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?
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