She was dressing when his letter arrived. It was twenty minutes till nine. It was the day of her wedding. And it was the day, the hour, and the minute that were to cast a pall over the remainder of her life. For the man to whom she had given her heart, and dared to trust, had defrauded her, and abandoned her before the altar. Shattered and humiliated, she had every clock in her home frozen at 8:40 a.m. Her daily attire became the yellowed, tattered wedding dress of her ruined youth. And the cake, that sweet, edible emblem of joy, remained uneaten, sitting crisscrossed by cobwebs atop the kitchen table. She is Miss Havisham, one of the most eccentric of Charles Dickens' characters in Great Expectations. And she is a model worshiper in the religion of regret. For her devotion is to a past that will not allow her to live fully in the present, much less to delight in a future. For in Miss Havisham’s religion, hope is the unforgivable sin.
Those of you who have been so blessed as to avoid sinking into a quagmire like the one in which she found herself, might think I exaggerate when I call regret a religion. But I beg to differ. I was a faithful member of this morbid cult for a few years, and I assure you that it so envelops a person's existence that calling it anything short of a religion underestimates the devotion it demands.
As with so many things, regret can begin as something natural, even beneficial, as you struggle to recover from a wound in your past. But over time, regret can devolve from a sadness to a sickness. It was as if I buried myself in the sands of that time of self-inflicted pain and all that marched on into the future was a shadow of my former self. Outwardly alive but inwardly deceased. For the rest of the world, time ticked on, but the hands on the clocks in my head and heart were all handcuffed to that moment.
The odd thing is that, as depressing as this captivity to regret is, we who have suffered through it tend to deify it. It becomes our lord, a god who demands, and usually gets, our all. It is a baptism of ice, which freezes us to the past. Our sacraments are scab-picking and wound-licking, our sacred text the story of our life’s undoing. We read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the bible of our betrayal. Our hearts blather out doleful songs of lament, the refrain of which is always, “If only, if only, if only….”
But the whole time that lament is sung, there is another song, full of enlivening music, that also chants, “If only….” It goes something like this: “If only you would come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And, “If only you would remove that funereal wedding dress, I would deck you out in robes of joy, for I would clothe you with my righteousness and life.” And, “Trash that cobwebbed cake and, here, ‘Take, eat, this is my body, given for you; take, drink, this is my blood, shed for you, that in me you might have peace and love and more hope than you ever dreamt of.’” It is the voice of Jesus calling, not worlds but inches away, ever present in the midst of your grief, never giving up on you, ceaselessly beckoning you to life again.
The religion of regret is a religion of falsehood, for its ultimate claim is that there is no more hope in this life. But Jesus is hope embodied, the flesh-and-blood hope of a God who raises the dead. And if he can enliven even a corpse, he can certainly raise you from the grave in which you have entombed yourself under the sands of regret. But he does more than make you alive. He is your life. In him you live and move and have your being. In him you become heaven’s child, one who bears the divine image. And your clocks tick on, unfrozen from the past, counting the days and hours and minutes until you have finally passed through this life of trials, and enter into your Father’s house, where happiness truly knows no end.