Regrets/Circling the Mountain

Then we turned around and went back into the wilderness, following the route to the Red Sea, as God had instructed me. We worked our way in and around the hills of Seir for a long, long time. Then God said, “You’ve been going around in circles in these hills long enough. Go north. “  Deuteronomy 2:1- 2 (MSG)

As we live out our lives within in this fallen world, we encounter adversity and negativity – sometimes to a significant degree. And because we are finite, limited and flawed beings, we too, often miss the mark of what God intended for us. The emotional and mental residue of these experiences can accumulate into what we call in today’s parlance, “emotional baggage”. One of the commonest types of emotional residue is regret. Regret can arise from ruminating over our own past actions/choices, missed opportunities or mistakes or how we’ve treated ourselves and others. Emotional wounds can also arise from events/experiences external to us, such as mistreatment or abuse or loss. In particular, relational hurts can lead to bitterness, unforgiveness and a cynicism that hardens our hearts. These toxic emotions can poison our inner lives and seep out to corrupt our outer lives (relationships, work etc.).  They can prevent us from embracing the grace, vision and purpose of God for our lives and sap our motivation to move forward. The Bible refers to these emotions as “the filthiness of the spirit or “defilements of the heart” (2 Cor 7: 1, Matt 15: 10-11). And, while largely invisible, these things can keep us stuck in a place that the Lord is not stuck at – and we can stay there for a long, long time. I refer to this as “circling the mountain”, a term I heard from Joyce Meyer years ago.

It is not only bad things that can lead to us getting stuck; sometimes we end up “circling the mountain” as a result of a good/positive experience. We can become enamored of a certain style of teaching or worship that met our needs at a particular point in our lives. Or it could be a certain “mountaintop experience” with God, or some deep revelation that we then refuse to move on from. Biblical examples include the bronze serpent, which was a touchpoint for healing for those bitten by fiery serpents during the wilderness experience of the Israelites, but which later became an object of idol worship (see 2 Kings 18:4). Other positives that can become a trap/hindrance include things like early life successes/achievements. When we hold on to these things for too long or refuse/fail to move on, they can leave us locked into a certain place/developmental stage.

This scripture describes a time in the journeying of Israel when they became stuck in a place that He never intended for them to remain in. The story begins in the preceding chapter (see Deuteronomy 1: 6-8), when the Lord instructed the people to go into the Promised Land, to take it. But because they lacked the faith to do so, they disobeyed and experienced a significant defeat (vs. 42-46). Following this defeat they became stuck in that region.  The language used to describe this season is instructional: “they wandered in circles for a long, long time”. I believe this is a good picture of what happens when we continuously mull over the past, in regret. Such thinking is typically directionless, without purpose and without meaning and leads nowhere but downward.

Although it can be hard to see any corollary between the experience of the Israelites in the desert and our own lives today (after all most people don’t physically live or wander about in the deserts), this story does offer some lessons for us in our walk with God today. I think this scripture gives us useful insight into the Lord’s mindset regarding regret and losses. While it can take (sometimes significant) time (and help) to work through major conflicts, hurts, and wounds, or the debris left behind by major life events (divorce death, financial trouble etc.), it is clear that Lord encourages and expects us to move on eventually.  In fact, in this scripture, He gave them a clear directive to do so. It appears that moving on from those places of hurt, loss or disappointment requires a decision and an act of faith to do so, which He, in turn, honors. Ultimately however, the past is past, and we typically have little ability to change it. We can perhaps mend certain relationships or redeem/remediate certain life choices, but in many cases, the best we can do is to let go and move on.

The Lord has given us a beautiful promise of His grace towards us in this regard. In Isaiah 43: 18, He promises us new beginnings, even in areas that are desert (dry, unproductive, barren). One thing that gives me hope is to read numerous examples in scripture where the Lord created something beautiful out of something extremely bad. A particularly poignant example was the birth of Solomon, whom the Lord Himself named (Jedediah) following one of the ugliest incidents ever recorded in scripture. By doing so, I believe the Lord was signifying that He was done with that episode and was moving on with His purpose for mankind, which involved bringing Christ to earth through the line of David. And in Rom 8: 28, we are given an even more explicit promise, where He states that He will work all things together for our good – mistakes, disappointments, ugliness and all. Because, in God’s economy, even our most painful experiences can ultimately become meaningful monuments of His grace.

Shalom.

Sunmolu Shoyinka, Practicing Psychiatrist Specializing in Addiction and Psychosomatic Medicine

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