In her deeply affecting book, Keep A Quiet Heart, the late Elisabeth Elliot tells the story of a childhood injury her father, Philip, suffered at the threshold of his most vital years of youth:
When my father was twelve years old he lost his left eye through disobedience. He had been forbidden to have firecrackers, but he sneaked out early in the morning of July 4, 1910, and, with the help of a neighboring farmer, set off some dynamite caps. A piece of copper penetrated his eye.
The incident set a deep sadness in the heart of the boy's mother, Elisabeth's grandmother. It was a hard sadness, tightly wrapped like a ball of twine with many strands of remorse, second-guessing, what-ifs, and no small amount of imagined opportunities lost. What does the future hold for a boy with one eye?
Sometime later in life, Elisabeth came into possession of several letters her grandmother had received from the hand of her husband, Elisabeth's grandfather. In one such letter her grandfather specifically addressed the accident his son had suffered and the sadness which had gripped his wife. The letter, she says, bears a two-cent stamp and a Philadelphia postmark.
I am not one bit surprised that after all our experiences of the past four years you should suffer from sad memories, but I really do not believe for a moment that you should feel you have any occasion to let remorse bite into your life on account of Philip's accident. Surely we cannot guard against all the contingencies of this complex life, and no one who has poured out life as you have for each one of your children should let such regrets take hold.
None of us could be alive to the pressing needs of today if we should carry along with us the dark heaviness of any past, whether real or imagined. I know, dearest, that your Lord cannot wish anything of that sort for you, and I believe your steady, shining, and triumphant faith will lead you out through Him, into the richest experiences you have ever had. I believe that firmly.
I have had to turn to Him in helplessness today to overcome depression because of my failures. My Sunday School fiasco at Swarthmore bears down pretty hard. But that is not right. I must look ahead, and up, as you often tell me, and I will. I know how sickening remorse is, if anyone knows; yet I also know, as you do, the lift and relief of turning the whole matter over to Him. We must have more prayers and more study together, dearest. I haven't followed the impulses I have so often had in this.
Lovingly, your own Phil.
The letter is more than a family heirloom. It is a peek into the secret fight of faith of a mature and maturing believer in Christ. It is also, no doubt, a love letter of the most enduring kind - sharing the love of Christ as we love one another.
On the surface of her grandfather's life Elizabeth Elliot only saw steady amiable consistency: "My grandfather was the most cheerful and serene man I knew in my childhood. It is hard for me to imagine his having had any cause for remorse or temptation to depression." Behind the scenes, however, her grandfather lived with his own tenacious temptations toward regret. Yet, he kept finding the unconquerable kindness of his everlasting Lord greater than all his regrets.
The apostle Paul told the Philippians: "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" (Phil. 3:13-14).
What was Paul so eager to forget and leave behind?
The context of chapter 3 suggest he regretted all the years he wasted polishing his own self-righteousness (3:9). How much regret awaits a man who spends hours every day in his driveway polishing a car only to discover it is a piece of junk and will only move when it is towed away as rubbish. Paul was such a man. Not only this, Paul also had a well-documented career of persecuting the church (3:6). He threw mothers and fathers in prison for their love of Christ (Acts 8:3) thereby belittling the worth of the risen Christ (Acts 9:4). What a regrettable zeal!
But ultimately, regret is nothing more than a debilitating devotion to our own self-righteous where we become the subjects of our own recriminations. The script of regret says: "If I had only not done that stupid thing I would be so much farther along in life, so much more admired by others, so much happier." "If I had only been more aware, more timely, more thoughtful, more decisive, more clairvoyant!"
There is, of course, something to learn from our regrets (Romans 6:21). However, we have not learned much until we have learned our regrets are to be forgotten because our future - our tomorrow and eternity - is in Christ. The holy calling which our resurrected Lord Jesus has for us tomorrow and for eternity makes our regrets nothing better than chaff. To be gone with the wind. All things about us and our weak little lives are taken up and converted by his kingdom, power and glory into something immeasurably greater than what we could imagine producing if we were to go back in time and do things just the way we wanted to.
Our regrets remind us that our lives are but trophies to God's grace. Now forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. Press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.