Life is full of regrets, what ifs and if onlys. There are countless moments to which I wish I could return so that I could unsay things, unmake decisions and undo behaviour. Long after we have acted we can be left suffering the consequences of damaged relationships, missed opportunities or disappointment in ourselves. Regret is unavoidable, and at times, an insufferable, dead-end emotion that can drive us crazy. If only I hadn’t…
It would seem the world only really offers two options for regret: forget it or go mad. But for the Christian, there is much more hope. First though, we must establish the nature of our regret. In 2 Corinthians 7, Paul explains to the Corinthians, in light of their response to his rebuke, that there are two types of grief over mistakes. ‘Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.’ Why is it so important for my regret to be ‘godly’? Paul explains that unlike worldly grief, godly grief is not a dead end – it leads somewhere. ‘I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting… For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you’. How wonderful that the godly regret of the Corinthians actually causes Paul to rejoice because it leads to their repentance and deeper zeal for honouring God! That is the saving work of the Holy Spirit.
But what is godly grief? How can I examine my heart to ascertain whether my regret is godly or worldly? In his sermon entitled The Good end of Godly Regret, John Piper describes the fundamental difference between godly and worldly regret: ‘Worldly regret is when you feel sorry for something you did because it starts to backfire on you and leads to humiliation or punishment. It’s the reflex of a proud or fearful ego. Pride will always regret making a fool of itself. And fear will always regret acts that jeopardize comfort and safety. So feeling sorry for something we have done is in itself no sign of virtue. But godly regret is the reflex of a conscience that has wounded God’s honour, not its own. Godly regret grieves that God’s name has come into disrepute. The focus of godly regret is God.’ In order to diagnose my regret, I need to ask myself, am I grieved that I have dishonoured God? Am I disappointed that I haven’t believed his promises or obeyed him? And really, this is the only type of regret that should trouble me. If I am wholly taken up with God’s view of me and what he requires of me, I should only be concerned, as Piper says, with wounding his honour, not my own. And thankfully, even when my regret of letting him down seems overwhelming, Christ’s saving power to forgive us transforms our grief and regret into joy and freedom.
Perhaps the greatest examples of these two types of regret are the stories of Judas and Peter’s betrayal of Jesus. Judas, after spending years witnessing Jesus’ ministry, hands him over to be killed for 30 pieces of silver. (Matt 26:47) In this act, he denies any love or loyalty he may have ever had for Jesus. And not dissimilarly, but perhaps more in an act of fear, Peter denies repeatedly that he has any association with Jesus at all. (Matt 26:71-2) Matthew is clear that they both feel great regret over what they have done. When Judas can’t undo it, he hangs himself. And as soon as Peter recalls Jesus’ earlier words, he weeps ‘bitterly’. But later we read that the same Peter rejoices with Jesus over his resurrection and soon becomes one of the greatest, most courageous preachers of the early church. Far from denying Christ, he proclaims him to the nations and ends up dying for the cause. Why do these two men have such different ends? It would seem that sadly, Judas’ regret led him to a dead-end of despair, but Peter’s led him to repentance. Piper explains that the crucial difference was faith. Peter’s regret did not overwhelm him because he believed in the more powerful grace of God’s forgiveness. It would seem Judas lacked Peter’s faith and his regret led to death.
Although we mustn’t allow regret to defeat us, experiencing Godly grief over our sin is good and vital for genuine repentance and growth as a Christian. In his book, Rediscovering Holiness, J I Packer writes: ‘In my part of British Columbia, where rainfall is heavy, roads on which the drains fail soon get flooded and become unserviceable. Repentance… is the drainage routine on the highway of holiness on which God calls us all to travel. It is the way we get beyond what has proved to be dirt, rubbish and stagnant floodwater in our lives. This routine is a vital need, for where real repentance fails, real spiritual advance ceases, and real spiritual growth stops short.’ We cannot simply bypass grief over our regrets, and indeed, feeling deep sorrow over dishonouring God in our lives will lead us to a deeper joy in the long run. So often, I find myself so hardened to my own sins I struggle to feel much regret at all and as a result, experience little joy in knowing I am forgiven. Perhaps the answer is to spend time reflecting a little more on the ways I’ve let God down – not to lead me to despair but to lead me to a deeper repentance and greater faith.
One of the greatest regrets with which I struggle is wasted years not living for Christ. Somehow it is easier to accept God’s forgiveness a deed at a time, but there is something so heartbreaking about whole years lost living whole-heartedly for Him. I am so grieved by my cowardice and selfishness over countless missed opportunities to talk to friends about Christ, and that my lifestyle lacked the ‘salty’ flavour of my calling. It hurts because humanly speaking, I cannot restore it. The years are gone, along with countless chances to glorify Jesus. But what a wonderful comfort God’s word can be – what depth of grace he shows! In Joel 2, God promises that he will ‘restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.’ Even in our deepest regrets, we can claim the promises of God’s word and trust that, whatever the offence, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 John 1:9)
At times, I have held on to regrets even after fervently seeking God’s forgiveness. Why is it that I know his word is true but just can’t shake the regret? Timothy Keller sheds some light on this. ‘When people say, ‘I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself,’ they mean they have failed an idol, whose approval is more important to them than God’s.’ (Keller, Counterfeit Gods) Whilst it may seem virtuous to continue in regret, what I’m really saying is that my opinion, or perhaps my parents’ or friends’ opinions of me matter more than God’s, which is why I am still tormented by regret over what is forgiven. It’s vital for us to identify this pride in our hearts, or it becomes a foothold for the devil – the perfect opportunity for him to take away our joy in God and become ineffective for the kingdom, unnecessarily burdened. It is God’s judgement that matters, and only his.
And since deep regret leads us to a deeper joy by the grace of God, may our grief and regret over the past motivate us to live a wiser, Godlier life in the future. Instead of cringing despairingly over past selfish decisions and indulgent behaviour, may I be spurred on to make decisions to speak out for Jesus now and live a life worthy of my calling. I often think of the woman at Simon’s house who anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Her adoration for Jesus is tangible and Jesus explains to Simon why her love is so much greater than his. ‘Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.’ (Luke 7:47) I am that woman. I am the 500 denarii debtor, so many regrets and if onlys. But I have faith in a God whose grace goes deeper; who promises to remove my transgressions as far as the east is from the west. And so,
Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.