What If and What Is
“Do you want to take a leap of faith?” Saito raises his eyebrows. “Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?” When presented with such an ultimatum, who among us would not choose to do something—anything—to avoid such an agonizing fate? Any warning that tells us we will regret doing (or not doing) some action causes most of us to pause. Fear may be a powerful motivator, but regret is often the wizard behind the curtain pulling strings.
The antidote to regret, we may decide, is to take that leap of faith—and this theme is not limited to the film Inception or any other fantasy world. Can faith and regret coexist? Can faith exist without regret?
Regret is sometimes erroneously regarded as the hallmark of Christian virtue. According to some, a believer should be either sufficiently and continuously morose over her past transgressions or oddly proud of them, humble-bragging that God would dare to save even a sinner like her. In either case, the focus is on the believer, either as the penitential convert who works herself to death to atone for the past or the life-coach who embraces her sins as prerequisites for spiritual growth.
No matter how you spin it, regret is cyclical. Recurring guilt, brooding, and introspection can push us in at least two directions. We can become so despondent over our sins that we fall in on ourselves and decide that we have thoroughly wrecked God’s plan for our lives. If only I hadn’t lost my temper, I might have been promoted in my career. If only I had studied harder, I might have gotten into my dream college. If only I had seen the warning signs, I might have been able to identify the illness that devastated my loved one. At its heart, regret often whispers, “If only I hadn’t fallen into that stupid sin, I might have received the temporal blessing I crave.”
For all its stewing, regret ironically does not truly focus on the past. Often it is more concerned with the present and the future and how they would be if only we had done something differently—or it poses the utopian fantasy, “what if you accepted yourself just the way you are?”
We can self-medicate our regret away by a strong shot of self-love. We can convince ourselves that hey, everyone sins—and really, we rationalize, my past is pretty clean compared to most, so I don’t think that particular sin is really a big deal anymore. We neatly dodge any consequences of our shortcomings and become champions of positive, regret-free living. We can take Saito’s proffered leap of faith and try to live openly, fully embracing shadow and sunlight with equal passion and broad-brushing our entire history as very good.
Repentance, on the other hand, fully knows the past because it focuses solely on the Person of Christ who entered into our actual history. It echoes the theology of the cross which, as Martin Luther put it in the Heidelberg Disputation, “calls the thing what it actually is.” By contrast, regret deals with sin by either drowning in it or slathering its corpse in makeup, “call[ing] evil good and good evil.”
Regret asks “what if.” Repentance says “what is.”
Repentance looks to the cross to see both the weight of our sin and the weight of God’s glory. The guilt that pricks my conscience sees its culmination in the thorns that dug into the sacred head of God the Son. Repentance forces me to confront my sins not as idle folly but as kill contracts. The daily ritual of recognizing the evil in our lives, viewing its terrible price, and praying for deliverance is not a conditional “what if” thought experiment. It calls our sins what they are—damnable offenses—and runs to who Christ is: the only One able to overcome sin, death, and the devil by His perfect life, death, and resurrection.
2 Corinthians 7:10 tells us, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Regret, whether we succumb to it or try every spiritual drug to numb it, is not our paragon virtue. Godly grief is without regret because it focuses not on what life might have been but on who Life is. In the shadow of Calvary, still echoing with the agonized screams of our dying Lord, we do not justify our failings or relish the risqué appeal of committing our pet sins.
We have no power to turn from our sins on our own, and so the Father turned His face away from Christ as the Son of God was stricken on Calvary. The forgiveness is there—not a conditional, “if you’re sorry enough, God will forgive you,” but a crimson flood gushing from the wounds of Christ. Repentance is there in the life of the Christian, too, not as a masochistic grovel but as a joyful stirring of a heart of faith that yearns for the truth. “Should some lust or sharp temptation fascinate my sinful mind,” I neither dwell on the depth of my depravity nor sugar coat my wandering thoughts, but through the power of the Spirit pray, “‘Draw me to Your cross and passion,’ and new courage I shall find. Or should Satan press me hard, let me then be on my guard, saying, ‘Christ for me was wounded,’ that the tempter flee confounded” (“Jesus, Grant that Balm and Healing”).
As Luther said in the first of his 95 theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance occurs daily, hourly, with every breath for the Christian—not self-flagellation nor exultation, but the ceaseless focus on Christ’s flagellation and His states of humiliation and exultation that are credited to us. We no longer live in the grief of regret, for the joy of the LORD is our strength (Neh. 8:10). Through the Spirit who dwells within us, we call our sin what it is and call our Savior by His Name: Immanuel, God with Us, who takes away the sin of the world.