Regrets. Unless we have serious sociopathic tendencies or a blessedly terrible memory, we all have them. There are the things we wish we had never done, or never said. We’d take them back if we could. There are the things we wish we had done or said, while we still had the opportunity. But we can’t change the past.
Can we change the present? Can we atone for past sins?
This is speculation on my part, but I imagine that Saul of Tarsus was, at least for a while, plagued with serious regrets after having met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Saul was a deeply passionate man; in part, that’s what made him a dangerous enemy. After his encounter with Jesus, left unable to see the outside world, his sight would have turned inward.
In his mind’s eye, he would picture those he had wrongly and unjustly persecuted. He would remember his self-righteous satisfaction.
And he would remember Stephen.
In the previous post I noted how Saul, upon returning to Jerusalem after his conversion, began to debate the Hellenistic Jews there. This is precisely the kind of evangelistic activity that eventually cost Stephen his life.
Surely there were less incendiary ways for Saul to make his debut as a Christian in Jerusalem. But it seems like just the thing a zealous new convert might do, especially one who needed to right a grievous wrong he had done.
Some years later, Paul would have to defend the legitimacy of his apostleship against the various ways his opponents in Corinth tried to smear him. One cornerstone of his case was that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to him directly. But listen to how he says it:
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Cor 15:8-10, NRSV)
“Untimely born”: the word suggests a preemie or even a miscarriage. What Paul means is far from clear, but some scholars believe that he is riffing on an insult that his opponents have used against him.
But rather than play the childish “Am not! Are too!” game, he uses a bit of verbal judo, accepting the insult and taking it even further. You want to call me the runt of the litter? I accept that. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle in the first place. Who else, among all the people to whom Jesus appeared, persecuted the church the way I did? But I am an apostle — not because I earned it, not because I deserve to be, but solely by the grace of God.
It’s not just a rhetorical strategy. Paul sincerely regrets his poisonous campaign against the church. That regret is one of the reasons Paul “worked harder” than any of the other apostles.
But over time, Paul’s embrace of grace grows as his regrets relax their hold. He knew from the very beginning that he had been saved by the grace of Jesus out on the Damascus road. But it took time for that grace to overcome his regret and become the experiential center of the gospel he preached.
Like I said, we have our regrets. There may be people to whom we owe a heartfelt apology. Justice may require us to right a wrong, to try to fix what we’ve broken.
But we need to be careful. Our zeal can be misplaced; we can do the right thing for the wrong reasons. The motivation for apology and the restoration of relationship has to be more than just the desire to erase troublesome feelings of guilt (witness the sad scenario in which, when an apology is offered and then refused, the would-be penitent exclaims in a huff, “Well, I said I was sorry!”). We must at least have true compassion for the way we have hurt the other.
And ultimately, we must learn to embrace the grace of God working within us. We cannot truly atone for our past sins. But someone else has. And because of it, we can face our regrets more courageously.