We believe that to forget our past sins or mistakes (whether real or imaginary) would be to suggest that they were not significant or serious. To forget would be like laughing at the graveside, a failure to pay our respects. So each regret becomes a shrine before which we endlessly bow, like somber priests offering dutiful sacrifices, and knowing that there must never be an end to our sadness, because no amount of sacrificial sorrow can truly do justice to the mistakes we’ve made.
But our great high priest did not offer himself as a sacrifice in order that we might go on offering ours.
At the end of Luke 9, Jesus encounters two men in thrall to their past. The first man says that before accepting Jesus’ invitation to follow him, he must go and bury his father. Jesus responds, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” The second man says he must go and say his goodbyes. But Jesus insists. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Whether we are troubled by past sins, or merely the past, Jesus’ words will make us truly free if we will live by them. Listen, he says. The past has no jurisdiction in the kingdom of God.
Think back over your history, no matter how motley. All the things you did or did not do. All those choices made in cowardice, carelessness, or foolishness. Whether through oversight, ignorance, or sin. Jesus says to you what Joseph said to his fearful, regretful brothers. Be of good cheer. God ordained that all of them would be for your own good, and for his own glory.
To paraphrase John Newton: everything was needful that he sent. Nothing was needful that he withheld. Yes, if you had your time over again, you would choose differently. But know this: Your Father, whose name is Love, would not.
Regret had done its job in Paul, and he no longer had any use for it. “Forgetting what is behind,” he writes in Philippians 3, “and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.””