“The burden of regret can weigh us down heavily on our spiritual journey. The best way to release regret is to forgive ourselves.
– James Van Praagh
As I said the words I will forever regret, I turned, my eyes involuntarily scanning the crowd. I’m not sure what motivated me to look, but my eyes met his.
I see sadness and disappointment there. At that moment, I tipped off-balance and fell into a well of regret.
I frantically fight against drowning but a part of me knows I deserve it. I quit fighting as the waters of shame and guilt wash over me.
How will he ever forgive me? How will I ever forgive myself? Am I forever condemned to this prison of self-contempt?
The Formula of Self-contempt
I have felt on several occasions my choices were unforgivable. In the aftermath, I would sit quietly, overwhelmed by the cacophony of self-contempt blaring in my mind.
Each time, I crawl off, with my tail between my legs, wishing I could relive the event so I could make a better choice.
Unfortunately, life does not work that way, so my analytical mind focuses on each event, dissecting it hoping to identify a pattern or formula that led to this shameful state.
My hope is in discovering this formula, I can avoid this self-contempt in future choices. In my analysis, I have broken it down to:
Poor choices + regret + guilt = self-contempt
1. Poor Choices
The moment I make poor choices, usually out of selfishness, it’s a step toward self-contempt. Many times, I unconsciously make these choices, before my brains can register a red flag, thwarting my next move.
In that moment, an uncomfortable or undesirable event occurs and, Bam! I make a poor choice.
These choices I make not only affect me, but they hurt others around me. Though I don’t wake up thinking, Who can I hurt today with my words or actions?
Yet, even without malice, I have betrayed, denied and hurt other people and in these bad choices, I establish the root of self-contempt within my heart.
I am not the only person who has done this; a man named Peter, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, also made some bad choices.
Peter’s Poor Choice
Peter was a New Testament character who dedicated his life to following Jesus. He was an eyewitness to Jesus’ miracles and was privileged to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him.
He made one bad choice, however, he would never forget.
Toward the end of each of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we find a significant exchange between Jesus and Peter.
Jesus is speaking at the Last Supper, and he has just identified the one (Judas Iscariot) who would betray him in the hours to come.
The disciples must have exhaled a sigh of relief when Jesus did not identify them, but only for a moment.
Within minutes, Jesus reveals shocking news to Peter in Matthew 26:34 (NIV), “I tell you the truth, Jesus answered, this very night before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
Peter, in all his self-righteousness, replies in verse 35, “Even if I have to die with you, I’ll never disown you.”
I believe Peter is sincere in his statement but the Gospels describe how in the next few hours, Peter makes the poor choice of doing the thing he said he never would do; he denies even knowing Jesus, three times.
Many know of this treacherous event, recorded in all four of the Gospels but Luke reveals a detail many people miss.
In Luke 22:61 (NIV), immediately after Peter denied he was a follower of Jesus for a third time, “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.”
I would have died a thousand deaths at that moment; Peter most likely did, too. Regret must have filled Peter’s heart which is the second ingredient of the formula for self-contempt.
When I regret things I have done, things causing so much damage, it’s hard to forgive myself, much less, ask others to forgive me. It is as if I’ve come to a forked road, with two options laid out before me.
Option one: I regret my poor choice, confess I did it and choose to not repeat it, bearing the consequences of my choices.
Option two: I can live with the regret, believing this horrible feeling is what I deserve. God should condemn me to live in misery.
In consideration of these two options, I note each will cost me something.
Option one: If I confess, I must humble myself and admit I made a poor choice, committing to not doing it again.
Taking this path is difficult because I must reveal things I’d rather others not know about me; it makes me vulnerable. This cost pinches but it’s reasonable.
Option two: If I choose this path, living with regret and not making things right, I am voluntarily placing myself under house arrest and I will never live the life of a free person again.
This cost is high; one I’ll be paying for the rest of my life.
In the New Testament, Peter chooses the second option, living with regret. Nowhere in the Gospels does it tell us Peter pursued Jesus to say he was sorry.
(If he had, the Romans most likely would have arrested him as Jesus was now in the middle of his trial.)
Three of the Gospels tell us when Peter heard the rooster crow the third time, “he went outside and wept bitterly.” Luke 22:62 (NIV)
Peter moved into the third element of the equation leading to self-contempt: guilt. Peter must have been saturated with it.
As one who has lived with guilt, it’s not a pleasant place to be. Guilt carries with it the power of condemnation. It differs from regret.
Regret is wishing I had made a better choice; guilt is the emotional punishment I place on myself, staying with me long after the event transpired.
Self-contempt results each time my poor choice comes to mind, I subsequently regret my actions and then I stab myself with the sword of guilt, believing this is what I deserve. I think:
If I don’t feel guilt over a poor choice, then I’m not sorry for the poor choice I made.
The problem is that carrying around guilt does not aid in fixing broken relationships and self-contempt.
Peter felt regret and guilt for denying three times he even knew Jesus and he carried the heavy chain of regret around his neck wherever he went.
The New Testament is silent about Peter’s actions after Jesus’ crucifixion, but I am convinced he held on to his guilt and could not forgive himself until he heard two words which changed his life.
These two words freed me to forgive myself and I found a new formula to use when I regret a poor choice:
Poor choice + two small words = forgiveness of self
The New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, continue telling the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and subsequent resurrection that took most of his followers by surprise.
I had read these accounts many times and yet, I had somehow missed two important words only the Gospel of Mark records.
I am convinced God purposely included these two words for Peter’s sake and for everyone else who lives in self-contempt over a poor choice.
In chapter 16, an angel of the Lord appears to several women who arrived at Jesus’ tomb to tend to his body. This angel tells them Jesus wasn’t there; he has risen from the dead.
In the rush of confusion and excitement, it’s easy to miss the two small words that hold such significance.
The angel instructs the women in Mark 16:7, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”
I’ll never forget the first time I noticed these two words, seemly unimportant: “and Peter”.
At first, I thought, That’s redundant. Tell the disciples and Peter. Peter was one of the disciples and then understanding washed through my heart.
God felt it was important to mention Peter by name. “Tell the disciples and Peter…”
Peter’s guilt over his denial of Jesus must have been eating away at his soul. God knew this and He wanted Peter to know he was forgiven. This, in turn, gave Peter the power to forgive himself, replacing all self-contempt. If God forgives me, than I can, too.
If God forgave Peter for his poor choice of denying Jesus and sought to encourage him to forgive himself, I can do the same. It’s as if the words of Mark 16:7 could be rewritten, “Tell the disciples and Susan….”
Do I deserve it? No. It’s not about deserving, it’s about grace and forgiveness.