What to Do with Regret

I regret hitting my sister.

I don’t remember our ages or the circumstances. Probably a lot of hitting occurred between the six of us siblings over the years, though I’m sure my parents discouraged it.

But I think my regret over this particular incident indicates that I was old enough to know better at the time.

I’ve accumulated a lot of regrets since then. Things I said and shouldn’t have. Things I should have said but didn’t. Wrong or thoughtless choices. Selfish actions and attitudes. Time wasted. Projects unfinished or not even started.

The regret that haunts me the most is my wrong attitude while caring for my mother-in-law. Instead of welcoming the opportunity to show love to her by caring for her at her neediest, I resented the encroachment on my own time and plans and the pervasive weight of responsibility.

Not all regrets occur because of sin. Unstarted projects, for example, are a reminder that I am limited and can’t do everything I’d like to do. Yet they can serve to remind me to seek God’s wisdom in what I spend my time on.

Some regrets are due to mistakes or not enough knowledge at the time.

There are some regrets where I still don’t know whether I was right or wrong, like my college major. I wanted to major in English, but then decided Home Economics Education was more practical. However, by the time I got to my second senior year (I crammed four years into five . . .), I knew I didn’t want to teach. I liked the imparting knowledge part, but not the discipline and inspiring uninterested students. I felt like I wasted all that time and money since I didn’t “use” my major in the expected sense. Now I wish I had majored in English for the sake of writing. Yet God has used what I learned in college. I rest in Proverbs 16:9: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”

All too often, though, regrets are the aftermath of sin.

Regret vs. repentance

Regret is not repentance. Judas regretted betraying Christ, but as far as we know, did not repent of it. He is an illustration of the “grief produces death” Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 7:10.

Peter regretted denying he knew Christ and wept bitterly over it. But he repented and was restored. His sermon and actions after Pentecost and his epistles show a changed man.

King Saul and David both said, “I have sinned.” King Saul kept going back to his murderous ways in pursuing David. David gave us Psalm 51.

2 Corinthians 7 shows how repentance changes our attitudes. Paul had written a stern letter to the Corinthians over their sin and waited to hear how they would receive his admonitions. He was comforted when Titus came with news that the Corinthians responded with longing, mourning, and zeal (verse 7). Paul notes the changes in the Corinthians produced by godly repentance. I like how the Amplified Bible explains it: “For [godly] sorrow that is in accord with the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but worldly sorrow [the hopeless sorrow of those who do not believe] produces death. For [you can look back and] see what an earnestness and authentic concern this godly sorrow has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves [against charges that you tolerate sin], what indignation [at sin], what fear [of offending God], what longing [for righteousness and justice], what passion [to do what is right], what readiness to punish [those who sin and those who tolerate sin]!” (verses 10-11).

I’ve confessed my selfish attitudes to the Lord. I lean on the blessed promise of 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I’ve always been told that “confess” in that verse means to say the same thing God says about our sin. We don’t downplay it or make excuses for it. We call it what it is in all its bald-faced despicableness.

When regret lingers

But even after confessing to the Lord and being assured of His forgiveness, regret still lingers, quite heavily sometimes.

The inclination is to confess it to the Lord all over again. But if we believe His word, He forgave us the first time we confessed our sin to Him.

Another inclination is to beat ourselves up over our wrongdoing. While it’s good to note our foolishness, wrong thinking, and actions, it doesn’t help to keep self-rebuke on repeat. We usually end up discouraged but not moving forward.

So what do we do with the regret that remains?

The only solution I have found is to let that regret spur me on to different actions and attitudes now.

I received my only traffic ticket while speeding on a road that I frequently traveled. I was humiliated and embarrassed by being pulled over by the police and questioned. I paid my fine with no contest, because I knew I was in the wrong.

Every time I traveled down that road again, I slowed down when approaching the place where I got my ticket. The discomfort of the previous encounter made me want to avoid experiencing that pain again and take extra steps to make sure I was doing right.

Some years ago, I broke and dislocated my little toe when I banged it against the wall while coming out of my bathroom door. I’ve come through that door hundreds of times—I don’t know why I didn’t do so properly then. Observing the x-ray, the doctor said my toe looked like a jigsaw puzzle. You can bet I walked very carefully through that door and around corners for weeks afterward to make sure my poor, battered toe didn’t come anywhere near them. But even after the pain subsided, the carefulness remained.

