The Limited Value of Regret

This past weekend, I listened in and participated on a podcast hosted by a close friend of mine and featuring another friend. The subject related to religious abuse and how leaders of Church ministries sometimes use recognized manipulation techniques to coerce people into “accepting Jesus”.

Then someone mentioned Christian summer camps and I felt hot in the face. I was a guy who manipulated teens for 11 years as a teen camp director!

At the time, I was a pastor in Montana, but I also helped to work with a summer camp. I realize now that my great ideas about how to get the gospel truth across to teens used techniques that manipulated them. I would subject them to late nights, constant energy-draining adventure games, emotional music, and testimonials designed to appeal to their emotional center. We started the camps on a Monday and the climax of the week was Thursday night.

By that last evening, the music, the tiredness, the stories, and the appeal wore down the will of the campers. Often on those Thursday night climactic meetings, more than 50% of the kids would be crying and “committing their lives to Jesus”. I didn’t analyze what I was doing because it all felt justified if we could help them escape hell.

Which is ironic, since I have never believed in hell.

But I do remember one girl. She had responded to the Thursday night altar calls for three straight years. The fourth year, her last year of high school, she told me that she wasn’t coming to camp. When I asked if she had a job that summer, she hesitated.

“Pastor Mike, it isn’t that. I really don’t like what that camp does to me. I feel like my mind isn’t working by the end of the week, and I make commitments I normally wouldn’t make. I don’t want to let you do that to me again.”

That was my last year directing Teen camp. I knew after hearing her disclose her experiences that I was in the wrong. Hearing it again on the podcast drove home the point to me.

Lately, I have been facing up to many regrets. Six years ago, my 37 year career as a pastor ended. Since then, I have devoted myself to providing full-time trauma therapy for clients. And, even though I have had many doubts about faith and doctrine through the years, I still kept my denominational credentials active. Even after I left pastoring they licensed me as an area therapist if I gave discounted therapy to pastors and missionaries.

Last month, they ended that relationship with me. Since that time, I have been doing a review of my life. During these reviews, I occasionally regret the decision to ever be part of the Church or to be any type of religious leader. But, I find the part of me that wants to regret who I’ve been has a very narrow-minded viewpoint.

I believe Regret comes from a Part of us that seeks to protect and defend our lives. This part feels if we analyze our mistaken decisions, we will eventually emerge from that analysis wiser and more capable.

And that would probably work too—if we were nine years of age. But when adults live in regret, especially as they get closer to or past retirement age, the Regret part captivates their thinking and brings despair. The older a person is when the regrets start, the more this part blends with the core of who one is and hinders forward movement.

Therefore, regret is something we do with ourselves. As anthropologist, Krystal D’Costa says:

Regret is a personal assessment of perceived external judgment. It cannot be assigned, like blame. Regret is something we take upon ourselves. And the human tendency is to assume the worst: “People routinely overestimate the emotional impact of negative events”.

“Anthropology in Practice” 2011

We think the purpose of regret is to cause us to hone our skills at better decision-making. But it doesn’t work that way. As philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard remarked:

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both!

“Either/Or: A Fragment of Life” by Soren Kierkegaard

What Kierkegaard is saying is that it is possible we would have found regret in any path taken. There is no guarantee that different decisions would have made our lives better.

There is no real point to regret as adults. We are no longer the person who made those decisions earlier in our lives. Since we are different now, we would naturally not make the same choices most of the time. We don’t need regret to school us on any of that.

In my case, much of my decision-making as a teen and 20-something was firmly rooted in Complex PTSD. Living out of that trauma, I decided to become a pastor. I will explore the reasons in a moment; but I am now choosing to look at the young man who decided to become a pastor and choosing to have compassion on him. He was working through substantial C-PTSD and was doing the best he could do.

Since I left church work several years ago, I have spent too many wasted hours in regret. It has only served to make me bitter and confused.

So I’m taking a different approach now. I choose not to regret the years I spent as a pastor. Instead, I am journaling the many ways I made good decisions in that process, or at least had good intentions behind my decisions.

