The “If Only” Regret: ACTS 25-26

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ACTS 25 & 26

After two years of imprisonment, we find ourselves in yet another trial and hearing for the Apostle Paul. He’s heard first by Festus, the newly appointed Roman governor over Judea, and then again by King Agrippa, the Jewish king subject to Roman authority. Every time I read these chapters I find myself getting emotionally rattled by the very last verse in chapter 26,

And Agrippa said to Festus, “He could have been set free if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar.” (Acts 26:32 NLT)

Upon reading those words I immediately start wishing Paul hadn’t appealed to Caesar. IF ONLY he’d waited A FEW MORE DAYS for King Agrippa and he could have been free!

Let’s back up. The whole reason Paul appealed to Caesar in the first place was to intercede the political maneuvering that had kept him wrongly imprisoned for two years already. Paul could see that Festus wanted to placate the Jewish leaders like Felix who preceded him. Festus was downright perplexed by Paul’s case. Although he could see that Paul hadn’t actually broken any Roman laws worthy of imprisonment or death, these Hebrew religious laws were confusing and obviously causing an extreme emotional reaction among the Jewish leaders.

The last thing this Roman governor needed was a riot on his hands. Loud and unhappy Jews was more of a reflection on his leadership style than anything else, so negotiating with local leaders and keeping order brought benefit to both sides.

Then Festus, wanting to please the Jews, asked him, “Are you willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there?” (Acts 25:9 NLT)

Paul was aware of his rights as a Roman citizen and wasn’t going to watch his trial get hijacked by politics again, risking an ambush as he travelled. He appealed to Caesar. A few days later King Agrippa arrived, and being Jewish, he was very familiar with the religious laws, the teachings of the prophets, and cultural customs. Festus asked him to hear Paul’s defense and offer an opinion. When all was said and done, everyone agreed that Paul was innocent.

By this point Paul had been forced to defend himself before his accusers multiple times, and it occurred to me, we are essentially no different. Our accuser, Satan, is routinely reviving memories from our past to accuse and condemn us. We naturally move to defend ourselves in a number of different ways, most of them ineffective. Paul’s defense is spiritually victorious, although from here on out his physical freedom was not the focus; he chose a wise defense and claimed spiritual freedom.

A DEFEATED DEFENSE

Four defeated defenses come to my mind as I reflect on my own life, because I have employed them all too often: building an emotional wall defense, the fight or flight defense, the penitent defense, and the “if only” defense.

I began building emotional walls to defend myself from the Accuser at a young age. It began in earnest when my church and Christian community at one point hurt me, and I determined they were too flawed for my continued participation. I isolated myself from anyone who looked like those people.  I kept them outside my fresh wall, and during this time I questioned virtually everything I’d been taught. I made many poor choices, and inevitably armed my accuser with more ammunition.

So when the Accuser showed up to condemn me for my choices, I would employ the flight or fight defense. Flight. When I ran away, I would run to the behavior I knew wasn’t right but provided a temporary respite.  Fight.  And when I would fight it would be against the people I blamed for my situation in the first place.  “They’re the ones who hurt me.”  Each time shifting focus away from myself and building my fresh wall a little higher.

When the guilt and shame hurled from my Accuser became too much to bear, I would employ the penitent defense. This is when I would confess and apologize for all those choices, living in a puddle of regret. I would confess them over and over because my Accuser wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t claim the freedom that comes from true repentance because I was too busy emotionally punishing myself, fending off my Accuser, and building my wall even higher.

And then I naturally resorted to the “if only” defense, where I would spend an inordinate amount of time rehashing every choice I’d made, imagining the alternative with a spectacular future, and rolling myself deeper into guilt behind a very tall wall.  The safety of this wall was such a farce; its only provision was deep isolation, fear, and depression.

