Failure and sports go hand-in-hand. As much as we might hold up elite athletes as gods, perfection is never their goal. The best batters strike out 60% of the time. The best quarterbacks have 40% of their passes hit the ground. All-star athletes have to have remarkably short memories. They can’t dwell on their mistakes. The goal they just let in, the misplaced pass that turned the ball over, the last strikeout at the plate — they are all quickly forgotten in order to focus on the next shift, at bat, or shot. Those who excel at their craft learn from the past and quickly forget it. Dwelling on past errors only make matters worse.

Unlike most star athletes, what we do and do not remember is not always something we can actively control. Often governed more by our emotions or mere chance, what we recall from the storehouse of our memories feels less like a choice and more like an imposition. Humiliating moments can live forever in the mind even without the aid of social media. Everyone has some childhood memory of when they peed their pants in public or struck out when the game was on the line. We might laugh at them now (hopefully), but I can still remember that time I fell into a pool while wearing a fancy suit. It wasn’t a pool party, and no one told me dress shoes were slippery.

Low-level shame or embarrassing recollections are one thing, but the permanence of memory is most acutely felt when it comes to past sins and failures. The path not taken or the door wrongly opened, these can remain etched in our minds like a post-it note we cannot remove from our mirror.

Mistakes are so often discovered after the 30-day return policy expires and the wisdom that comes from hindsight is little consolation. Time can also magnify past misjudgments in a way that exaggerates their weightiness. The unanswerable question “what if” haunts us more than any notion of divine providence can console. For those who live with regret, it’s easy to imagine the appeal of time-travel.

Christianity has a lot to say about sin, remorse, and contrition. Our sin is to be lamented, after all, and the pangs of the conscience are the working of the Spirit to bring us to Christ and his gift of mercy. For those troubled by the past, the persistence of sorrow might be seen as a virtue, the “broken and contrite heart” that God desires, as the seeds of humility.

So when old failures become an affliction, it’s easy to confuse God with feelings of depression and self-recrimination. Is God the source of our eternal regrets? Probably not. For the 5th-century monk Marcus Eremita, “the Enemy causes the mind to picture past evils on the pretext that it is confessing them to God,” leading to a sorrow, anxiety, and a hopelessness that could give rise to further sin. As radical as it might sound, not all remorse is godly remorse. There is a thin line between guilt for past sins and a compulsive misery over them.

For his part, Martin Luther was terrorized by powerful regrets in the small hours of the night. And while Luther ascribed a great deal to the Devil (much more than we might think possible) he routinely attributes assaults upon his conscience to evil forces. Satan “troubles our minds … by throwing up our sins and impurity and by insisting upon constant purity.”[1] The Devil provokes sorrow over sin without the consolation of the gospel, “by showing [the mind] some examples of wrath or by summoning the statements with which Christ and the Holy Spirit want to humble smug hearts. Here the evil grows, and despair acquires, as it were, new powers”.[2]

The Evil One — who knows nothing of mercy — can only assert guilt. What passes for “godly grief” or humility may seem like righteousness, but they may just be the lies of the Accuser. The facts of the past cannot be changed, but in the wrong hands they are weaponized to elicit regret and despair.

On the other side of confession, on the other side of absolution, regret cannot be said to be a “godly grief.” The persistent burden of regret is too heavy and debilitating to be compatible with the mercy that gives life to the dead. The belief that arises from the consolation of grace is not strengthened by further remorse, but extinguished.

So perhaps those athletes aren’t wrong to so easily forget their mistakes. “Hakuna Matata,” or something like that. That feels a little too carefree, or at least easier said than done.

We might never forget our sins, but God does. Though they may seem like they happened yesterday, God has removed our misdeeds as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12). He obliterated our sins by nailing them to the cross (Col 2:14). Regret rebuilds what God tore down at Calvary. The death of Jesus is so profound that God willfully limits his omniscience to expunge our sin from his memory entirely. As far as God is concerned, our past failures never happened.

Our memories are longer than we want, but God’s is remarkably short. Letting go of the past sounds like an impossible task, but it’s the very thing God has already done. And that’s something worth remembering forever.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 12: Selected Psalms I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 12 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 347.

[2] ibid, 404.