As a survivor of childhood neglect, bad parental decisions, and early complex PTSD from foster homes, I developed a manic need for community. If someone showed love or even significant affection toward me, I became attached to them. Granted, it was a very insecure attachment, but it gave me an emotional landing spot. When a church youth group accepted me at age 14, I totally committed to them. God, theology, the Bible, and church structure and life were part of that package, and I embraced it all.

I wanted to be loved. I also had a talent for convincing others to join with the Jesus movement–called Evangelism– and I was encouraged to go to Bible College to do this full-time.

At Bible College, I found a more intense love from people. We were all heading into some kind of ministry, and they accepted me and lifted me up as a leader among them. Since I needed this acceptance and admiration so much, I pushed aside many of my doubts about the Bible and about Christianity as an institution. And I had many of those.

But love was a bigger need.

As Dr. William Glasser says in his book “Choice Theory”, other than safety/security, the need for love and belonging is paramount in our minds. We will set aside our other needs in order to secure love. So, as I look back on the 21 year old who decided to become a bible translator and then a pastor, I have compassion and love for him. He was securing his need for belonging as best as he could. He didn’t do anything wrong.

I am so proud of that young pastor who fought through his doubts about the inerrancy of Scripture and chose to translate every text he preached over those 37 years from the original Greek and Hebrew. I remember he sought diligently to keep the meaning to the original readers intact. And when he stopped believing the Old Testament had any relevance to modern Christians, he still used it to shed light on the cultural milieu of the Ancient Near East. He was a good teacher and steadfastly kept his integrity.

I know why he lived in poverty for most of his years as a pastor. I know why he opted out of Social Security even though it now means I will not receive it as I retire. I know why he lived in small, remote towns when he could have preached in large metropolitan pulpits. He wanted to be authentic and he wanted to impress God with his self-sacrifice. I know why he gave up to 20% of his money to church and missions work every month, even though it meant they had trouble buying food. He did it so he could sleep at night. He believed God required this of him before he could ask anyone else to sacrifice.

Bless his near-sighted soul. I have no regrets in a single penny he spent. He spent it as wisely as he knew how at the time.

I have compassion on him for working one 10-year stretch of 60+ hour work weeks. He was getting a counseling degree, raising four children, pastoring a growing church, and counseling up to 20 people a week. I have compassion on him for never completing his three year Masters degree and for not finishing the required hours for licensure. I have compassion on him for giving up vacation time to do therapy with others, and for spending his own money to get certifications for trauma therapy. In all of this, he felt this was the way he could make his maximum impact for God in this world.

I am proud that he worked with over 200 victims of sexual assault in churches. I am proud that he worked with over 100 of those churches to seek compensation, therapy, and apologies. Even though only two churches truly helped the victims to the degree that most advocates consider appropriate, he kept working. He believed that every victim needs an advocate. He did this even though it eventually got him kicked out of one district and eventually led to the denomination removing him for good.

The Me of today has given the Regret Part a new assignment. This Regret part is now going to help me appreciate and thank every previous iteration of who I used to be and to find a way to celebrate the many years he gave to his work.

Building a New Christian Sexual Ethic

[Update: So many people read the first few paragraphs and assume I am building a case for polyamory. I am not. This is because people aren’t reading to see my key point which is further on. If you’re going to read this article to discover my proposal for a new sexual ethical system for Christians, please read all of it before reacting].


“What does the Bible say about polygamy, polyamory, or Open Marriage?” The man who asked me this had been a missionary for 25 years and was not considering a change in his marital status. He was not contemplating cheating on his wife or taking another bride. He was simply curious.

He was curious because during the previous year, three separate people had asked him these kind of questions. All who asked these questions were committed Christians with a good grasp of the Bible and the church’s teachings on sexuality.

"What does the Bible say about polygamy, polyamory, or Open Marriage?" Click To Tweet

“Mike, the Bible doesn’t make it clear where it falls on any of those issues. Though we make excuses for the Bible, there are examples in the Sacred Writings of people who lived with multiple wives, who had sanctioned girlfriends, and who lived this way openly. And from what we can see in the Bible, God never condemns this practice.”

