Rendering Regret, Receiving Redemptive Grace

Lying in a hospital bed, he looked at me sitting across from him. With a pale and sunken face, white hair and dark pupils, he looked at me with confusion even though I softly explained who I was and what I was doing in his room.

“Tell…her…I…am…sorry,” he said while gasping for breath. “She needs to know.”

Spending a year as a hospital chaplain and being with those in their last few moments of life was something I experienced 43 times in one year. There was a sense of privilege in being present in such a sacred moment. With many of these patients, there was a feeling of peace and acceptance in their hearts in their final days.

However, for others in their final moments, there was a sense of regret and remorse during the last few days of their life.

From regrets in our past about our actions that were made out of arrogance and selfishness. To regrets in our past about how we treated those who were in our lives or those who we loved. Regret is a fabric that each of us has clumsily woven into our life story at one point or another. And forgiveness is what we seek not only from those we caused hurt and pain. But forgiveness of ourselves is what we also seek out of fear that our past will define us in the memories of those we leave behind.

“We see our sins reflected everywhere: in the pallor of our intimates’ faces, in the scratching of tree branches against windows, in the strange movements of everyday objects,” writes Anna Godbersen in the book titles ‘The Luxe.’ “These may be messages from God or tricks of the eye, but in neither case are we permitted to ignore them.”

Writer and novelist Charlotte Bronte once wrote, “Remorse is the poison of life.” I agree with her that living with regret is a poison which holds us hostage. But I also believe having regret can allow us to begin the process of accepting our own failings and allow us to search for the one who will liberate us from it.

The Christian gospel is not just about liberation from our world and the injustice in it, but it’s also about liberation from ourselves. For Jesus disciples, he shared the need for us to repent, but also the need for us to find liberation through him.

“Brothers (and Sisters), I do not consider that I have made it my own,” shares Paul in Philippians 3:13. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind 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.”

While forgiveness is a gift which we may not always receive from others, it is a gift we will always receive from God if we genuinely seek it. Our regrets should not be seen as open wounds of remorse reminding us of our shameful past. Rather, our regrets should be seen as healed scar tissue which acknowledges our own shortcomings yet reminds us each time we look at it that through Jesus Christ, anything can be forgiven.

Yes, changing the past is something none of us are able to do. Yet through God’s grace, we are given the ability to heal our past.

“Once you have grace, you are free,” writes Thomas Merton. “When you are baptized, there is no power in existence that can force you to commit a sin-nothing that will be able to drive you to it against your own conscience. And if you merely will it, you will be free forever, because the strength will be given you, as much as you need, and as often as you ask, and as soon as you ask, and generally long before you ask for it, too.”

Christopher L. Schilling is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), hospital and Air Force chaplain, and a freelance writer.