Listen To Article

A high school classmate of mine died last week.   Now that my classmates and I have entered our mid-50s, the death of a peer, though still upsetting, maybe has a little less shock value than a couple of people who died already in their 20s or early 30s.   Still, in an era where many live vibrant lives well into their 80s, dying at 55 is a source of sorrow.  Actually death at any age is a source of sorrow.

This particular classmate—who I will call Jean—was not someone I knew very well (if at all really).  In a graduating class of about 280 few if any people knew everyone beyond maybe their names.   But I do remember Jean.  I remember that she was almost always alone.   She was often attired in clothing that seemed a little shabby and she was regarded as overall quite unattractive.  Although she often seemed to have a wan smile on her lips, I mostly recall her as walking with her head slightly down.  I cannot recall ever hearing her speak in any class I took with her.  I am not even sure how often (if ever) I or the other friends of mine with whom I hung out ever so much as greeted her in the hallways. 

And I would like to tell you that when in PE class we did a unit on Square Dancing (the only co-ed unit we did) that I was not among my male peers who made a big show of it—a big negative show of it—whenever one of us was due to Do-Si-Do or Promenade with Jean.   I would like to be able to tell you I did not behave in ways that made Jean feel bad.   But I am pretty sure my non-verbals matched those of my male classmates who acted like touching Jean was odious.

Jean’s death coincided with Joe Biden’s getting into the presidential race.   A lot of the early talk about Biden was that he has the advantage of long experience and of having a record.   Then again, he has the disadvantage of having a record.  Inevitably things he used to believe in—but may not now—or actions he took or words he spoke or his behavior with Anita Hill come back as talking points and as potential sources of critique or judgment.

Then again, who among us is any different?  All of this also coincided with my co-teaching a class this Spring on the Psalms.  Several of my students wrote their required sermon for the course on Psalm 130 and took special note of the verse “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, who could stand?”   All things being equal, we all have a record.   All things being equal, none of us could stand on that record.  

Most of our lives have enough past shabbiness as to cause deep embarrassment now as well as chagrin, sorrow.   “Regrets, I’ve had a few but then again, too few to mention.”  So crooned Frank Sinatra in the song “My Way.”   Maybe it’s the Calvinist in me but the regrets I have are more than a few and I don’t think I can do away with them by refusing to mention them.   Those regrets come back at me all on their own whether I mention them to myself or to anyone else or not.

I gather that Jean got married eventually.   She had a life after high school, was involved in her church, and had—I hope—friends.  I hope others were kind to her in ways my teenage self was unable to muster. 

“If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, who could stand?  But with you there is forgiveness so that we can, with reverence, serve you.”   How often do we realize that our ability to serve God and honor God in our lives is premised upon and founded on God’s ability to forgive our past record of sins?   If we have faith and if we manage to live lives of discipleship (however bumbling), it is far from an accomplishment of our own.  It is a gift.  It is a gift that renews life and gives us a shot at becoming the kind of people we all wish we had been all along but mostly were not (and too often still are not). 

“With you, O God, there is forgiveness.”   This Hebrew poet was saying more than he knew.  Only those of us who now stand on the other side of the cross and resurrection can fully appreciate the depths of that forgiveness and what it cost God.  That gracious forgiveness is our very life now.   And with that renewed life even those of us with oft-shabby past records can serve God with reverence and with awe.  

Thanks be to God.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

10 Comments

  • mstair says:

    ” … regrets come back at me all on their own whether I mention them to myself or to anyone else or not.”

    ” … to live lives of discipleship (however bumbling), it is far from an accomplishment of our own. It is a gift. ”

    And so are our regrets. They “keep us honest.” They remind us to continue our repenting, and our thanking, for grace.

    Grateful for this word today.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    The Lord works in mysterious ways. I woke this morning thinking of past and present inabilities to curb my worst demons, however trifling they might appear to others. Your honesty reminded me that I am not alone in past regrets but, like you, “can serve God with reverence and awe”. Thank you.

  • Patti DeJong Sheckler says:

    Great reminder, Scott. Thank you for this article. It touched me.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Scott, for a thoughtful article. I’m sure it does ring true for all of us. We all carry our share of guilt and guilty feelings with us from the past and even from the present. When you say it may be the Calvinist in you, are you talking about the Calvinist emphasis on total depravity, the idea that every part of our being is infected by sin? That makes it pretty difficult to escape the idea that we are failed human beings, and we don’t have to look very far to see that failure. What makes your (and my) failure toward Jean so odious is that we never took the opportunity to makes thing right with her. Any time we look back that harm done is still there. And now it’s too late for her.