I couldn’t argue with him. The only restriction in the Bible regarding any form of Open Marriage is the 1 Timothy 3 admonition that an Overseer should not be a polygamist. It never expands on this concept by forbidding others to have multiple wives. In short, the biblical ethic regarding Open Marriage was non-existent.


Everyone has ethics; but not everyone has an ethical system. An “ethic” is a belief in how one should act. You can have an ethic that allows you to tell the truth one day and then not tell the truth the next day. But because this is not a consistent ethic, we would say it is not an “ethical system”. I define an ethical system as a series of beliefs regarding a particular behavior that are consistent with themselves. Therefore, if you have an ethical system about telling the truth, that system should apply to all situations. Let me give an example of the difference between an ethic and and Ethical System.

I might believe that it is wrong to kill. That is an ethic. I would not (and do not) kill anyone. But how widely do I apply that ethic? I might believe it is wrong to kill others unless they are trying to kill me. I might also believe it is wrong to kill others even if they are trying to kill me. In addition, I might define killing mosquitoes as killing, killing cows as killing, killing fetuses as killing, killing prisoners on death row as killing. I might believe killing all those beings is considered killing. That is an ethical system.

However, if for some reason I feel that killing enemy combatants on the battlefield is not killing, but killing someone invading my home is killing, then my ethical system is more complex, and perhaps inconsistent.

That is the problem with most ethical systems. Most systems of behavior are internally inconsistent, at least from a logical/philosophical viewpoint. Why is it wrong to kill some people but not others? Why is it wrong to deceive some people, but not other people? Why is it wrong to have sex one day, and then it is not wrong a day later (in the case of someone who may be single and then gets married)? Most people will seek to justify the complexity and variations of their ethical systems by explaining the exceptions.

Why is it wrong to have sex one day, and then it is not wrong a day later (in the case of someone who may be single and then gets married)? Click To Tweet

We will never be free of doing this. Not even those who believe in a so-called “Biblical Sexual Ethic” can get away with it. Let me show how this happens.

In the first paragraph, I noted the question about polyamory. The idea that all sex should be between one husband (male) and one wife (female) is the standard teaching of much of the Church for much of the Church’s existence. But is it a consistent ethical system?

Not really. There are many examples of prominent men in the Bible who married more than one woman. Jacob, Esau, David, Solomon all lived this way. In addition, several Bible characters had sex with sanctioned sex slaves–Jacob, Abraham, David, Solomon, Absalom, Judah and others. God does not condemn any of these men for polyamory. In many cases, God even approves of it. When David raped Bathsheba and had her husband killed, God did send the prophet Nathan to confront David. And in that confrontation, this is what Nathan says:

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.

2 Samuel 12:7-8

According to these verses, Nathan is speaking for God and claiming that God gave King Saul’s WIVES to David after Saul died! And God says that he would have given him more women if he wanted. If we accept this as God’s inerrant word, then God not only passively accepts polyamory, but actively endorses it and supports it.

The biblical sexual ethic gets more complicated than that. The concept of virginity (the absence of sexual intercourse in a person’s experience) is touted as a virtue in the Bible. But it only applies to women! Nowhere are men told they must also be virgins. Even the Hebrew word for “virgin” is a word that only refers to females. There is no Hebrew word for a male virgin. There is no place in the Old Testament where men were even expected or ordered to be virgins.

The concept of virginity (the absence of sexual intercourse in a person's experience) is touted as a virtue in the Bible. But it only applies to women! Click To Tweet

What can we say about all of this? Simply that the Bible does not present a consistent or relevant ethical system regarding sexuality. There are many more examples of this to give, but I want to move on to the solution, not just note the problem.

I don’t believe the Bible is helpful or realistic for building a modern ethical system for sexuality. There are many reasons for this, but they can be distilled down to these:

Patriarchy: Everyone who wrote Sacred Scripture believed in patriarchy. They believed that men had privileges and rights which women did not have. This affected everything they wrote, but especially their viewpoints on sexual relations. One classic example: In the story of the woman caught in adultery (John, chapter 8) only the woman is brought before Jesus and not the man. And no one, not even Jesus, openly notes this. It takes modern commentators to sort this one through.

