Instant regrets, memory wipes & free will

 
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(Credit: Matthew Henry)

Have you ever done something you immediately regret?

Perhaps you’ve let your emotions get the better of you, lost control and said something particularly harsh to a friend in the heat of a moment—you wish you could take the words back the moment they left your lips. Or maybe it wasn’t something you said, but something you didn’t; you held your tongue when you should’ve spoken up. Maybe your confidence led you to say something categorically wrong, and your friends were all too eager to mock you when they corrected your error.

Words aren’t the only thing you may regret. Perhaps an argument turned physical. Maybe your friends urged you to do something you’ve regretted ever since.

We’ve all had to live with those guilty feelings.

Sometimes we may look back on these incidents fondly and laugh. When the damage is repaired, we find humour in the circumstances. Personally, I have—on no less than four separate occasions—made jokes about a friend’s relationship with their partner, only to find out they had broken up with them since the last time we caught up. In the moment I was mortified, but looking back at the pattern it’s something that makes me and my friends laugh. Nowadays I try to avoid those jokes, no matter how good natured, and my friends are always remembering to update me on the status of their relationships so I don’t blunder into yet another situation like this.

Unfortunately, more often than not, our past mistakes are a source of discomfort rather than laughter. Guilt is never a comfortable emotion.

Regret has a way of sticking with you. At least once a week I find myself thinking back to one of a variety of cringe-inducing incidents from my past. Often the memory will fill me with such shame I feel my fists tightening and hear my thoughts berate me for my mistakes.

I can tell you that emotions like these are not good for your mental health.

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(Credit: Marcos Paulo Prado)

Almost everybody has done something they regret and wish they could undo. It’s almost impossible to live life with no regrets. The question is, how do we learn to live with these guilty feelings and avoid doing things which can cause more regret in the future?

For me, I find my answer in the Bible.

Freedom in . . . death?

At the root of the Bible and the Christian faith is the story of a man who died to save everybody from the ultimate consequences of their actions. Humankind deviated from our intended design and has been inextricably tied to actions which will cause others harm. The consequences for this deviation should be an eternal death and separation from our Creator.

If you think you’ve ever regretted something before, imagine how much regret Adam and Eve, the first people to stray from this original design, must have felt. They were given life forever. All they had to do was follow God’s word. Instead, they were forced to experience suffering and ultimately die.

Thankfully, according to the Bible, a solution had already been provided that solved this problem. That solution was Jesus, God Himself, who lived as a human and died in our place before defeating death and taking away the separation from life and God. In dying on the cross, Christ gave us a second chance. In choosing to follow Him and His actions the Bible tells us that we “shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Choosing to follow Him is a radically life-altering decision for many. Some passages in the Bible highlight the immensity of this decision by comparing it to a metaphorical death, while others focus on the ways in which we are made new as a result. 2 Corinthians 5:17 states: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old is gone, the new is here!” His death on the cross freed us from the punishment due from all our regretful actions. All we need to do is believe in Him and His sacrifice.

So what happens after we are made anew?

A new creation

The “new life” given to us through faith is not as simple as flicking a switch marked “Salvation”.

This isn’t to imply that salvation requires work—the Bible clearly states “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no-one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9). It’s clear by this statement that there is nothing that we can personally do in order to save ourselves. It is only by accepting the gift given to us by God that we are saved.

But this gift, as mentioned, fundamentally changes us—and part of that change should be a desire to follow the example of how to live set forth by Jesus. Becoming a new person should be evidenced by a change in behaviours and patterns. As the verse immediately following states: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

But does this mean that we will instantly become able to do all these great things?

Well, it doesn’t happen immediately. Taking the steps to follow Christ does not instantly free us of guilt and regret or wipe the memories of past actions from our mind. Change takes time, progress and effort. Mistakes are an important part of growing and learning from our past actions is a necessary step in understanding where we went wrong and how we can improve.

“Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves” (1 Peter 2:16). The imagery here of being “God’s slaves” may be confronting, but that’s in part due to our historical perceptions of what being a slave is like. Unlike slave masters throughout history, God is somebody who cares for us, wants the best for us, and will always look out for us. An analogy from popular culture that I find apt is the relationship between Han Solo and Chewbacca from Star Wars. Chewie owes Han a life debt—something which some may compare to slavery—but the resulting relationship is not one of exploitation; it is instead a true friendship where respect and love are paramount: that, and the life of a scoundrel, so the analogy isn’t perfect.

Knowing all this, just one question remains: what do these “good works” prepared for us look like

The sheep and the goats

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (the first four books of the New Testament) have plenty examples of Jesus’ works which we can follow. Jesus cared for everybody, including those who society at the time labelled as unclean. He treated everyone equally and humbly. He did not shy away from action, even if it was controversial and would call out corruption and injustice when He saw it. Above all else, His interactions embodied the love that God has for everybody, no matter their gender, race, sexuality, religion or . . . anything.

To be transformed by faith creates a desire to imitate Jesus’ pattern in our lives. We will undoubtedly fall short of His example—but it should be the bar we strive to reach, understanding that it is only possible to do so with His help.

The result of this transformation is summed up in a parable Jesus told His disciples. At the end of our time on Earth, God will divide the people of all nations into two groups: sheep and goats. The first group, the sheep, will receive their inheritance of eternal life, because of what they have done in His name. God explains why they received this gift: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35,36). When this group notes that they do not know when they did this, God responds: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

The other group—the goats—are chastised by God who notes that they did not help Him when in need, even as they claimed to follow Him. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). This group is forever separated from God and His gift of life.

The message here is clear: faith in God is evidenced by the transformation that follows.

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(Credit: Antonello Falcone)

Interestingly enough, it is the group labelled as the sheep who are the ones to receive God’s gift. In the present day, to call somebody a sheep is an insult—often used mockingly to describe those who do not aggressively question authority.

A scepticism of earthly authority can be healthy—indeed, those in charge have repeatedly been revealed to be corrupt or self-serving throughout human history. But unlike humanity, God is not flawed, and His plan for us will work to keep us safe. If a shepherd has the best interests of his flock in mind, how much more so does God have our wellbeing as His focus. In this way, being a sheep in His flock should not be inter[1]preted as a negative.

Truly following His example is the best way to grow into a life without regrets.

Ryan Stanton is a PhD student at The University of Sydney, and an editorial assistant for the Australia/ New Zealand edition of Signs of the Times