Surely the feeling of regret is one that most of us are very familiar with, although we may not always be talking about it. Generally, we feel some sort of grief or sorrow at the way a particular incident plays out, based on a decision that we made to influence it, or an action that we undertook. I reckon we all feel some sort of regret for nearly any situation we face in life, it’s just that we might not always feel the same “amount” of regret for each situation.
Let me share a now light-hearted story of regret from my high school days. Back in year 10, I was one of those typical guys who wasn’t good with BGR (boy-girl relationships) and had a sudden urge to find a date for the year 10, since it was the first such event most of us would’ve encountered in high school. Anyhow, so there was that girl I wanted to ask out, and then there were my friends, who wanted to know who I wanted to ask out. One day I had succumbed to peer pressure and decided to tell one of my closer friends who I wanted to ask out; I thought that if I had to tell someone, it would be that friend. And my hopes were that he’d keep my secret, as friends should. I told him at the start of lunch time that day; and within the span of 30 minutes before lunch ended, the rest of my friendship group knew, along with others who had overheard. Obviously there was no need to wonder how they all found out. Clearly my friend had betrayed my trust.
And so I felt a fair amount of regret at having told my friend what he had so deviously pestered me about. At the time I suppose it felt like I was in a really dangerous situation. In hindsight today it feels like a very comical situation. So the regret I feel about that situation today is actually far less than the regret I felt at the time. Either way, there was some sort of regret due to my decision to place my trust in him.
The one thing that can be noted from any situation where we feel regret is that there’s nothing we can do to change what has happened. Once you realize something is wrong, there’s no going back and undo-ing your “mistake”; there is no way to change the situation such that you won’t have to feel that regret. But that’s okay. I feel regret is never about contemplating “how” you could’ve changed the situation (it’s quite pointless; we can’t go back in time). However, feeling regret is a stimulus for us to think of what we can do “in response” to the bad consequence. Sometimes, broken things can be repaired. For my situation, I simply chose not to ever ask that girl to the formal. Like sure, I didn’t get my way exactly, but I at least managed to avoid any sort of future pressure from confirming the “rumour”. And consequently I now don’t tell my friend anything personal in regards to BGR. Problem mitigated, not solved.
There are some very simple patterns that we observe in life that confirm this. When we make a mistake, we feel regret over it, and then we work hard to not make that same mistake again because we know it’ll make us feel bad. I suppose this generally applies more for the common mistakes we make everyday, and also the ones where we don’t feel too much regret. For the more serious incidents such as making a decision that resulted in someone getting hurt in some way (I’d rather not name any specific incidents), we work towards not making that mistake again and we also work towards trying to help the other person recover from the hurt that our decision “caused”. And by that, I don’t think the phrase “no regrets” holds true, because nothing that happens, happens perfectly in the way we want it to. Have a think about it next time something good happen; did anything happen (even the slightest) which was bad?
One other thing I want to deal with in regards to regret is that I think it’s something that gives us strength in something we have to move forward in, but cannot avoid. I would not hesitate to say that in important things to me such as my ministry at church and all, I have felt much regret (made up of many events, each feeling a small amount of regret). And when I say regret I’m not thinking: “Oh, I wish I never did it at all.” My thoughts are more like: “I feel sad because bad things happened along the way.” But despite recognising the bad things (for me) that have resulted from the way I’ve done ministry all these years, I’m still resolved to continue forward in the things I do for church, knowing that there is more good to be gained than bad. We may always choose to run from the things we feel regret about because we want to avoid that feeling; but regret is our strength when we choose to push onwards despite such negative feelings. For something that we know is good at the end of the day, regret helps us persevere in that good task because we choose not be deterred by all the bad things which may result.