    We don’t know how our past sins have impacted people. We don’t know if Jean’s personality of being a wallflower carried on through her life and how our actions and inactions contributed to that. But you can be pretty sure having God’s forgiveness doesn’t make Jean feel better. Your insensitive actions (as well as that of others) were done to her. And to make things right you need her forgiveness, not God’s. The idea that God forgives all our sins makes little sense when most of our sins were committed against people other than God. But if having God’s forgiveness makes you feel better, then more power to you.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      I think that if I thought God’s forgiveness of me rid me of all regrets, I would not have written this blog. Among the “record of sins” we all bear is precisely the failure to, the inability to, and sometimes the impossibility of reconciling with others or of seeking their forgiveness. As Lewis Smedes used to write, there are many scenarios where this side of eternity we cannot make things right: there are some who refuse to receive our penitence, who refuse to forgive. There are those who die before we can seek forgiveness and those we lose track of for other reasons. And then there is the matter of sometimes not being able to forgive ourselves even if others forgive us. It’s complicated. When Jesus forgave the sins of the paralyzed man let down through the roof by his friends, people were scandalized. After all, this man had committed no sins against Jesus so what business did Jesus have proffering forgiveness? But if all sins are also finally sins against God, then as God’s Son, Jesus’ blanket forgiveness makes sense. No, that does not relieve us of seeking forgiveness from those we have hurt but it does mean that God’s forgiveness of us for our sins against others has a bit more to do with the whole equation than your last two sentences here would seem to indicate. (Or maybe you just decided to send another sneer my way that had little to do with a theological reflection.)

      • Harvey Kiekover says:

        A very helpful response, Scott. It is true: we ought to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged. It is painful and good to do so. But there are those times we no longer can ask forgiveness, whether of parents or siblings or anyone now out of our reach. God can handle our regrets and cleanse even guilty consciences with abundant and real grace. So yes, we have regrets but we can serve. Thank God! And thank you, Scott, for this blog.
        Harvey

    • Ray says:

      It is difficult for any one of us to acknowledge–much less publicly state–the wounds we have inflicted on others. Such a condemnatory, injurious response seems antithetical to the grace of the gospel. Thank God we have a Saviour who loves & forgives us in spite of the “past shabbiness” we all have been guilty of.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Praise God, you are forgiven. Trusting also that I am already forgiven for all that long record of past sins, even those that still leave regrets.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Scott, for the reply. The last two sentences (in fact the whole of my reply) has everything to do with theological reflection.

    My point was that justice was not served by the idea of God forgiving you (or me) for the sins that you committed against Jean. You have suggested that there are plenty of guilty feelings (regret) but that you have no actual guilt. Your guilt has been placed on Christ. Having someone else pay (in your place) for your wrong doing does not serve justice. For instance, apparently Adolf Hitler was ultimately responsible for the murder of six million Jews. In the Christian perspective, Hitler (before his death) could have seen the error of his actions, repented, and asked God for forgiveness based on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And God would have forgiven him and welcomed him into heaven (the thief on the cross next to Christ). And we, as Christians, would applauded God for his wonderful grace and justice. Only problem, there would have been no justice served in the minds of most rational people, especially the Jews. Or having another person pay for the serial killings by Ted Bundy would have never served the cause of justice in anyone’s mind. So, in your mind, God covers the guilt of our sins, but guilty feelings may remain (regrets).

    You may suggest that a substitutionary atonement fits the Biblical perspective and makes all things right, but common sense argues against such a system of justice. Otherwise we would be using it in our courts of law. So you are arguing for a contrived sense of justice which comes from the Bible. And because the Bible delineates such a system you will support it, even though you wouldn’t likely support it for our country. Why? Because it doesn’t make sense, nor does it fulfill the requirements of justice

  • RLG says:

    Scott, I realize conversations on this blog seldom go for more than a day, but still thought I would send a final reply. I fall out of the loop with many of those who write articles for and with those who respond on this website or blog. My intention is not simply to sneer or be snarly but to shed some light or give some perspective from a different vantage point. I’m basically a guy who has converted to deism from the Reformed faith. As you know, deism is not a religion, but more of a philosophy. And as such, it has quite a bit of flexibility.

    Scott, I believe if there is really such a thing as a great banquet in heaven, you and I will be seated right next to each other. I can picture you with your arm around my shoulder as we eat a sumptuous meal of prime rib, mashed potatoes, green beans and blue berry pie. And the conversation is as good as the meal. Seated right next to you on the other side is Ted Bundy, also enjoying the meal and conversation. And next to me on my other side is Adolph Hitler also scarfing down his pie as the four of us chat together. The four of us look up from our delicious meal and gaze together across the table as Jean (that offsetting girl from highschool) comes through the door. But now she is dressed in a new gown and crown of glory. Together the four of us rise up from our meal and rush over to her, all with open arms as we embrace each other. What a joy to see each other, but now on completely different terms.

    I hear Scott Hoezee speak up in wonderment, asking, “How can this be?” How can we all be here together. And I even eyed a buddhist priest and a Muslim cleric at the table.” We were all dumbfounded. This is impossible. But then God spoke up from behind us and said, “You are all here not because of what you did or didn’t do on earth. Nor are any of you here because of what you believed or didn’t believe on earth. You are here despite your actions on earth and despite your beliefs. You are here in heaven simply because I am a loving God and wanted a new beginning for each of you. Welcome to my new world.” Scott, I will truly enjoy the surprise and opportunity of befriending you on God’s new earth. Blessings to you.

Leave a Reply