Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Thoughts on Remorse

I'm really good at regret—perhaps too much so. One reason for that is that I've given myself so many opportunities over the length of my life for it. Now, before you bring up the matter of scrupulosity, please understand that I know I've been forgiven. I'm not talking about the nagging fear that I haven't stated each and every sin in exactly the right formula to be absolved, or the rather odd pridefulness of a notorious sinner that resists God's forgiving grace (although I have been guilty of both before). I'm talking about having those moments of remorse when I remember some event, action, or word that may have injured someone. In some cases, I will confess these sins again, not because I fear the need for absolution for them again, but because in remembering them, I frequently understand the sin in a deeper sense. Reconciliation is a way for me to reconcile myself to my own actions and my own fault, as well as to be reconciled to God. Maybe a better way to put it is that by confessing the specific instance of a sin and my newfound understanding of its sinfulness, Christ can heal me more deeply.

I remembered one such instance of this today. Following the completion of my master's degree (in the early 90s), I taught English composition as an adjunct instructor at the local university. One of the assignments I gave (a research paper) involved taking a tour of the school library and listening to a presentation by one of the research librarians. (For those of you in school who do not yet know about these angels of the library (biblioangeles?), believe me, they are one of the greatest resources available at the library when you are first learning how to do research.)

The librarian for one of my sessions was one of my favorites, a bit older and classic bibliophile. One of his more notable features was his tie selection. He had a large collection of unusual ties. Some were on the zany side, others just from periods in which tastes were simply... er, different.

I chatted with him for a moment before he began to explain what I felt they needed to know (in addition to whatever he felt also might be pertinent). When I introduced him to the class, I mentioned his qualifications and his assistance to me as a graduate student. Then I added an offhanded comment about his tie collection, something to the effect that he had the most obnoxious or loudest ties imaginable—something to that effect. I was making a small joke at his expense to entertain my class, my students... my audience.

He looked as if I had just punched him in his gut.

I knew at the moment that I had wounded him. His tie collection might've been a bit colorful and zany, but it was an expression of something in this well-educated, gentle man that he otherwise hid in this environment—a side of him that perhaps felt a bit more vulnerable and didn't feel he could freely share through much more exposure than a simple garment.

He let it go quickly and jumped right in to the presentation, and in a few minutes, the moment was past, and I forgot about it.

But that moment has come back to me a few times over the years, and I've come to understand that I didn't just make a harmless joke at someone's expense. I callously stepped on something fragile in him.

I wonder how often I do that without any recognition, just in the process of daily life, step on others around me. I think this is why I revisit some of these past sins, not to wallow in my sinfulness, but to understand just why something that seems so small is such a great offense to God.

I tried to explain this concept to my brother a week or so ago. He's grappling with his own faith right now, trying to determine just what he really believes, what it means to sin, and if God even cares about the minutia of our daily lives. I likened God's reaction to our sin to that of a father seeing one child do something hurtful to another. Surely, the father loves both children, but the harm one child does to the other also hurts the father. This is why there are no victimless crimes or sins that affect only the sinner. The Father sees the harm each sin does to all of us, and it causes Him pain.

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.
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