How should I think about regret? How should I handle regret?
Regret can come about for a lot of reasons. The word regret means “sorrow or remorse for a fault or an act.” There are certainly reasons and times to feel regret, but we should not wallow in regret. Non-sinful forms of regret (like a wrong decision) can lead to lament. Lament is essentially laying out our loss to the LORD. It’s taking our cries, complaints, and cares to Him.
When regret leads us to the Lord or to repentance it can be a good thing. Though, it still should not be an all-consuming thing. Regret, however, is often more like worldly repentance, than godly repentance (see 2 Cor. 7). There’s a sense of loss, but not the will to change. Regret, like worldly repentance, often has sadness without the solid resolve to change. Whereas real repentance leads to life change and life, simple regret is not lifegiving (2 Cor. 7:10); it’s without hope and therefore deadly. Regret doesn’t take the transforming message and good news of Jesus into account.
Repentance and regret
Repentance is a biblical word and learning is a biblical word… Like learning from the wrong we’ve done and changing. Scripture calls us to repentance when we’ve done wrong. Not mere regret.
If there was someone who you think would be lost in hopeless regret, it would be the apostle Paul and, come to think of it, the apostle Peter too. Paul persecuted Jesus, and Peter denied Him—three times. Talk about regret. They didn’t just ruin their life, they turned their backs on the Author of life (Acts 3:15). Wow.
Yet, this is what Paul says: he forgets what lies behind him and strains forward to what lies ahead. He presses on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13-14). And Peter reminds us that through Christ Jesus, we have been cleansed from our former sins (2 Peter 1:9). So, regret turned into repentance, and repentance turned into rest in Jesus and resolve to live and die for Him.
Both Peter and Paul, and you and me, have things that we regret. Yet, Jesus cleanses and recreates. If we trust in Him and repent of our sin, He makes us new. Acts 3:19 says, Repent, turn back, “that your sins may be blotted out.”
So, Scripture calls us to repent—change our ways by the empowering grace of God—and not wallow in regret.
The Bible does relate that there are consequences for sin. Yet, it also tells us we can start over. Jesus makes us new. When we sow seeds to the flesh, what grows up is fruits of death—enmity, anger, and animosity. Whereas when we sow seeds to the Spirit, we get the fruits of life and righteousness—peace with God and relational prosperity.
Regret looks inward, into self, and tries to find resources there. That perspective is fruitless and flawed. There is not help enough there. Repentance, on the other hand, looks outward and upward for help from Christ the Creator and Recreator. He—as the Boss of the universe—has resources to help us with our deepest and darkest regrets.
Three categories of regret
Think of three regrets in your own life. List them out. Now we’re going to categorize them and consider how you should respond to them. Here are three categories of regrets:
- Sinful: what you regret was flatly wrong (e.g., stealing)
- Wrong choice: in retrospect, your choice was not the best (e.g., could have chosen a career you’re better suited for)
- A confusing mix of sin and wrong choice: the situation is so extensive you can’t sort it out (e.g., a marriage that ended in divorce)
How does Scripture tell us to respond to the three categories of regret?
Sin should always be repented of
First, sin should always be repented of. Sin always leads to brokenness and is an offense to a holy God. Therefore, we should turn away from all sin and ask for forgiveness. The Bible teaches that when we do this God grants forgiveness. We, therefore, don’t need to live in shame and guilt. For those in Christ Jesus, there is no condemnation (Rom. 8:1).
If you have a regret to repent of, certainly do that! And even make restitution (Luke 19: 8 cf. Ex. 22:1; 2 Sam. 12:6) and reconciliation (Matt. 5:23-26; 2 Cor. 5:18-19) wherever possible. But God does not call us to condemn or flog ourselves. God instead makes us new creations in Christ and forgets our sin. Do not remember something God has forgotten. Do not carry something Christ has buried. If God has thrown your sin into the depths of the ocean never to surface again (Micah 7:19), why do you recall them? Could it be the father of lies bringing them up from the dark depths to destroy and condemn?
Some regrets do not require repentance, though they may require tears
Second, some regrets do not require repentance, though they may require tears. I regret not spending more time with certain loved ones that have died. I regret misunderstanding when a particular assignment was due because it resulted in a bad grade. Yet, I don’t need to repent of all my regrets because not all my regrets were the result of sin.
Some regrets are a source of frustration because we have more information now than we did when we made our choice. Or you may feel like you are a different person now than when you made the choice. Or… a thousand different things. But you did make the choice, and now, in some sense, you’re stuck with the choice. And you regret it.
So, what do you do? How should we respond to this type of regret? Trust and lament.
We trust the Lord is with us and for us and is good, even in the midst of our less than stellar situation. Even if our life never feels finally fulfilled, or it seems like it could’ve been so much better if we would’ve made a better choice, as Christians, we know that we are not home here. Nothing will actually be a perfect choice here. Instead, heaven is our home. We are strangers and exiles here.
We know the world reels and regrets, as a result of the Fall. Things are not as they should’ve been and won’t be until Jesus comes back to fix the world. So, in one sense, regret is natural now and expected because of the broken world that is our address.
We also lament. We talk to the Lord in song and prayer, and we tell Him what we don’t like and why. Yet, even as we lament and lay out our losses and regrets to the Lord, we also trust.
Sometimes it’s hard to sort through our regret
Third, sometimes it’s hard to sort through our regret. Sometimes it is hard to label it and put it in a specific bucket. Yet, we know the One who knows our hearts better than we know our own. So, we cry out to the Lord, and we ask Him to help us. We ask for direction and we trust that when we don’t know the way, He does.
We also know that even while Jesus never sinned—never made any wrong choices whatsoever—He does understand where we’re coming from. He does know and did experience this messy and messed up world (Heb. 4:14-16). So, He can sympathize with us.
When regret is a riddle that we cannot figure out, we can and must still lean on the Lord. We turn to Him (that’s really what repentance is) and away from wallowing in despondence.
So, take your regrets, categorize them as best as you can, and respond appropriately: repent, lament, or a combination of the two. But don’t wallow in self-pity or condemnation. Self-pity and condemnation forget the gospel; they forget that Jesus has promised us the Kingdom and given us His righteousness.
Ultimately, the solution to regret of any kind is trusting and remembering Jesus’ gift of perfect righteousness and His coming reign where all regrets will be washed away (Rev. 21:1-4).
Take some time and respond appropriately to your regrets.
Reflection questions to help you process regret
- Read 2 Corinthians 7:10-11. What is the difference between “godly grief” and “worldly grief”?
- Do you have places in your life where you have regret that is merely “worldly grief” but isn’t leading to healthy life change?
- What are a few actions steps that you can take to purposely and intentionally turn away from and defeat sin in your life?
- Read Psalm 51:1-7. What did king David, the author of Psalm 51, regret? (Notice the introduction to the Psalm)
- How did king David respond to his regret?
- Did David hold out hope that he could be forgiven for what he did?
- When your sin is brought to light, what is your response?
- Read Psalm 51:8-19. David clearly regretted his sin. Yet, he wasn’t totally hopeless even though his sin was terrible and tragic. In the verses you read, where do you see signs of hope?
*Photo by Nathan Dumlao