The interviewer David Frost sat before billionaire, philanthropist, and founder of CNN, Ted Turner, whose nickname ‘The Mouth of the South’ guaranteed a few salty quotes. “What is the biggest regret in your life?” the interviewer asked. The businessman, after a pause, appeared melancholy and sober, and answered clearly, “The way I treated my first wife.” Then there was silence. With seven words, a book-length description of hurt and pain was recorded.
“My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.” These words are recorded in the Old Testament book of Lamentations, but they could easily be words of our own. When we each look into our own past, we find some things that are simply humiliating. We have done them, whether in our immaturity or weakness or ignorance- or maybe in our sin. Whatever the motivation, whatever the contingencies, regrets about our life exist and, more than that, they have shaped who we are today.
Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy wrote, “Experience is as to intensity, and not as to duration.” By that, he meant that a person’s life or experience is shaped more significantly by the few, brief, intense moments than by the long, quiet lulls that make up the bulk of our life. The hard blows of life impress us more than any other kind of experience.
What kind of experiences are these? These are times when the ignorance of innocence is exploited by calloused reality. These are times when lighthearted frivolity unexpectedly yields catastrophe beyond repair. These times are humbling because our naivety is exposed. They are shameful because priceless treasures were lowly valued and then lost. The heart is shamed when it finds out too late that it was not kept with all diligence; that it trusted too willingly; that it expected sweetness and found poison; that it should have known better.
One consequence of such brief, intense experiences is that humiliating memories hide in the shadows. The prophet Jeremiah records such an experience: the captivity of Israel and the destruction of Jerusalem. In reflecting on this he wrote, “My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.” Do we understand what he meant?
Examine the culture and popular music of the present day. Many young people are clearly trying to deal with the dizzying world of theirs. Because of their own brief past, many see themselves as fractured or broken. Personal appearance is often intentionally repulsive, as if to say, “I am a victim of life’s heavy hammer; it has left me ugly.” Self-respect is merely another self-deception. When those of decent society look on scornfully, the heart whispers in agreement, “I knew I was worthless.” Pain becomes precious and, unfortunately, where the treasure is, there will the heart be also.
Jeremiah’s experience was just as bitter as any of the things modern people suffer. His words are like the depressing lyrics of a radio song. Let us muster patience and read his relentless lament in Lamentations 3:1-20.
“I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. He hath led me, and brought me into darkness, but not into light. Surely against me is he turned; he turneth his hand against me all the day. My flesh and my skin hath he made old; he hath broken my bones. He hath builded against me, and compassed me with gall and travail. He hath set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old. He hath hedged me about, that I cannot get out: he hath made my chain heavy. Also when I cry and shout, he shutteth out my prayer. He hath inclosed my ways with hewn stone, he hath made my paths crooked. He was unto me as a bear lying in wait, and as a lion in secret places. He hath turned aside my ways, and pulled me in pieces: he hath made me desolate. He hath bent his bow, and set me as a mark for the arrow. He hath caused the arrows of his quiver to enter into my reins. I was a derision to all my people; and their song all the day. He hath filled me with bitterness, he hath made me drunken with wormwood. He hath also broken my teeth with gravel stones, he hath covered me with ashes. And thou hast removed my soul far off from peace: I forgat prosperity. And I said, my strength and my hope is perished from the Lord: remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall. My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.”
Can we taste fully the dregs of this cup of bitterness? He describes a life that has been thrust without consent into this world, and without consent has been stripped of dignity. Every step he took in faith, he thinks, betrayed him. Even at the briefest thought of this time in his life, he is humiliated. “My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.”
With a life so miserable, what are the options? Many escape through suicide- unfortunately escaping, not misery, but life. Many, many more have committed a slower form of self-destruction by choosing to live a life less-abundantly. Normal commitments are broken, whether to job or to loved ones or to God. A perverse goal of somehow being able to perfect one’s downfall drives people to go farther and farther astray. The search for love is soon replaced by a search for pleasure. A natural sense of wonder is replaced by boredom. Art becomes distortion, mutilation or obscenity. Musical styles shut out harmony. Becoming unbeautiful to the world brings daily the experience of self-vindicating rejection. Perhaps people are simply trying to ruin what is good before God can. Thus the ultimate defiance is wrought, not to society, but to the very will of God. Are young people somehow convinced that their behavior proves that they, like God, can will mindless destruction?
Not everyone responds this way. True, sin really is purposeless. But, God is not without purpose, and some discover that the events of life are not brutal accidents to worthless humanity. Through evil and pain, some people still see God’s mercy and goodness coloring the lives of men. By sitting in the dust and by bearing the chafing yoke, some people grow closer to God, not farther away. And, rather than seeing every pain as unjustified, some people begin to see every mercy as unjustified. Instead of doubting the existence of divine compassion, some begin to see it anew and realize that God’s compassions never, ever fail. This same Jeremiah, whose words we have already read, does not end his lament with despair. Continuing where we left him, read again his few words.
“My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me. This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke of his youth. He sitteth alone and keepeth silence, because he hath borne it upon him. He putteth his mouth in the dust; if so be there may be hope. He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him: he is filled full with reproach. For the Lord will not cast off forever: but though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies. For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men. … Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins? Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord. Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the Heavens.”
We come to understand that it is not always the fault of another that makes our way difficult. We learn that life is full of pain and that avoiding spiritual bruising is impossible. Even more, we learn that God does not delight in humanity’s maze of affliction. He, rather, tempers it for us and longs to heal the whole world.
Healing is something that only God will do, and only with our consent. He will not do it while we resist Him or hold onto our pain. Hurting people cannot hold onto their injuries and let go of them at the same time. The only path to restoration begins with humility, confession and teachableness. It ends with love, joy, and wholeness.
The God of all Goodness hates our regrets more than any of us do, yet calls us to live again a life of goodness. Let us lift up our hearts to Him.