal glory.

Is this just “pie in the sky when we die”? No. It’s the straight truth.

God is going ultimately to bring his created order to perfection, and we who trust in Christ are going to be part of that perfection. May that thought comfort us when we feel overwhelmed by our “present sufferings”.

And may we use this wonderful vision to spur us on to fight against every form of human suffering – not just our own, but even more the sufferings of those who have it far worse than we do.

Lord, I do sometimes find life very hard and painful. I do sometimes find things getting on top of me. May I never be guilty of pretending what I don’t feel. But help me to keep in mind the promise of glory to come, and so to maintain a cheerful, optimistic and faith-filled approach to life. Amen.

Beautiful minds, beautiful people

Finally, my dear friends, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is admirable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8.

There’s something about lists that appeals to me.

I remember as a boy hearing the shipping forecast on the radio. What did I know about shipping? Nothing. What interest did I have in the sea? None. And yet those strange names had a peculiar power in my mind: Viking… North Utsire… South Utsire… Dogger… Lundy… Fastnet… Rockall… Malin…

I hadn’t the faintest idea where these regions were, but their names conjured up dramatic images of steel-grey skies and mountainous seas, of wheeling gulls and leather-faced fishermen in fragile boats. The power of words!

The Bible contains its share of lists. There are lists of names (genealogies, to give them their technical name) which summon up kings, soldiers – and ordinary people – from long-gone centuries. There are Paul’s wonderfully resonant lists of virtues and vices in Galatians 5 – the “fruit of the Spirit” and “the works of the flesh”. Just reading them is a challenge and an inspiration.

And there is this list from Philippians 4.

Paul is bringing his little letter to an end, and he is keen to leave his readers with a challenge to cultivate a life-style worthy of people who follow Jesus. But he doesn’t do this by saying “Do this” and “Don’t do that”. No. He stirs their minds by throwing out these beautiful words – true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy.

He tells them to “think about these things” – or, as The Message puts it, to “fill your minds and meditate” on these things. Why not pause right now and let these words soak slowly, one by one, into your mind?

Two thoughts occur to me.

First, it’s what goes into our minds that shapes our personalities and comes out in our actions. In other words, if you allow your mind to be filled and shaped by all that is good, wholesome and beautiful, then there is every chance that you will become a good, wholesome and beautiful person. But if you allow your mind to be filled and shaped by things which are ugly and tawdry, well… you don’t need me to finish the sentence.

The air we breathe is full of the coarse, the cheap and the vulgar. In the workplace, in the various forms of the media, in supposedly high places – parliament, higher education, cultural circles – and in lower places too, we are awash with gossip, lies and nastiness of every kind.

Our difficulty is that we are so acclimatised to it that we simply don’t notice it – it’s like an odourless but poisonous gas we don’t realise we are inhaling.

In my early twenties I spent a little time in a very different part of the world where I was pretty much cocooned from many western influences. On my return to England I remember standing on the escalator in the underground, bombarded by sights and sounds I had grown up with but had never really noticed. And thinking: “How tawdry! How gaudy! How crude!” But make no mistake, it took me only a couple of days, sadly, to get fully re-acclimatised.

This leads to the second thing: it is up to us to take responsibility for what we allow into our minds.

We are constantly told to take control of what we put into our bodies – not too much fat, not too much salt, plenty of fruit and veg, we know it well. Feed our bodies with all the wrong things and we are likely to get sick and even invite premature death.

The same applies to the things with which we feed our minds. We would shrink from consciously poisoning our bodies – yet we routinely poison our minds. And Paul here is urging us to take control of this.

And the point is this: this won’t happen by chance; beauty of character doesn’t develop automatically. A firm intention on our part, backed by the determined cultivation of good habits, is essential.

The writer of Psalm 119 asks a very basic question: “How can young people keep their way pure?” And he gives this answer: “By guarding it according to your word” (verse 9).

Well, it’s not for me to improve on the Bible. But can I suggest that, for our purposes, we read that again leaving out the word “young”. Yes! However young or old we are, it is for all of us to seek that purity. And this search begins, though of course it doesn’t end, in the mind.

I think Paul’s beautiful list can help us.

Lord God, thank you for the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the pure in heart”. Spur me on to make that my greatest ambition in life. Amen.

Shallow discipleship – or the genuine article ? (2)

My dear friends, as you have always obeyed… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you… Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe… Philippians 2:12-15

Last time I suggested that there were six “be’s” which arise more or less directly from these verses, six qualities which the true Christian will exemplify. But I only had space for the first three: be obedient; be practical in working out your faith; and be serious about following Jesus.

So what about the other three…?

4 Christian, be confident – verse 13.

Some of what Paul has said so far could seem a bit daunting – we have to work at putting our salvation into action; and in some sense we have to live “in fear and trembling”. We might be tempted to respond “Mmm, sounds a bit heavy – perhaps I won’t bother”.