We don’t see the word “regret” in the Bible much (depending on the translation we read). I don’t do Greek but I suppose if we cross-referenced the Bible for all accounts of the word “regret”, we’d also have to look for synonyms such as “grief”, “sorrow” and other words. One verse I found recently from Genesis 6 goes like this:
When the LORD saw that man’s wickedness was widespread on the earth and that every scheme his mind thought of was nothing but evil all the time, the LORD regretted that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. Then the LORD said, “I will wipe off from the face of the earth mankind, whom I created, together with the animals, creatures that crawl, and birds of the sky—for I regret that I made them.” – Genesis 6:5-7 (HCSB)
Funnily we always missed this passage in our NIV Bibles because the word used in those verses is “grieved”, which I suppose carries enough of the same feeling.
It should come as no surprise to us that God himself can feel regret. After all, we, who are made in His image can feel regret. Then surely the one who created us can feel the same thing. In this passage of the Bible, God is feeling regret that he created mankind because of how nearly everyone in the world was wicked and that evil had pretty much consumed the world.
What does God do? He could’ve turned back time and un-did everything such that mankind would not result in all this evil (we might not be able to time travel, but God surely can). But God doesn’t do that. Instead He moves forward and chooses the harsh option of destroying the whole world with a flood. Yes that does sound quite drastic; God seems to be overreacting at what the world became. Surely we see a lot of evil today as well, but perhaps none of us would think of wanting to destroy the whole world because of that. Has God lost His mind?
Or perhaps, His decision to destroy the world highlights just how horrible sin is to Him (even if we may not feel the same way towards sin). His way of wanting to “cleanse” the world of evil makes a lot more sense if we understand His perspective on sin. An example: Suppose you have a bucket of dirty water, how would you make it clean? Aside from trying to use chemical reactions to remove all the dirt and substances from the water, the simplest solution is simply to pour out that bucket of water, and get some more (hoping that the next bucket of water will be clean). I suppose that’s what God did. It’s not easy to understand why God chose to rid the world of evil in the way He chose, but if we did a similar thing with a bucket of water, who are we to judge God?
My point from this passage is simply to show that God feels regret too; surely we can relate to Him and learn from the way He dealt with regret. He took steps to fix the problem; but even more so, the problem He was so eager to fix (that He would go to such desperate measures) is that of sin.
For all of us, we may simply feel regret about small incidents here and there. Sometimes, we may feel regret at the way we’ve lived our whole lives. But I think that regardless of how long, or how great our regret is, the problem at the core of all that is sin – our desire to turn away from God and to live our lives the way we want to, making decisions on what we believe is the right way to live, on what is fair and not fair for us and the people around us; simply being our own God.
Feeling regret for sin is a good thing; first and foremost because you recognise that it is bad. But more so, in order to correctly respond to that regret, we need to change the way we live and move forward, away from that sin. And doing so means coming to Jesus Christ for forgiveness, and accepting Him as your lord and saviour. My purpose here is not to give a reason “why” it should be done or why it’s this way (perhaps I’ve done a bit of that elsewhere), but I wanted to show how the idea of “regret” fits into the Christian message of salvation.
Lastly I want to share this verse:
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. – 2 Corinthians 7:10
If we ever feel regret about the things we do in life, the proper regret we should feel (here it’s being described as “godly”) should be one that motivates us to want to change, by repenting and turning to Jesus. Read the verse carefully here, our decision to turn to Jesus is the thing that leaves no regret. Turning to Jesus will be by far the best decision anyone can make in their life, in that nothing bad will result of it – we are all destined to receive eternal life as a result. As a bit of a technicality issue, I don’t think Christian suffering is something that can be linked to our decision to come to Jesus, because technically suffering is common for both Christians and non-Christians. The worldly sorrow mentioned here I reckon is one where we try to live our lives better through our own sheer effort, and not relying on Jesus to sanctify us; yes, that will lead to death for we will never be able to become perfect by ourselves.
So if you do find yourself feeling a lot of regret in your life, may I suggest giving your life to Jesus? You certainly won’t regret that.