I am the son of a pastor. During my dad’s forty years of ministry, he did many great things; he probably committed a few stupid acts; and he occasionally had to make unpopular decisions. He passed away almost twenty years ago.
The “Smith” family was originally supportive of my dad during his Detroit pastorate (from 1963 to 1975). And then they suddenly opposed him. The Smith’s used to smile; now they scowled. My dad was unsure what he had said or done (or not said or done).
He asked repeatedly what had happened. They denied, repeatedly, any hard feelings.
Pastor’s kids know almost everything that’s happening at church. I knew something was wrong. Mr. Smith had once mentored me. Then he began saying, “Sam, you son of a pastor.” But he slurred the last word to sound like, “Sam, you son of a bastard.”
He thought it was funny.
One day, when I was about twelve, a Frisbee landed on the roof of the sanctuary. The roof was probably twenty feet high, maybe more. I knew a secret access—pastor’s kids know every nook and cranny of their church—so I climbed up to retrieve it.
Mr. Smith happened to be on the ground right below me. He looked up and saw me. He sneered, “I dare you to jump.” Even as a kid I was shocked at his hostility.
I admit I was tempted, tempted to shout back, “Why the ‘F’ don’t you work this out with my dad?” But I was afraid of getting in trouble for cussing. Instead, I did what any bewildered twelve year-old boy would do. I simply stared at him.
And I jumped.
I admit to experiencing a certain sinful pleasure as I watched his face blanch before I hit the ground. The future pain of the approaching ground paled as I saw the present pain of regret on his approaching face. It felt good.
God protects drunks and fools, and I was a twelve year-old boy. By definition, I was a fool. I escaped injury, not even a sprain. Not so for Mr. Smith. From that day forward, I think he lived under the pain of regret, the inner injury of what might have happened.
At least he never again questioned my lineage.
I wonder what Mr. Smith regretted specifically. Was it my potential injury; was it the witness of other kids; or was it the public unveiling of his bitterness? Maybe all three.
Whichever it was, I’m curious if he ever explored the regret beneath his regrets.
Our deeper regrets
Last week I heard an old quote,
There are two types of pain you will go through in life, the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. Discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.
I asked myself what “tons of regret” weigh on me. So I made a list, bulleting every substantive regret I could remember. I listed words I’ve spoken, decisions I’ve made, actions I’ve taken, and relationships I’ve harmed (or not formed).
It took less than an hour to fill two pages. I regret never doing this before. (There’s another one for the list.)
Then I examined my list for underlying themes. What triggered each regretted action? Why had I said “X” inappropriately (or not said something needed)? Why did I act as I had? What were the common causes?
My themes of regret
The ache of regret arises when the pain of our action is paired with the painful disclosure of our self-deception. For some reason, we bowed in fear before Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, and we now stand alone in the furnace of an ugly self-revelation.
My deepest regrets are relational. Oh sure, I also made bad business decisions that cost money or prestige; but years later, that money or prestige matters little compared with the agony of relational hurts:
- I never addressed a serious distress in my family when I was in High School.
- I was silent about harmful practices in a large prayer group that I belonged to.
- My marriage experienced deep adversity because of my passivity.
The biggest mistakes of my life would have been avoided—at least minimized—had I practiced the discipline of being real. I regret it. I bet your regrets have the same root. I wish that I had shared openly in my family, in that prayer group, and in my marriage. I regret not being real.
I don’t mean uncontrolled gushing of emotions. I mean disclosing my beliefs, questions, doubts, affirmations, and disagreements. I mean open expression; no more hiddenness.
I could have prevented terrible pain to my wife and kids; I could have protected dozens, maybe hundreds, of people in that prayer group; I could have forestalled relational shallowness with a sibling …
If I had only been real. But I cowardly kept quiet. And I regret it.
Mr. Smith’s regrets
Forty years later, I still see the fearful pain etched on Mr. Smith’s face. I wonder how that grown man could let his unspoken resentment fester; fester to the point he would bait an innocent preacher’s kid. If he had been real with my father—had he dissipated his bitterness through open expression—he would have saved a ton of regret.
(Okay, there’s no such thing as an innocent preacher’s kid. Just don’t tell anyone.)
I no longer wish to live with such regrets. This life without regret will take courage, a bit of self-disclosure, a sense of what’s happening in our own hearts, and a leap of faith; the leap that knows the pain of being real today is better than the pain of regret tomorrow.
Let’s jump. Shall we?
P. S. The wife of a friend wrote a book called, Groceries on a Saturday Morning. She openly shares her life without the pretense of tying up each story with a neat Christian bow. She’s real.
I rarely recommend a book. But if you get a chance, check it out, and read it with these questions in mind: How is she being real, and how can I be so too?