But this is where Paul comes in with some good news: “for it is God who works in you…

My father was a good man, but not a Christian, so when I was converted as a teenager, it triggered some interesting discussions in the home. He felt the need to explain why he wasn’t himself a Christian.

For one thing, he had an office colleague who was open about being a lay preacher, but who – in my father’s eyes at least – told jokes and used language which were “dirty”. Sad – and a warning to each of us.

And then he had had a bad experience at an evangelistic rally as a young man. He had “gone forward” at the end of a very emotional meeting, but when he woke up the next morning it had all gone flat. He felt he had been manipulated. Again, sad.

Yet another thing was – and I’ll quote his words – “I couldn’t become a Christian, because I know I wouldn’t be able to keep it up.”

Ah! He obviously had the idea in his head that following Jesus is all about our own effort and will-power.

I was still a new Christian at the time, and I just didn’t know these words of Paul. Yes, as we have seen, the Christian life does call for real hard work; but what matters is that we don’t have to do it on our own: “it is God who works in you” (that could be translated “energises you”).

Paul doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit here, but that surely must be what he means: once you receive Christ by faith he breathes into you the power, the energy of his Holy Spirit. So the message is…

Expect to win! Expect to get the victory! Expect to succeed day by day! No droopy shoulders! No dreary pessimism! No hangdog looks! As Paul puts it elsewhere, we are “more than conquerors” through Christ who loves us.

I wonder if these words, if I had known them, might have made a difference to my father? Well, I’ll never know. But I hope that just possibly they might make a difference to you today.

5 Christian, be good-natured – verse 14.

This is the best way I can think of to sum up this verse: “Do everything without complaining or arguing”.

There are times of course when we need to disagree with our fellow-Christians, perhaps even quite strongly. It’s clear from Galatians 2, for example, that Paul himself had quite a bust-up with Simon Peter. But something really serious was at stake. All right, that may be the case with us, but it really should be a matter of last resort, not some trivial or stupid difference.

Sadly, Christians can sometimes be (now, how can I put this?) argumentative, grumbly, nit-picking, quarrelsome, cussed, awkward… All right, I’ll stop there!

Not you, surely! Nor me! Oh no, of course not… Ahem.

6 Christian, be holy – verses 14-15.

In a sense everything we have said so far – all the first five be’s – are just a part of the overall picture described in this rich and beautiful couple of verses. There isn’t space to unpack it all, so why not simply allow these wonderful expressions to sink into our minds… Blameless and pure… children of God without fault…shining like stars in the universe…holding out the word of life… People like that are, in the true sense of an old-fashioned word, “godly”. But doesn’t that apply to every Christian?

Yes? Well, let’s get on with it then!

Father, I truly want to shine like a star in the universe, giving glory to Jesus. Please help me to be true to this wonderful calling. Amen.

Shallow discipleship – or the genuine article? (1)

My dear friends, as you have always obeyed… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you… Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe… Philippians 2:12-15

Paul’s little letter to the church in Philippi is a favourite of mine. It is only four chapters, so doesn’t take long to read. It contains plenty of theology, but is still quite easy to understand. It has some rich and beautiful passages, full of comfort, hope and faith.

The verses above sum up, in principle, most of what we need to know if we are to live this wonderful Christian life. I’ve boiled them down to six “be’s” (so if, reading this, you get a bit stung along the way, well, sorry, but just take it as a word from God). There’s too much to squeeze into one blog, so I’ll make it three today and the other three next time.

1 Christian, be obedient – verse 12.

Paul is obviously pleased with the Philippians’ record of obedience. (I take it that he means obedience to God, not just to himself.) But now that he can’t be with them (he’s in prison) he wants to remind them that obedience is indeed a key part of the Christian life.

Faith and obedience are two sides of the same coin. Jesus said, after all, “If you love me, you will keep my commands” – not out of a slavish servility, but out of love and gratitude.

Show me a disobedient Christian, and I’ll show you a miserable Christian. The two things just can’t go together.

So, the question obviously arises… is there any area of disobedience in your life, or mine? Yes? Well, the sooner we put it right the better!

2 Christian, be practical – verse 12 again.

Paul says we are to “work out our salvation”. This, in fact, is what obedience is mainly about. At the heart of the Christian faith is the truth that while salvation can’t be worked for – it’s a gift of God’s grace, not something we can earn – it does have to be worked out. In other words, it has to be put into practice in our everyday living.

I could spend a long time trying to spell out what this actually means, but a good way to sum it up is to go to Paul’s description of the “fruit”, or harvest, of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5: 22). Just setting out the list is enormously challenging and stimulating… Love… joy… peace… patience… kindness… goodness… faithfulness… gentleness… self-control. If those beautiful qualities overflowing from our daily lives don’t constitute practical Christianity, true obedience, I don’t know what does!

3 Christian, be serious – still verse 12.

Paul says this working out of our faith must be done “with fear and trembling”.

