I’ve made some serious mistakes this past year—the kind that make you sick every time you think of them. Regret is that horrible feeling that starts into your stomach and shimmies its way up into your throat. It camps out in your head and reminds you of all that you’ve done that you wish you could forget.

Regret takes your underwear and slides it up the middle school flagpole so that everyone who passes by can see your shame. I wish I hadn’t said what I said. I wish I hadn’t done what I did. I wish I hadn’t sent that letter, made that comment, dated that person, bashed that friend, lashed out in anger, back-stabbed my pal.

On any given day, my regrets loop through my mind uninvited. I never understood the mindset of having no regrets. I think if you’re over twelve and breathing, you’ll wish you had done at least one thing differently.

These memories are dead leaves in our heart, the waste leftover from failed relationships and painful conversations. The only thing we can think to do with them is try to make it better by “learning your lesson.” But this doesn’t make regret feel any prettier.

This week, I’ve felt buried underneath regret. It’s created a winter season, as if I’m under a pile of leaves and blind to the life above me. But there’s something that happens in that pile of rotting leaves.

There’s something about natural breakdown that brings life.

Composting is fascinating—we can ostensibly live without wasting anything. We can be those hippie people who use the whole buffalo. We can choose something more sustainable, something less toxic. It’s in the decomposition of our trash that life is infused into the ground. Somehow, the dead leaves that fall from the trees, the ones that get wet and slowly rot—somehow these can provide food to the ground underneath.

Maybe this is what can happen with my own suffocating pile of regrets. Maybe the point isn’t to run from the self-inflicted pain. Maybe we can use the inevitable regrets as soul nourishment.

What would it look like for our shortcomings, our sin, our failings to awaken new life in us? When we refuse to toss out food waste into the compost, the inside air becomes intolerable. There is not enough Lysol in the world to get out the smell.

Regrets have to be thrown out—they can’t be allowed to take up residence in our minds, constantly reminding us of what we could have done differently. But putting them outside doesn’t mean that we pretend they never happened. It doesn’t mean dressing our failures in pearls so that they no longer look like trash.

Regrets have to be laid down so that they can be broken down. They have to be forgiven. Through self-forgiveness, we place them where they can eventually bear fruit, and that can’t happen when we focus on the wreckage our mistakes have left behind.

But, it turns out, we’re horrible at self-forgiveness. We recognize how important it is not to hold things against our friends or family, yet we hold things against ourselves—we think that in refusing to forgive ourselves for our wrongs that we are teaching ourselves a much-needed lesson. More importantly, if we refuse to forgive ourselves, we’re hoping it will insure we don’t make the same mistake again.

But there’s a difference between forgiving ourselves and excusing ourselves. Self-forgiveness is the act of taking God’s perspective on what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter how we feel about our sin—it only matters how God feels. We act as if we are holy when we withhold forgiveness from ourselves—we know better than God. He can move on, but we can’t.

But if we can’t self-forgive, the regrets will never have a chance to bring new life.

We often hold on to regrets as if they’re collectibles, hoarding them in a cabinet, taking them out occasionally just to torture ourselves, being reminded of the holidays we’ve ruined, the friendships we’ve destroyed, the potential life we’ve crushed.

Regret will kill us if we keep it inside.

I’m learning to surrender each dead leaf.

Self-forgiveness throws regret to a place where, in time, it will bring about nourishment—oxygen, sustainable nutrients and ultimately, life.

Only God can turn shame into growth and mistakes into maturity. God is the one who breaks down regret into something life-giving.

Our job is not to analyze the mistakes and decompose the regrets—our job is to give them to God, inviting his miraculous and gracious work of turning ashes into beauty and fear into strength. So, today, I’ll put another leaf in God’s hand.