Most religious traditions have a proscribed process for repenting of past mistakes and errors. In the Western religious tradition, we speak of atoning for our sins. A sin is something more serious than a simple mistake. It is a violation of one of God's laws. To atone means to make amends or reparations for past sins or faults.
At one point in my own life, I became a kind of law unto myself. I decided what was right and what was wrong, loosely based on society's acceptance of a wide range of behaviors. Behaviors that I rationalized for my own convenience. Behaviors that nonetheless made me feel guilty, because somewhere down deep, I still knew they were wrong.
After I came to myself, I confessed my past mistakes and repented. As I went through the process, I came to understand that taking the requisite steps to repentance was not a punishment, but a way to let go of the past, to rid myself of guilt, and find my path forward. I believed the words of Jeremiah in the Bible: "...saith The Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more."
But, I discovered, sometimes the person we have the hardest time forgiving is ourselves. Maybe that's because while God can completely forgive us, our actions still carry consequences. Even when repentance is sincere, and God forgives us, the pain that we may have caused others lives on. So we make restitution as best we can. And then we let go of the guilt.
The pain I caused my own daughter was brought sharply to my attention a few years after I returned to my faith. We were on a walk together. Just the two of us. We had attended a wonderful family event earlier that day in a chapel we hadn't been in together since she was a teenager. Something about that day had touched her tender spirit. I could see it in the tears that ran freely down her face. So I asked her about it. At first she was reluctant to tell me.
The answer I got was not the one I expected. Her tears were not tears of joy, but tears of pain. Pain that I had caused her years earlier. She spoke of the last time she had been in that building. She was just 16 years old. She was with a group of girls, singing the song, "Love is Spoken Here." I barely remembered the event.
Asking others to forgive us
My daughter reminded me that she had stormed angrily out of the chapel at the conclusion of the song. I did remember that part. I just never knew why. So she told me. "Mom, when we got to the part in the song that says, ' I see my mother kneeling with the family each day, I hear the words she whispers, as she bows her head to pray,' I got angry because you didn't do that anymore. You weren't praying with us anymore. And that hurt. You raised me to be a believer. And then you just stopped believing."
She was right. Her words shot straight through my heart. I could barely catch my breath. I hugged her, asked for her forgiveness, and told her how much I loved her. It was all I could do. It was all she expected.
We cannot go back and change the past
I could not go back and undo the past. We both knew that. I had to let go of the guilt I felt for mistakes I had already repented of. To do less, would be to deny the power of Christ's atonement; to deny that God had forgiven my mistakes and remembered them no more.
American educator and religious leader Jeffrey R. Holland made the comment: "We look back to claim the embers, not the ashes." There may be nothing quite so unproductive as living in the past. There's nothing we can change there. Coulda, woulda, shoulda will not change today.
Finding the beauty that lies ahead
All we truly have is today's present moment. We can live today for the joy of living, for the service we can give to those around us, for the happiness we can spread to others. Just for today, we can spread sunshine and hope.
If like me, you sometimes find yourself still feeling guilty for sins or mistakes for which you've already repented, let go. Let God continue to heal your heart and the hearts of those you love. Be grateful daily. Press forward with hope. Give back. Most importantly, move on and find the beauty that lies ahead.