SLIDING DOORS & IF ONLY

If only Paul hadn’t appealed to Caesar, he could be free! I am reminded of the 1998 movie Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In this movie, the main character, Helen, gets fired from her job and comes home early. The movie tracks two different alternatives for her life: 1) she boards the early train and gets home in time to discover her boyfriend cheating with another woman; 2) she barely misses the early train, she’s mugged and taken to the hospital, and arrives home oblivious to her boyfriend’s infidelity. The viewer observes these two parallel universes and begins to form an opinion as to which alternative is the better life. The twist at the end is that neither life track actually proves a clearly better alternative. And this is the truth for anyone stuck in the IF ONLY regret.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. (Rom 8:28 NLT)

Let’s take a minute and consider a hypothetical universe where Paul does not appeal to Caesar and stands before King Agrippa. In this scenario we should recognize that without an appeal to Caesar, all the heated pressure from the Jewish leaders would have continued looming heavily in that room. Wouldn’t they have still held a desire to please the Jews? Paul appealing to Caesar was, in all likelihood, the best outcome for these rulers. It absolved them from having to make a decision and deal with repercussions either way. How easy for King Agrippa to say Paul could have had his freedom, when he bore no responsibility or authority whatsoever in Paul’s release. Had they freed Paul, knowing full well his imprisonment was wrongful, it would have ignited a hotbed of tempers in the region. And ain’t nobody got time for that!

Here’s the other thing: God had given Paul his word earlier that he would testify of Christ in Rome. So truly, no matter the alternative, he was going to Rome.

Years ago, very early in my career, I was offered a relatively low-level position to go work for an executive who was leaving my company for the competition. I debated for days over the wisdom of leaving so soon and not showing a tenured track record. So I declined. My co-worker eagerly took the position and was named Vice President in less than two years. I kicked my self repeatedly for not seizing it first, and I imagined what my life would have looked like had I taken it. But in the end, God called me to write, teach, and speak his truth, and this “if only” alternative doesn’t change that calling. Whether my career went this way or that, God was taking me to “Rome.”

A SOUND DEFENSE

When the Accuser comes calling, the best defense is truth. The REAL truth, not the half-truth Satan so masterfully manipulates to confuse us.

And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. (Rom 5:9 NLT)

With faith in Jesus we stand before him completely blameless and this is the truth.

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds are you healed. (I Peter 2:24 NLT)

Payment for our sins has already been made. Allow God to heal you from painful memories so that they can leave you. We are not subject to our own punishment nor our Accuser’s and this is the truth.

For the word of the Lord holds true, and we can trust everything he does. (Psalm 33:4 NLT)

God’s word is true regardless of what the Accuser says. If God says we are pure, we are pure. If God says we have a purpose, we have a purpose.   If God says walk this way, we obey because his way is always good. Know that God’s call on your life will bring you to “Rome” and you can trust him.

DEFEND THE BATTLEGROUND

With a sound defense, we can defend.  Our mind is the primary battleground for Satan, and we must claim that territory in Jesus’ name, because that’s half the battle. I’ve often become so accustomed to accusatory and condemning thoughts that I no longer realize they’ve been assuaging me for days, or even years on end. A great example of this: For years, I would stand in front of the mirror and hear, “You are so fat. You’re just too ugly to wear these clothes. You’ll never look good enough.” It actually became very normal for me. Be still. What exactly are you listening to? If it’s condemning, you can be sure it’s not from God. My God never talks to me that way, and he will never talk to you that way.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6-7 NLT)

Don’t Worry But Pray

Paul provides a great little guide in Philippians for breaking the Accuser’s battle plan. Anytime we start to feel anxious, immediately turn the thought into a positive prayer. Was your thought triggered by something? Did you resurrect a painful memory, a destructive image, or an unhealthy belief or fear? Pray over each one.

Thank God

Thank God for all he has done. There is always something for which to be thankful, in even the most dire of situations. With my diagnosis of Graves Disease, which is not dire in the least, gratitude was difficult me.  It’s very difficult to be thankful when wrapped in anxiety.  But I prayed over my worries, and I began to see God’s hand. He brought me to a good doctor. I finally received a diagnosis after years of suffering. And he availed a medicine that can help. Trust God to show you all he has done for you, and then thank him.

Expect Peace

The peace that results is a promise. It will protect the battleground of your mind. And remember, this promise comes with a life lived IN CHRIST.  This phrase is placed at the very end of those verses in Philippians. (For more on what IN CHRIST means, click here.)  When we are IN CHRIST, all the fruit of the Spirit flows through us, and peace is a fruit!

So much of what we face on a daily basis, results from wounds that remain unhealed and eventually exploited by our enemy. If we allow God to heal us, each wound in turn, we can then rest behind true and faithful defenses. A wall that is holy and perfect and sure.

As the mountain surrounds Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, both now and forever. (Psalm 125:2 NLT)

This was Paul’s defense.  A healed Church, a holy Church, a Church standing IN CHRIST, defended by walls he has forged in heaven, is unstoppable.