It’s OK to Admit that You’re Not OK
If you’ve made a mess of your life (like I have), then you probably struggle with a lot of guilt, shame, and regret (like I do). And if you’re a parent (like I am) and the mess you’ve made has hurt your kids (like mine did), then the guilt, shame, and regret you probably feel is often paralyzing (like mine is).
There hasn’t been a day since I became a dad almost twenty-three years ago that I have not wanted to be a dad. There have been times when I didn’t want to be a husband, a friend, a son, or a brother. But I have always loved being a father to my three kids: Gabe (22), Nate (20), and Genna (16).
From the moment each of them came into this world, we’ve been close. Parenting has had its share of challenges and heartaches over the years, but being a dad has not been hard for me. It’s been my life’s deepest joy since I became one.
So, I will never forget every detail of when I had to sit down two and half years ago to tell my three children that I had been unfaithful to their mother. Those details are deeply etched in my memory as if it happened twenty minutes ago. The looks on their faces, their words, their tears. To this day, every particular of that Friday afternoon haunts me.
My daughter Genna was the first to speak. With a look of utter sadness, shock, and disappointment, she said, “Dad, why? Why? Why did you do this? I trusted you. You’re my dad. We are supposed to be best friends.”
Nate didn’t say a word. He looked down with his lip quivering, and then got up and walked out the front door.
Then Gabe, my oldest, spoke. Holding his brand new baby boy (my grandson Mason) with his wife Jamie sitting next to him, he gazed at me with a look of anger and deep sadness and said, “I’ve always looked up to you. You are my dad. You are my mentor. I tell everybody that you are my mentor. Dad, I can’t believe you did this. Dad.”
At that time, all three of my kids were already in a very fragile place. Genna was heading into her final year of middle school, Nate had just graduated from high school and was headed off to college, and Gabe and Jamie had just started their little family. Never had they needed their dad more and I was now delivering further hurt into their already delicate lives.
They had grown up in a tight-knit, fun-loving home. From the moment they came into this world, their mother and I loved them as best as we could. We persistently pointed them to Jesus, but humanly speaking we were their foundation, their security. I had done my best to protect them, comfort them, provide for them, bear their burdens, teach them, and make them laugh. The fact that I had now failed them, crushed them, and forever altered their lives is a guilt-ridden ache I will never outlive.
Since then, we’ve had a lot to work through—we’ve had the hard conversations and cried the hard tears. Thankfully, through it all, we have remained close and deeply connected. I deserved to lose the love and affection of my kids forever, but their love for me has never blinked. I have begged for their forgiveness a hundred times, and they have tenderly reminded me over and over and over again that they forgive me.
I delivered pain into their lives, and they have delivered pardon into mine.
I wrote the book One Way Love, but they are the ones who have given it.
They all know how much I love them. And I know how much they love me. And yet, despite how many times they remind me that they love me and forgive me, I will struggle with guilt and shame and regret for the rest of my life for how I hurt them.
Regardless of how many happy days we’ve had since then or how many happy days we’ll continue to have together—THAT day will always haunt me. It will always be a thorn in my side reminding me of the pain I caused three precious lives that were entrusted into my care. I’ve accepted that. It’s not going away.
To be sure, I understand academically that there is a difference between guilt, shame, and regret. But from an existential standpoint, those three emotions are impossible to distinguish. You feel what you feel, and no amount of fine distinctions can help you not feel it. Guilt, shame, and regret all feel the same in crisis—harrowing and heavy, painful and paralyzing.
And I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t matter how many Bible verses someone points out or how many times well-meaning people tell me to “forgive myself” because God has forgiven me, I still can’t shake my insufferable sense of blameworthiness. Maybe I should be able to. After all, not only have my kids forgiven me, but I do believe that God has forever settled all of my debts and forgiven me all of my sins. I do believe that “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). I also know that it is the work of the Devil, not the work of God, to bring up forgiven sins.
I know all of these things in my head. But knowing that my guilt is objectively removed and my sins are forgiven does not always mean that I subjectively apprehend that fact. To be honest, more often than not, I don’t. “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
Maybe you can relate. Perhaps you too have failed miserably, and people that you dearly love have been deeply damaged. Maybe you committed adultery, like me. Maybe you’re an addict (alcohol, porn, drugs, shopping, food, etc). Maybe your kids have gone off the deep end, and you blame yourself for leaving their father years ago and breaking up your home. Maybe you’ve been an emotional or physical abuser. Maybe you’ve been so wrapped up in the work you do that you’re just now realizing that you’ve lost years with your now adult children. Maybe it’s just a lifetime of pushing people away because you’re combative and critical and always have to be “right.”
Whatever it is for you, if you struggle with guilt and shame and regret from the pain you have caused people that you love, then you know an inescapable throbbing. You may be doing something fun or productive, and out of nowhere like a tidal wave of raw emotion, it hits you. And you are transported right back to the unavoidable reality that your sin and selfishness have decimated someone else—someone that you love, someone that loves you.
What I’ve discovered is this: when our faith (or lack thereof ) feels like a fight against the realities of our pain instead of a resource for accepting them, we are on the wrong track. The good news of the gospel is that the strength of God’s promises are never forfeited by the weakness of your faith (or conditioned on your ability to “get over it”). In other words, the grace of God gives you the freedom and space to feel what you’re feeling rather than to deny it—to face the tormenting reality of what you’ve done rather than running from it. It gives you permission not to “stuff it” but to be real about it—to recognize it rather than to resist it.
The hope of the Christian faith is NOT that we will (in this life) get past our guilt, shame, and regret. Rather, it is that God promises to be with us when we struggle with our guilt, shame, and regret.
So when you find yourself plagued and paralyzed by the pain you’ve caused, the gospel is there to remind you (seventy times seven) that there is a “deeper magic” (C.S. Lewis) behind the curtain of your faults. Behind that accusing internal voice that whispers, “Look at what you have done!” is the absolving external voice that shouts, “Look at what—I—have done!”
The cross of Jesus is always and forever there to repeat over and over to our forgetful and unbelieving hearts that God meets our guilt with his grace, our shame with his salvation, and our regret with his redemption.
God is not interested in how far along you (or others) think you should be. Rather, he is interested in you—the you who suffers, the you who inflicts suffering on others, the you who hides, the you who struggles, the you who pretends to be “over” your guilt and beyond your regret. And he meets you where you are.
Jesus is not the man at the top of the stairs; he is the man at the bottom, the friend of sinners, the Savior of those in need of one. Which is all of us, all of the time. And while he may not deliver us from our struggle here and now, he’ll walk with us through it. That is simply who he is.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)