Since I watch very little television and even fewer movies, I have seen only a few of Clint Eastwood’s in my time, and those were his westerns of the 1970s. But I must admit he is one of my all-time favorite actors. He was always so cool. He rarely showed emotion. He said little letting his pistols do his talking for him. He was faster than the bad guy and never missed. And when the movie was over, he would ride out without a smile or a frown, like it was just another day. That’s why we loved him: Clint was the essence of cool.
But things are different in his movie, Unforgiven (1992). The movie opens (almost humorously) with his character preaching to his children that the reason his horse won’t let him mount is for the sins he committed long ago. He was converted by his sainted wife whose memory he worships. Yet, he allows himself to get caught up in the vindication of some prostitutes terribly mistreated by a town’s sheriff. The entire movie follows his dealings with regret and remorse over past sins which he only multiplies in the end. One might also mention, Gran Torino (2008), where you discover late that this grumpy old and racist man is plagued by the memory of an unjust killing he committed and for which he received a medal in the Korean War. But unlike Unforgiven, there is some redemption in the end when he gives his life to save the people he once despised but learned to love.
Somewhere along the line, Clint’s characters changed, or at least in the movies I mentioned, from cool, calm, emotionless gunslingers to old men devoured by remorse. I suppose most men like the former character better. That’s the way we would like to be, or so we think.
But I demur. Regret and remorse are essential elements to living—including Christian living. I’m sure I’ll get some blowback from this, but I am convinced of it. It is universal among Christians today to think that since God forgives us then we should just get on with life and forget our past misdeeds, regardless how great or small. Since God has forgiven us, we are supposed to forgive ourselves. Regret gets in the way of this, and remorse is downright morbid. They remind us that we have left behind a veritable trail of tears of people whose lives we broke. They burden us, and the therapeutic society in which we live—which is just as regnant in churches as any place else—urges us to cast that load into the sea and leave it there for our own mental and spiritual health.
But I’m not so sure. I agree with seventeenth-century Puritan, John Owen, who said in his Mortification of Sin that we are too quick to forgive ourselves. You see, regret and remorse have a positive effect in that they call us to repentance. The person who would leave them behind and quickly forgive himself for the sake of his mental health will probably commit the same deed again. But suppose there is no chance he ever will? Regret and remorse still serve the godly purpose of keeping a man humble. I’m not suggesting that we live our lives ever brooding over past sins, but I do say that contemporary Christians err on the side of not brooding enough and might even be rightly accused of receiving God’s grace a little…well, cheaply.
I have read people who say, “I have no regrets,” and encourage others to adopt the same attitude. To this I respond: A man without regrets is a man without a conscience. And I have more confidence in the salvation of a man who struggles with these things than I do in the salvation of that man who treats his sin as if Christ’s death and resurrection made it a matter of indifference.
As I approach sixty, I realize that “cool” is something I never was and never will be. Oh, I suppose I’ll always enjoy, The Outlaw, Josey Wales; but honestly, Unforgiven and Gran Torino are better movies, and not just because the characters are more realistic, but for their depictions of real life struggles with which we all must deal.
Regret and remorse are part of the broken world in which we live and part of the broken lives we have made of ourselves and others. Indeed, Christ redeems all of this through his death and resurrection. But though his work opens heaven’s gates for us, we must still deal with the consequences of sin in this world. Regret and remorse are two of those consequences, and they have their purpose—especially in the lives of Christians.