The pain of regret can do the same for us, instilling a carefulness, sensitivity, and watchfulness we might not otherwise have had. Those features often expand from the particular thing we regret to our walk in general.

We need to let regret lead us to repentance. Then we need to let God’s grace and forgiveness seep down into our souls and and enable us to make whatever changes we need to make.

The regret over a missed opportunity to share Christ with someone can help us pray and prepare for the next time. Regret over lost temper and harsh words can drive us to the Scriptures and prayer for help.

My regrets over my attitudes as a caregiver remind me of my selfishness and my need to seek God’s grace to serve Him and others, not my own desires. I knew caring for my mother-in-law was the right thing to do, even though I didn’t feel glad about it then. But I can say now that I am thankful we did.

How about you? Does regret weigh you down or spur you on?

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

41 thoughts on “What to Do with Regret

  1. Regret is one of the saddest outcomes of the Fall. And I also regret my college major, knowing full well that I chose it because it would be “easy.”
    Wonderful that God can use even our foolishness to prepare us for his kingdom work.

  2. This was so helpful! I’ve often thought I had few regrets, but reading through this and the comments, I can think of some I maybe should have — yikes. I always think you shouldn’t beat yourself up about your mother in law. At the time, I thought you always seemed so caring of her. When I read your posts, almost every time I would think, “Wow, I could never do that like Barbara does.” I recently had an older aunt stay here for 4 days and I thought I would lose my mind. I felt bad about that … 😦

    • I often went back to 1 Corinthians 13’s warning that we can “do” for others without truly loving them. But then, we also hear that love is not a feeling, but a desire for the other’s best. So I wrestled with that a lot. I didn’t always feel warm and altruistic. But maybe caring for someone without those feelings is still love? I don’t know–as I said, I wrestled with this a lot (and still do).

  3. Barbara, you are one of the most thoughtful teachers I know. I’ve learned SO much from your writing and I’m so thankful that God allowed our paths to cross.

    I do understand how you felt concerning the care of your mother-in-law, although I never really picked up on it in your blog posts. I feel like God gave us another chance when we cared for my father-in-law after my mother-in-law passed…and then to be able to help out with my own mother. I’ve had to move on and am thankful that God’s grace is sufficient.

    To answer your question…initially, yes, regret does weigh me down but once I go to the Lord with it fully, it spurs me on to do better the next time.

    • Thanks for mentioning the physical effects–I had neglected that, but regret can cause physical issues as well as emotional and spiritual. I am so thankful we can take all of our regrets to God for forgiveness and redemption.

  4. This is a very practical and necessary teaching. God can use our regrets to lead us to repentance and to meaningful change. Thank you for sharing your feelings about caring for your mother-in-law – I think many, including me, can relate to the mixed feelings and battle with a grudging attitude, and to the regrets. Praise God we don’t have to let our failings and regrets define us though!

    • “Praise God we don’t have to let our failings and regrets define us though!” Amen! God doesn’t want us to be stuck in regrets but to let Him use them to help us move on and serve Him now.

  5. That’s me> “But even after confessing to the Lord and being assured of His forgiveness, regret still lingers, quite heavily sometimes.” You are taking directly to me today. I love your insights and encouragement here. Food for my thoughts too.

  6. I have been dealing with regret for years regarding my choices during a particular part of my life. I know in my heart that God has forgiven me, yet I struggle with forgiving myself. My regret has certainly made me more conscious as I move forward in a positive direction in an effort to make amends to those who were affected by my choices. Thanks for this inspiring post!

  7. I love how God can use even our mistakes for good if we turn our regrets over to him and let them motivate us to do it differently in other situations.

  8. Barbara, I’ve regretted my college major and many other decisions. I cling to Rom. 8:28. Another reminder why I need Him in all things. Great contrasts between regret and repentance.

  9. I’ve wrestled with regrets–things I’ve said, things I’ve done. However, it was my deepest regret that brought me to the cross. God turned that shame story into His grace story. When that past regret flares, I have to remember I was forgiven and redeemed. Leaning into Him and asking for His daily guidance and wisdom helps to prevent regrets from happening. Very good post. Thank you for sharing.

