Here is a humble and sincere question from a listener named Roy: “Dear Pastor John, I have been reflecting recently and was reminded of the hurts I have inflicted upon people whom I have crossed paths with. As much as I would like to seek restoration, the means of doing so are no longer practically possible. While I believe that in Christ those past wrongs are forgiven, I cannot help but feel a lingering sense of guilt and regret when I bring to mind those incidents. How do I reconcile the reality that I have been forgiven in Christ for the hurts I have caused, of which restoration is no longer possible, and my lingering sense of regret?”
I think the first thing I should say is that probably, in this life, the things we have done wrong that hurt people in the past will always be remembered, if they are remembered, with a sense of regret. It seems to me it would be a sign of callousness if we felt no measure of sorrow for the wrongs we’ve done and the hurts we’ve caused. I don’t intend to tell Roy that while he lives in this world he can get beyond those feelings of sorrow and regret. Those are signs of a tender heart, not an unforgiven soul.
The key is this: will his life be paralyzed by those memories and those feelings of regret, or will those very feelings empower him with a sense of greater grace, greater gratitude, greater joy at what he has in Jesus who forgives him? That’s where the Scriptures do, indeed, help us tremendously.
"Ask God’s forgiveness for hidden faults. You don’t need to remember them all. His grace is sufficient."
Roy is right to be moved by the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:23–24, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you” — in other words, if you’ve really hurt him — “leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Yes, that’s right. Make it right. If you’ve stolen something, give it back and apologize. All kinds of things need to be done to make things right. If you’re worshiping and brooding and holding a grudge against others because of what they did, then you need to go make that right. Wherever possible, we do this. If we’ve wronged anyone, we should seek to make it right. But, as Roy is pointing out, that’s not always possible.
The person we wronged may have died. They may be utterly inaccessible in some way: in a coma, or on the other side of the world, or they may be unwilling to be reconciled. That’s the worst kind of inaccessibility. Jesus knows all this, and he’s not saying that our salvation or even our peace of mind depends on whether we have access to the people we need to be reconciled with or whose hurts we need to set right. The thief on the cross had no opportunity to restore anything that he had stolen for decades. He must have stolen from dozens and dozens of people since he is just called a thief. And yet, Jesus said he’s going to be in paradise (Luke 23:43). He never set one thing right. Not one. Psalm 19:13 pleads for forgiveness for hidden faults. Why? Because we can’t remember them. We don’t even know what people we’ve hurt. If we can remember some, we can’t remember them all.
Let me give a principle from Scripture that might help Roy, and then a closing illustration from my experience. Second Corinthians 8:10–12 is talking about a heart-intention to be generous with our money versus the actual opportunity to do so. Then I’m going to apply this to reconciliation, and you’ll see the application. Here’s what he says, “A year ago [you] started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it” — that is, generous giving. “So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have.” Then Paul says this wonderful word of principle. He says, “For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.”
In other words, if the readiness, if the willingness, in this case, to give generously — but it also applies to willingness to be reconciled — if the readiness is there for reconciliation and for the repair of wrongs, it is acceptable. That readiness is acceptable according to the opportunities we have, not according to what we don’t have. There’s the principle. That’s what Roy needs to hear. In the case of money, if you have it, your willingness will be assessed by your giving. If you don’t have it, God knows your willingness, and he delights in it. The same thing is true with reconciliation. If there’s an opportunity, do it. God will delight in that. But if there’s no opportunity but a great willingness and readiness, God will delight in that.
"God delights when you are willing and ready to be reconciled, even if there’s no opportunity."
Now, here’s my illustration. I got a phone call years ago from a man who had had a heart attack and knew his life was hanging in the balance and that he could die any day. He was calling everybody he could remember that he might have offended and making things right. We had a good laugh together because I like this guy a lot, and we used to spar when I was a teacher in college. We’d get into hot conversations. He was worried that I was maybe holding a grudge. I said, “No way. I love you. You’re fine with me. Thanks for calling anyway.” I assured him no ill will.
But that man’s acceptance with God and peace with God did not depend on his getting through his list before he died. I don’t know if he got through his list because he did die. He did in the next few weeks. And it doesn’t depend on him remembering everybody that should be on the list. For goodness’ sake, how could he ever remember that? He was a pretty difficult guy to get along with. He probably made a lot of trouble. I liked him a lot, though. The beauty of his action was that it showed a good heart that wanted to make everything right and to hold no grudges and withhold no reconciliation — and that’s what God wanted from him.
That’s what God wants from Roy. And that’s what God wants from all of us: that kind of ready-to-be-reconciled heart.