I overheard an elderly Christian man talking with a younger Christian today. He said that as he was approaching the ending of his life, he had this nagging feeling. He could’ve done so much more for Jesus, he said. There were so many more people he could have shared Christ with, many more good deeds he could have done, many ways in which could have, somehow, redeemed the time better.
What struck me was that this was not a man who had wasted His life. He had spent his life walking with Christ. He taught Sunday School for years, even decades. So why the regret? Is it valid? What should he do with his regret?
I’m becoming convinced that there is good regret and bad regret. I’m also convinced that there are right and wrong ways to deal with regret.
Good regret comes as a result of the Holy Spirit convicting us of a specific sin–with confession of that sin, followed by repentance, as the goal. It is the job of the Spirit to lead us into all truth (John 16:13). Part of this involves shaping our consciences to experience regret for wrongs done. That is why how Paul was able to say, “I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit.” The implication can be made that if he was lying, his conscience, by the Holy Spirit, would lead to guilt or regret.
Consider what Paul says the goal of regret should be:
For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it… I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. (2 Corinthians 7:8-9 ESV)
So, good regret is the kind that moves you to repent. Your conscience weighs on you, until finally you confess your sin and repent. You agree with God that what you have done is wrong. Your mind is changed, and now sees things the way God sees them. If the opportunity arose to repeat the sin, you would determine, in the strength of the Spirit, to resist.
So what about bad regret? How can regret be bad? Regret can be unhelpful if it is a generic despondency over your whole life. Someone once told me that the Holy Spirit deals in specifics, but Satan deals in generalities. I think I agree with that. After all, Satan is the accuser of the brothers (Rev 12:10), but the Spirit convicts of sin. The older Christian I mentioned above seemed to be dealing with an all-of-life type of guilt and regret. But what was he to do with that? It’s hard to do anything helpful with this all-encompassing type of guilt. How do you repent of your whole life?
Bad or unhelpful guilt also comes as we consider (as the older man did) all things we could–even should– have done, but didn’t. It reminds me of the final scene in Schindler’s list: Oskar Schindler, a German businessman, had saved the lives of 1100 Jews during the second world war by hiring them to work in his factory. When Schindler himself is forced to flee, he laments,
“I could have done more. I could have got more out. I could have got more… If I’d made more money… I threw away so much money… This car… Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people… This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t! And I… I didn’t!”
All the good that he did was not enough to soothe his conscience when he considered all he could have done. Isn’t that true of all of us? We have done something in obedience to Christ–but there is more that we did not do. Now, there is a balance here. We need to be sensitive to the Spirit’s conviction of sins of omission. But to overwhelm our souls with the weight of every single missed opportunity, every single misstep, every single instance in which hindsight tells us we could have done better–this is to break the backs of our spirits under an unbearable weight.
So what should we do with regret? This could probably fill a whole book, but here are a few ideas to get you thinking:
- If you can name it, confess it. Then repent of it. Then bask in the joy and relief that comes knowing that Jesus laid down His life to forgive that very sin. This may take some time soaking in God’s promises regarding forgiveness (like 1 John 1:9).
- If you can’t really name it, but have this over-arching, all-encompassing, all-of-life regret, then consider that it may not be the Holy Spirit stirring up these feelings within you. It may be your fallen self, myopically over-examining your own life and poring over too many details.
- If you con’t name it, consider that it may be spiritual warfare. The enemy of your souls is looking to trip you up. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”(1 Peter 5:8 ESV). One of his most effective tools, I’m convinced, is discouragement and despair. He’s up for any trick that will make us want to quit serving our King.
- If you’re unsure if your regret is valid or not, discuss it with a brother or sister in Christ whom you trust. Get their perspective; an impartial outsider will often see things we don’t. They may, “That’s ridiculous. Move on; quit wallowing in that mud puddle.” Or they may say, “Yeah, that’s pretty bad. Let’s think through some things to set that right.”
- If you’re finding it hard to get past your regret because it’s now “unfixable” (like having not treated a deceased loved one the way you should have while they were still alive, or lamenting a past divorce and the impact it had on your children even though you and your ex have both since remarried and even though you’ve confessed your regret to them), then rest in God’s providence and His grace. You have not fallen off the cliff beyond the reach of God’s providence. God will allow even sinful events to bring about a good result (Gen 50:20). Confess to anyone you can, confess to God, receive forgiveness, and rest.
- One way to check your soul to see if you’re guilty of “overmuch sorrow,” as the Puritans used to say, is to ask this question: Has this regret become a helpful tool to sanctify me and make me more like Jesus? Or has the guilt of this regret paralyzed me and kept me from performing spiritual duties? If I’m isolated, not serving others, but wallowing in my own sea of coulda’s and shoulda’s, chances are my sorrow is not godly. The Puritan Christopher Love said,
A man’s disquiet and trouble of soul for sin is immoderate and excessive when disquiet of sin either discourages a man or makes him unfit for religious duties. Then they are excessive and inordinate.”
. 7. Take your regret to the gospel (see #1). And if your soul refuses to receive the comfort found in the gospel, your guilt is unhealthy, ungodly, and sinful. In closing, listen again to Christopher Love:
A man’s disquiet and trouble of soul for sin is immoderate and excessive when a man is so disquieted under the guilt of sin that he is not only unable to receive comfort, but unwilling to receive that comfort that belongs to him. (Psaln 42:2 says) “My soul refuses to be comforted.” That was his sin… God intends trouble for sin to be an exercise of grace, not to obliterate the evidence of our graces. When trouble for sin proves to be an eclipse of grace, not a spur to grace, it is excessive.