  10. I have so many regrets. Some days they weigh me down so much I can’t get out of bed. I regret that I spent my college years being a man-hating feminist. I regret that I didn’t have a child until I was 40 (and even then, she wasn’t planned . . . though I don’t regret having her!). I regret swallowing the lie that women weren’t worth anything if they didn’t have a career and an independent income. I feel like I’ve wasted so much of my life. I wanted to be a writer but now I have severe arthritis and vision problems, so even writing is painful and difficult. I don’t know what to do with all this regret. I feel like it’s too late.

    • Nina, it’s interesting that just before reading your comment, I read the post for this week’s study of Aging with Grace at InstaEncouragement (https://www.instaencouragements.com/blog/aging-with-grace-week-four–I hope you’ll take a look). This chapter focuses on the older women at the time of Israel’s exile into Babylon. Israel had been exiled because of sin. Though the passage doesn’t mention older women specifically, the authors brought out how they must have felt, knowing they were in captivity for 40 years ad would never see their homes again. Yet they could use their influence to help and encourage others. When we confess our wrongs to the Lord, He can transform and redeem our situations for good. We can’t do anything about the past except confess it to Him, but we can serve Him in whatever way He puts before us from now on. “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him” (Psalm 62:14-15).

    • Nina, I empathize with your regret over not doing more writing when you were physically able! I am finally working on a novel now (I’m 49, and I wanted to grow up to be a novelist at least since I was around 7, but that pressure to have a career and independent income *and also* the pressure to be an involved mother diverted me for decades) and some days my hands hurt and I worry about whether arthritis will get me before I can finish writing! Is it possible for you to “write” out loud, use voice transcription software, and have the computer read it back to you, so that you don’t have to do any hand/eye work until the editing stage? That sounds like a solution that might work for some people, but I doubt it would work for me as I’m very lexically oriented (I don’t “read” audiobooks because I find I don’t listen closely enough to follow) and maybe you’re the same. I hope you can find some way to move forward that feels right for you!

  11. Yes, sometimes regret does weigh me down…but I appreciate what you say here. Turn that regret into carefulness, sensitivity and watchfulness. I expect your advice will lighten the load of regret-thk you for this.

  12. This post resonated with me so much, Barbara. I had a lot of regrets after my parents died, some warranted and others not. At times, I’ve wished I could go back and do it all again, knowing what I know now, but of course that’s impossible. Like you, I’m thankful for God’s grace and forgiveness, along with the opportunity to do things differently in other circumstances. I guess that’s what learning as we go is all about, huh?

    • That’s a good point that not all regrets are warranted. My husband used to say that it’s not a sin to admit caregiving was a heavy weight. God gives grace, but it still takes a lot out of a person. I wouldn’t want to do it all again, but I wish I had done better. But I am thankful for forgiveness and learning and humbling and softening.

  13. But what if our actions caused hurt to another person and that person refuses to let it go and forgive us? It is so hard to move forward in this case. We know we are forgiven but the consequences are still there and we can’t do anything about it. 😞

    • I think that’s all we can do—apologize, ask forgiveness, do what we can to make amends and show love to the other person, and pray. Sometimes it take time for the hurt to subside. Sometimes people think forgiveness is a feeling, when it’s actually an act of the will. They keep waiting to “feel” forgiving, when, if they’d forgive, they’d feel better. It’s hard when they don’t, for whatever reason. But keep loving and praying–God can change their hearts.

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  15. Barbara, this was such an encouraging post. I needed the reminder that God uses everything. I was just thinking about a hard setback and feeling discouraged this morning, but your words were filled with hope for my soul! Thank you!

  16. I don’t deal with regret, but I find this statement very insightful for helping family members that do struggle with regret, “The pain of regret can do the same for us, instilling a carefulness, sensitivity, and watchfulness we might not otherwise have had. We need to let regret lead us to repentance.”

  17. Thanks so much for sharing. I often regretted switching my course of study in the University and always wondered how things could have played out differently. But then learning to trust God is key. Thanks for sharing the experience with your mother-in-law too.

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