After King Agrippa has heard Paul‘s defense (which seems to have struck a nerve with him – Acts 26:26-28), he tells Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar (v. 32). Perhaps he is faulting Paul’s strategy in appealing to Rome (he knows nothing of the plot against Paul’s life – 25:1-3), or maybe he’s showing some sympathy and lamenting the irony of his situation (i.e., what’s keeping Paul imprisoned is no longer the accusations of others but his own action). Whatever it might be, Paul’s release and freedom now belong to the category of “could have been.”
“Could have been”—these are words that can haunt our lives as they dredge up the dreaded ghost of regret. Regret can be one of the most disabling, destructive forces known to man. When President James Garfield was shot just four months after his inauguration in July of 1881, medicine was without the benefit of x-rays, ultra-sounds and MRI’s. Doctors continually inserted probes and unsterilized fingers into Garfield’s wound an attempt to locate the bullet. Predictably, an infection developed and Garfield died after eighty days of suffering, having lost nearly half his weight. This is what regret can do. It corrosively seeps into our lives leaving us with wounds that for some, perhaps even many, will never to heal. They become irritated and infected by continual probing until they eat away at the soul.
Regret is universal. There’s no way of avoiding it; the most we can do is minimize it through living wisely. But like the common cold, no amount of prevention is enough. Sooner or later we all experience a situation where the outcome is painful. Perhaps we said or did something we shouldn’t have or maybe we failed to do something. Either way, the trap springs and we are pinched by the hinges of regret. It’s not a pleasant feeling.
Neither is facing up to whatever failures we are guilty of but it is an absolute prerequisite in constructively dealing with regret. Regret and denial are symbiotic—as long as we rationalize, minimize, or do anything less than own our failures, regret will continue to darken our days. Only when we expose our failures to the light and seek forgiveness (God’s and whoever we have wronged), can we put ourselves on the path to healing and wholeness.
Paul’s regret potential was off the charts. He had been involved in terrorizing people he now called brothers and sisters. There probably weren’t many Christian communities in Judea he could go to where he wouldn’t run across someone who had family or friends Paul had persecuted or put to death (26:10). But he owned that as surely as he owned his faith and forgiveness through Christ.
And from there he moved forward (see Philippians 3:13-14 which is written from a different perspective but still applies). Then there’s this from 1 Timothy 1:15-17:
- This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His immense patience as an example for those who would believe in Him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Paul accepted that part of the reason he was chosen by God was to be a model showing people that if God could forgive Paul, He can forgive all of us. It’s obvious that Paul took these words quite seriously. Hopefully we do too. It’s instructive that as Paul’s meeting with King Agrippa ends, his only regret is that the king and all who’ve heard him don’t now the peace that he does (Acts 26:29). He’s gone from regretting his life to the regret that gives life.