Ancient Near East Focus of Sexuality: Virginity did not focus on sex; it focused on inheritance. A man wanted to know that his wife had not had sex with another man to ensure his offspring were truly his children. No claim could be made by another man on his children. Children and women were considered possessions of a man, even by the writers of the Bible. Even the teachings on “immorality” in the Bible are really focused on discouraging men from visiting prostitutes.

Misogyny: Women were hated in the days the Bible was written. A Jewish man prayed this prayer most mornings: “Thank you God that I am not born a gentile, a dog, or a woman”. How can an ethical system of mutuality with regards to sexuality ever come from that backdrop?

Homophobia: The writers of Scripture not only had a very low opinion of women, they hated anyone in the LGBTQ community–not that there was an established community due to fear. So, any ethic regarding those who are not cis-hetero men is going to be demeaning and incomplete if we rely on the Bible.

So how do we build an ethical system?

Christians have seen the problem with applying the Bible to many of our ethical systems: Money, power, marriage, reproduction, government, criminal justice, human interactions, etc. There have been many proposals through the centuries on how to build an ethical system which keeps some of the good teachings of the Bible but does not lean too heavily on them.

One of the most profound attempts at this was made by John Wesley. He spent years seeking to apply biblical truths to modern-day ethical problems. His view on Holiness required that our faith be lived out ethically and consistently. But he found that many in his day had widely differing views on what the Bible said on just about any topic. So, while keeping the Bible principles central, he added three more sources of revelation in building an ethical system:

  • Tradition
  • Experience
  • Logic

By tradition, he meant the traditions of the faith community one finds themselves in. By experience, he meant the experiences a Christian has which line up with the Bible. By logic, he is referring to the mind which has been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to grasp deeper truths.

Thus, even with these four sources of input to build an ethic, Wesley still saw all of them revolving around the Bible and biblical truths.

I contend that isn’t going to work with sexual ethics. You can certainly hold to it if you like, but the Church’s history with strange teachings on sexuality and moral purity lead me in a slightly different direction.

I still think we can use four sources of input to build an ethical system, including the Bible. But here is how I fashion it:

  • The Bible: We can use the Bible as a source for ethics on sexuality if we strip away patriarchy, homophobia, misogyny, and virginity.
  • Tradition: In the sense that we rely on a trusted community of people whose practices of sexuality are consistent and respectful, we can use certain traditions we trust.
  • Experience: By this, I mean the collected experience of all humans with regards to sexuality. In our day, we are much more refined as a society on what should and should not be allowed in sexual relationships. The #metoo movement did not start the discussion on sexual assault, consent, and misogyny. It simply sought to apply emerging community standards world-wide…to everyone
  • Logic/Reason: By this, I mean that ethical standards need to make sense to a faith community and be reasonable to apply. If the faith community one is a part of does not apply logic or reason to sexual ethics, one might have to find a different faith community.

It should be obvious that this opens the door to many different ethical systems regarding sexuality. But if you think about it, that’s where we currently are. This is even true within the church of Jesus Christ. There are elements of acceptance of the LGBTQ community, and other groups which do not accept LGBTQ as valid. Some faith groups allow for premarital sexual expression and some do not.

But there is widespread acceptance of the following:

  • Consent must be applied to all sexual relationships
  • Honesty and integrity are vital to healthy sexuality
  • The practice of safe sex is paramount for everyone
  • Sexuality with minors is always wrong.

Most of these conclusions do not come directly from the Bible, but rather from experience, logic, and the dialogue of interested communities.

To which I apply my central idea: The Bible itself is only marginally helpful in creating a complete ethical system for sexuality. We should stop trying to make it the cornerpiece of such a system.

To which I apply my central idea: The Bible itself is only marginally helpful in creating a complete ethical system for sexuality. We should stop trying to make it the cornerpiece of such a system. Click To Tweet