No one would dispute that we all have sinned – and that some of those sins have hurt others, perhaps terribly. That’s why this essay is about forgiveness.
And it is also about regret – not the ‘good’ regret that leads to repentance and a change of lifestyle, but the unhealthy regret many of us live with – a regret that permeates every fiber of our days and weeks and years.
God wants better for us. God’s provided a better way for us. Of the multiple examples He gives us in Scripture of how to accept His forgiveness, let’s look at only two.
The first is Saul of Tarsus. Here is how Luke describes him: “Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)
Saul – known now to us as Paul the apostle – described himself this way:
“ . . . [N]ot only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities.” (Acts 26:10-11)
But then Saul met Jesus on that road to Damascus – and we know the rest of that story. Convinced that God had forgiven him, Paul laid aside his self-condemnation and got busy doing the work God called him to do. Here is what he said of himself in his letter to Timothy – and this is a critically important lesson for each of us who struggle with self-recrimination:
“It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1)
I hope you caught those words: Sinner, mercy, and patience. Paul left his past in the past where it belonged, covered by the atoning blood of Jesus. That’s one reason he could write to the Christians at Colossae:
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. . . . . having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions . . .” (Colossians 2:8-13)
Paul would not let even the devil make him a prisoner of paralyzing regret. He’d repented of his sins, and he knew he could trust Almighty God to forgive him.
Now let’s look at one other person who could have easily fallen prey to the devil’s temptation to despair. If anyone could have wallowed in self-condemnation and self-recrimination, it was Peter. Surely, he remembered the words of his Lord recorded in Mark’s gospel (8:38) “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
And there he stood, remembering his denial of His Lord – even swearing “I do not know the Man.” If it had ended there, we’d have heard nothing more about the man.
But it didn’t end there.
The New Testament writers used two words for “love” – phileo and agape. Phileo (fil-EH-oh) carries the idea of a close fraternal affection. The special friendship of David and Jonathan is an example of phileo love. (1 Samuel 18:1-3)
Agape love is often used to describe God's unconditional, merciful, and enduring love for you and me. Some definitions of Agape are: “to prize the object of that love above all other things; to be unwilling to abandon the object of that love, or to do without the object of that love.”
Now let’s look at those Greek words as used by both Jesus and Peter in John 21:15-17. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?” He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.” He said to him, "Feed my lambs.”
“He then said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me?” He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep.”
“He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, "Do you love (phileo) me?” and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phileo) you.” (Jesus) said to him, "Feed my sheep.”
A modern version of the conversation might sound something like this:
“Peter, do you love me
with all your heart?”
“Lord, I have great affection for you.”
“Feed My lambs.”
“Peter, do you love me above all else?”
“Lord, I think you are wonderful.”
“Tend My sheep.”
“Peter, do you have great affection for me?”
“Lord, you know I do.”
“Feed My sheep.”
Two things catch my attention in this exchange between the Lord and Peter. First, after each agape/phileo exchange, the Lord’s charge to Peter was essentially the same: “Feed My sheep.”
In other words, “Peter, I know you feel guilty, but your repentance restored our relationship. Your sorrow and guilt are unnecessary. Don’t let them keep you from the work I have called you to do."
How like the merciful Christ to call us out of our sorrow. How like Him to renew our relationship and set us about the work He’s given us to do.
Second, Peter felt miserable about his thrice denial of his best friend and Lord. Miserable, and self-condemned. But then I noticed how the Savior tried to help Peter move beyond his guilt. When Peter wouldn't say – couldn’t say – he loved (agape) Jesus, the Lord came down to his level: “Okay, my friend. Do you have affection for me?”
How like Christ to be so gentle to our wounded spirits.
I need that gentleness and mercy. And I imagine you can probably use a dose of it yourself. When we feel unable to tell Him, “I ‘agape’ You,” the Savior tells us it’s okay if we just like Him a lot. And when our sorrow overwhelms us, the Shepherd comes alongside, puts His arm across our shoulders and tells us, "I agape you." “I love you very, very much. I prize you. I do not want to be without you.”
Scripture is full of the stories of people who let God down, people who at first rejected God’s grace, but then after their repentance, went about doing God’s work.
But – and this is crucial – they first needed to accept his forgiveness. They needed to put aside their own remorse which only served to paralyze them and place them in the chains set for them by the devil.
Listen! We cannot serve God while we indulge our wounded conscience. CS Lewis said it very well, “I think that if God forgives us, we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise, it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.”
Let me say it kindly, but also unmistakably: How dare we sit in the corner nursing our guilty conscience when God has said to the penitent: I forgive you?
Please. Please. If your self-recrimination and your self-condemnation holds you back from getting out there and doing God’s work – then now is the time to place your lingering guilt at the foot of the cross. He always forgives the penitent. Always.
And He always has work for the penitent to do.