As happens periodically a few days ago my past caught up with me again. I had some interaction with a lady I hadn’t seen for a very long time. Last week our paths crossed and our meeting was not as amicable as I would have liked it to be. In fact, I felt decidedly uncomfortable and she, for her part, didn’t seem very relaxed either. Let me share my problem with you.
Many years ago I had assisted this lady in working through some issues that she was struggling with. It was tough going. We were not making much progress and there were several visits and a number of phone conversations that in the end didn’t resolve anything. Thankfully this lady later got over that rough spot in her life and today is a well-adjusted contributing member of her congregation. So what’s the problem? My indiscretion! On one occasion I used her problem in a public gathering to illustrate a point I was making. No, I didn’t mention her by name. And I thought that I had adequately disguised “her case” so that no one would pick up who I was referring to. But she came up to me afterwards and was visibly angry with me. “You were talking about me weren’t you?”
Starve the lizards; I should have paid more attention to that lecture on confidentiality in Pastoral Counselling 101…!
I pointed out to this lady that I had not mentioned her name and that I thought I had changed enough detail so that no one would ever associate her with the illustration I had used – all to no avail. In the end I apologised for my indiscretion and admitted that it would have been better if I had asked for her permission. Soon afterwards she moved away from our church for work reasons.
The anomaly of course is that in writing this blog about the situation I’m opening myself up to accusation of breaking confidence yet once again – except for one thing: this time the illustration is about me and my indiscretion and not about her. This week was my first contact with that lady since she had left our church many decades ago. It highlighted for me that you can be forgiven for a certain sin but you may still have to live with consequences of it.
That same point came out in quite a different way in a devotion I led with the teachers of our local Christian School this week. We were studying the life of Jacob. Jacob, after serving his uncle Laban for some twenty years, sets off to return back to Canaan. But returning home would mean having to face his brother Esau whom he had not only diddled out of his rights as the firstborn but whose blessing he stole from their blind father Isaac. Esau had resolved to kill Jacob and that was why he had fled to his Uncle Laban in Paddan Aram.
The point is that while Jacob knows himself to be forgiven and a covenant partner with His God, Jacob still has to face and deal with the consequences of his sin against his brother Esau.
Someone once gave a very stark example of this difference between being forgiven and having to live with the consequences of our wrong and sinful action. Imagine a teenage girl who is involved in a one-night-stand and who consequently find herself pregnant. Does the Lord God forgive her when she repents? Absolutely! Does God take the baby away? Not usually! That forgiven young lady still has to live with the results of her wrong and sinful action.
Many of you who read this blog will be able to think of your own instances where you have to live with regret about the past even though you know you are forgiven.
So how do we handle these situations? We can’t undo what happened and sometimes there is nothing we can do to make things right again. That serves to keep us humble and reminds us, not only that we live in a fallen world, but also of our own failures and sin. Yet having said that I also know of situations where, with much perseverance, prayer and love, we can rebuild the relationships that we fractured by our own thoughtlessness. When we do work at these situations then the Lord also uses them to grow us in Christlikeness. Contentedly living with regret should be our last resort.