I am not a golfer but I know some of the language. Many years ago, I read an article about the golfing habits of a former US president. He boasted of having a fairly low handicap. But someone noted that he also exercised the self-made allowance to reserve one mulligan per hole.
A mulligan is an opportunity to wipe the score card clean of a bad shot; it is the allowance for a “do over” of an unsatisfactory shot. On the rare occasions that I do play golf, I appreciate the gracious allowance of my partners when I am granted a mulligan (or two, or three or, well, you get the point). With a generous allowance of mulligans, one can walk away from the golf course with a score card that looks pretty good. Just ask former President Name-Withheld-to-Protect-the-Guilty!
However, when it comes to life, and to our sinful decisions and actions, rarely do we have the privilege of a moral mulligan. Perhaps no one knew this better than Adam and Eve.
In his excellent book, Heaven is a Place on Earth, Michael Wittmer recounts the fall of Adam and Eve and the subsequent chaos that this brought to our world. After speaking of the murder of Abel by their son, Cain, Wittmer writes:
Even worse than knowing that one son has killed another was Eve’s knowledge that she was largely responsible. How she and Adam must have longed for a mulligan. If they could only return to the Garden of Eden and have one more chance at the serpent, how differently it would go. How many times did Eve turn the conversation over in her mind? How many nights did it keep her awake? If she could do it over, she wouldn’t give the serpent the time of day but would immediately pick up a stick and beat his brains in. But there was no going back. She and her husband had to live with the consequences of their sin.
Living with regret is one of the painful consequences of living in a sinful, and therefore a very broken, world. There are not many opportunities for a do-over. As with my educational experience, do-over exams are rare. Once we sin, we cannot go back and relive the moment. We cannot undo the past. And such awareness can be devastating. After all, it is no big deal if your no-mulligan golf score is 24 over par. It’s only a game. But how do you deal with the shame of adultery, or with the self-loathing following indulging in pornography, or with the heartache of divorce, or with the regret accompanying the hangover after a drunken night? How do you handle the fallout of having lied to your loved one, or the intense guilt of having aborted your child? How do you face the future with a moral scorecard that is filled with unfathomable bogeys that scream, “Didn’t make the cut,” and which you feel has been broadcasted to everyone in the stands, particularly those who had previously been cheering you on? How will you deal with the consequences of your sin with the knowledge that, sorry, there are no mulligans? Let me try and help.
It is important for us to embrace the reality that the march of time, as ordained by God, is linear: in a forward direction. There is no “back to the future.” You and I cannot relive our past. I have often wished that I could. I could have used a lot of mulligans in my high school and early university years. I have much to lament concerning my sinful behaviour of those days. I will never be able to go back and reverse the sins of my past. The evidence remains etched in this life that, when it came to living a life measured by God’s determination of par, I was not even close to being a scratch player. And God gave me no mulligans.
As I grow older I am sometimes reminded of past sinful failures. And I am aware that, in some cases, the consequences of those deeds will be with me until the day I die. Because I was not living for the Lord, I did not use opportunities to glorify Him before others. And after experiencing God’s grace, I did not always have the opportunity to make amends. In fact, some of those whom I failed have since died. I have had no mulligans by which I can try and reach them with the gospel. That hurts. Perhaps you can relate. So what now?
Before attempting to answer, let me highlight another no-mulligan scenario.
Not all of our regrets are because of some dark moral or ethical failure. Nevertheless, there are areas of regret, such as past choices, which have affected the course of our lives.
Maybe you squandered educational opportunities. Perhaps you chose a career path that has become a great burden. Maybe you made a geographic or a financial move that has turned out to be a massive sand trap out of which, despite numerous attempts, you just can’t get. In fact, sometimes you seem to be accomplishing nothing but making an even deeper hole. Oh, how you long for some mulligans; the scorecard is a bit embarrassing! I can relate to that.
For instance, if I could relive my life I would have pursued a better and more thorough theological education in a good seminary. I often conclude, at least with reference to many others, that I preach and pastor with a self-inflicted handicap. In keeping with the golfing metaphor, I sometimes feel like the guy in the game of Better Ball whose shot is never good enough to be used. And while everyone else is walking towards the chosen shot, I am busy fixing my large duff—on the wrong fairway! So, yes, I get it.
But whether our regrets are ethical or circumstantial, we need to see that, ultimately, our identity is not defined by either our successes or, thankfully, by our failures. I am learning that in spite of (plenty) of mistakes in my past, nevertheless I am in Christ and that is all that ultimately matters (Ephesians 1:3–7).
When God saved me from my sins He tore up the blemished and very ugly scorecard of my life and replaced it with the scorecard of Jesus Christ. You see, what I needed was not a mulligan (or in my case, a whole lot of them); rather, what I needed was the perfect score of one who would never need a re-do. And because Jesus Christ was without sin, when the Judge of all the earth looks at me He sees, not my continual moral bogeys, but rather the morally perfect par of Jesus. The result is that my Father does not want to hear about my regrets; rather, He wants me to faithfully accept His gift of repentance, granted by Him in accordance with His gospel (Acts 11:18; 2 Corinthians 7:9–12; 2 Timothy 2:25; 2 Peter 3:9). His goodness leads me to repentance (Romans 2:4) and subsequently to the realisation that, in Jesus Christ, I will hit a perfect shot every time.
You see, the gospel informs me that, though I may at times find myself in the rough, having sliced or hooked a moral shot way out of bounds, nevertheless my name is on Jesus’ scorecard. And, as we have seen, He never needs a mulligan.
I am not diminishing the Christian’s responsibility to do all we can to play by the rules as we seek to live for the Lord. We should aim to shoot straight and to obey God’s Word. We should seek to make wise decisions and to not waste opportunities. But when you mess up, don’t moan for a mulligan. You won’t get one. You get something better: You get Jesus.