Mmm – that sounds a bit grim! I have to admit that, personally, I’m not really the fear-and-trembling sort. More the cheery-and-smiling sort, to be honest.

After all, it’s not as if fear and trembling is something that can be turned on like a tap: “Right, I’ll just have my breakfast, then I’ll take the dog for walk, and then maybe I’ll do a bit of fear and trembling.” Er, no.

Fear and trembling is something men and women of God have experienced at moments of intense spiritual emotion – think, for example, of Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3), or Isaiah in the temple (Isaiah 6), or Mary confronted by Gabriel (Luke 1), or John on Patmos (Revelation 1), or the disciples in the fishing boat (Mark 4)… Good examples there!

So what can Paul possibly mean by this expression here? Well, I don’t claim to really know. But if nothing else, this is surely a call to take our Christian commitment seriously. With Jesus it’s all or nothing. Oh yes, there’s plenty of joy along the way, thank God, but there’s also the deeply serious element of “taking up our cross” to follow Jesus.

It’s tragically easy, especially for those of us in the comfortable western world, to become dabblers, triflers, in our discipleship. But cosy Christianity will do us no good, nor will it cut any ice with the outside world. So…How serious are we about our faith?

Well, I hope there’s something in my first three be’s to challenge us. We’ll think of the other three next time. (In fact, you might like to look ahead to verses 13-15 and guess what they might be. Your ideas will probably be better than mine…)

O God, save me from ever lapsing into a cosy, shallow, insipid Christianity. Help me to be the genuine article – a true, authentic follower of Jesus. Amen.

A pause for thought

Mary treasured up all these things, and pondered them in her heart.  Luke 2:19

How good are you at pondering?

I rather like that word. The Greek word Luke uses means literally “to throw together”, as if you are making a conscious effort to collect up in your mind as many thoughts as you can to have a good, calm, leisurely look at them. The Message translation of this verse says that Mary “kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself”.

To ponder, then, is to reflect, to muse, to allow something to germinate and grow in your mind, to “turn something over”, as we sometimes say. Putting it at simplest, it is to think.

Well, Mary had plenty to think about. Luke gives the impression that the immediate drama of Christmas is over. The baby Jesus is safely born. The shepherds have come and gone. Now there is a little breathing space for Mary and Joseph to get used to what has happened.

Wouldn’t you love to have been able to hear what they talked about together?…

Are we fit to be the parents of this child? What shall we do next? What do the gold and incense and myrrh really mean? What should we do with them! (No banks or safe deposits in those days!) What can the future possibly hold for us?

I don’t mean to be sentimental, but I can picture Mary, still as a statue, sitting there by Jesus’ manger and allowing the full wonder of what has happened to her to soak into her mind.

This was by no means the last time Mary pondered. In the next chapter of Luke we read the story of Jesus getting lost in the temple as a boy of 12. Every parent’s worst nightmare! “Where’s Jesus?” “I thought he was with you…” “No! I thought he was with you…!” All ends well, of course, as they discover him debating with the learned scholars in the temple. But Luke tells us this time that “his mother treasured all these things in her heart” (verse 51).

And I suspect it carried on, as Jesus grew up to be a man. Read Mark 3:31-35 and I think you’ll agree with me that she still had plenty of pondering to do – and it wasn’t always of an easy kind. Not to mention, of course, the heart-breaking John 19:25…

So back to my original question: Are you good at pondering? Do you allow yourself time and space to stop and reflect on what God is doing in your life? When you get to the end of a day do you ever stop and “throw together” into your mind the events, the words, the successes and the failures, the people you have met, the things you have heard – and seek to make some sense of them?

When I was a young Christian we were encouraged to have a daily “quiet time” in which to get alone with God and give him the breathing-space to work in our minds and hearts. We were encouraged to read a passage of scripture, to chew it over, and to pray.

Sadly, that practice seems never to have become part of many Christians’ lives. I think we are the poorer for it. Indeed, the psychiatrists and doctors (not necessarily Christians, either) suggest that we would have far fewer nervous breakdowns and heart-attacks if only we could learn to build such pondering times into our lives – to stop, perhaps to close our eyes, to breathe deeply and evenly, to simply be for a time rather than be always doing.

Life is just too frantically busy. We are daily bombarded with “input” from our computers and other devices, from the television, from papers and books, plus the normal duties and demands of life, which we never allow ourselves time to absorb and “process”.

So… as Christmas fades into our memories and a busy new routine begins, picture for a moment the pondering Mary. Think yourself inside her skin. Why not make a conscious effort to follow her example day by day? It needn’t take long – but it could make all the difference.

Dear Father in heaven, I never expect to experience anything remotely like what happened to Mary. Yet I do believe that you are at work in my life. Help me to learn the skill of pondering, of being quiet in your presence while I digest what you are saying and doing, and so to become a deeper and wiser follower of Jesus. Amen.