God’s Wonderful Remedies for Regret
Regret is a killer. It kills hope and attacks faith. Regret is the gnarled hands of the guilty or disappointed past reaching up from a shallow grave to choke the present. It can destroy relationships, health, even sanity. Regret can make us nervous and passive or aggressive and angry. Regret feeds cynicism, bitterness, distrust of others, and depression. In some souls, regret floods the future with fear. You and I must kill regret before it kills us. If only I had done that differently, not said that, made a better choice, believed in Jesus sooner. Or worse: if only I had not married that person or chosen that occupation or destroyed that relationship.
One of regret’s most sobering truths is that most of our regrets are in some measure deserved. We have done things we should not have done. We feel guilty about past sins. Parents worry that their sins and bad decisions will be visited upon their children, who are oppressed by their parents’ anxiety and fears. Believers can be haunted by their past. We wonder if it is really the past, or if our sins, failures, and decisions are casting such long shadows that they will finally engulf us in the full consequences of our actions.
Some measure of regret is inevitable for fallen creatures, but regret need not destroy us. Allow me to suggest a few ways that we can face our past honestly, overcome paralyzing regret, and live with some measure of peace. You may feel you are too guilty or bruised in certain areas to have peace, but this is likely the flesh, and perhaps the devil whispering his fell lies. It is not what your heavenly Father says to you. Consider these six biblical truths and promises as God’s wonderful remedies for regret.
Without blaming God or excusing ourselves, it is important to (1) see God’s hand in our past sins and failures, the things that cause regret. Joseph saw God’s hand in his brothers’ sins, and rather than stewing and hating and plotting revenge, he learned to respect and yield to God’s providence (Gen. 50:20). The Jews and Romans killed the Lord of glory, but they did what God had determined to do in order to bring salvation to the world (Acts 4:27-28). God is not complicit in man’s sins, but he is sovereign over them. The worst things we have done and the worst things that have happened to us, God did them for good. We may and usually do not see that good in this life, or if we do but dimly, but faith lays hold upon God’s goodness even in our failures. This is a great help when it comes to forgiving others for the wrongs they have done to us. It is also vital when it comes to forgiving ourselves so that guilt drowns in the ocean of God’s mercy – and with it regret. Men can do very evil things to us, especially when we are most vulnerable, but we are called to forgive as we have been forgiven. How is this possible? God meant it for good. We must trust him on this point, or regret will eat us alive with its parasites of bitterness and hatred.
With respect to our sins, we must therefore (2) embrace God’s promise of mercy. We are not permitted to keep punishing ourselves for past sins. This denies our Savior’s cross. Regret that does not respect God’s mercy is pride – that we did not measure up or the twisted belief that we must spend the rest of our lives making up for the bad we did or the harm we caused to others. And of course, embracing God’s promise of mercy means that we extend that mercy to others. Strangely, it was Esau that practiced this better than Jacob; Jacob tried to atone for his past treachery through gifts, but Esau forgave him. Peter was hesitant to come back fully into our Lord’s company, but the Lord kept repeating “Do you love me?” I have forgiven you, he said in effect, and he forgives us. If we have honestly confessed our sins, we do God our Father a great injustice if we doubt his promise. Doubt of mercy feeds regret as few things do. Look at the cross, and believe. By our Savior’s stripes, you are healed, and now stand in him “holy, without spot, and having no charges to answer” (Col. 1:22). Jesus stood good for you and satisfied justice. Drink, child of God, from these sweetest of all waters – the loving kindness and forgiveness of God through his Son.
God’s goodness in his providence and mercy are designed to lead us to repentance. One of the ways regret is killed is when we by God’s grace (3) face honestly our past sins and turn our ways to obedience (Ps. 119:59). If possible, make relational restitution to those against whom you have sinned – seek them out, confess, listen to their grievances and perspective, and hopefully receive their forgiveness. Do this daily in your marriage, and you will have few regrets. Toward God respecting our past sins, practice mortification (Col. 3:5). Kill sin, and you will kill most past regret, for then you will know that God is delivering you from your past. Kill sin, and you will also prevent future regret. This is not to earn his mercy but to respond joyfully to his mercy with thankfulness and obedience. We have not repented of our past sins unless we have turned from them. Regret about past sins sometimes indicates that those sins have not been forsaken and restitution made by believing upon the name of Jesus Christ, trusting his cleansing blood, and loving him by keeping his commandments.
Since most regret is either guilt over past sins or a sinful response to bad circumstances and broken relationships, follow this biblical truth: (4) sow to righteousness, reap in mercy (Hos. 10:12). Righteousness is God’s remedy for regret, for he has delivered us from sin’s slavery to be servants of righteousness (Rom. 6:18-21). The lack of preaching righteousness – obedience to God’s word – and equating elevated religious feeling to true godliness is a bane of the modern church. We do not need “principles for living” unless they are explanations of God’s will revealed in Scripture. Unless we are sowing to righteousness, practicing obedience to God, “perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord,” regrets will continue to plague us. Righteousness, however, is God’s great work in the believer. We have been “created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (Eph. 2:10). When we practice obedience, we shall reap in mercy, our Father’s lovingkindness. Our hearts will assure us that God has done a work of grace in us, delivering from sin (Tit. 2:10). He will be merciful to our unrighteousness (1 John 1:9-2:2).
Many believers are haunted by the fear that God will visit their sins upon their children. This intensifies regret to such a degree that some are robbed of sleep and health. They fear that the shoe of judgment is going to drop. Parenting by regret suffocates the souls of our children. The iniquities of the fathers (and mothers) are visited upon the children only for those who hate God (Ex. 20:5). He shows mercy to those who “love him and keep his commandments.” Again, this is not the obedience that earns favor or tries to make up for the past but obedience that loves God for his grace and mercy. God visits sins upon those who do not forsake them. To his believing children, he buries their sins in the bottom of the sea (Mic. 7:18-19). He delights in mercy!
As you embrace God’s mercy with faith and thankfulness, as you resolve to walk in his ways, (5) trust God to work out his purposes in your life. You may want to work through the past; others against whom you have sinned may not be ready to let go of their bitterness toward you. God will not judge your children for your sins, but your children may struggle in familiar areas. God’s mercy is not fully worked out in this life. Sometimes he will keep us a little bruised in areas of past sin; we have to live with some of our past decisions that we now regret. But mercy will triumph over judgment. God does not save us to be perfect, not yet. We would like our past to have a good ending – broken relationships healed, bad decisions work out perfectly, no more struggle with past sins. Our Father will chasten us because he loves us. Through chastening, he says to us, “Do not go that way again. Stay away from those sins. Love me and your neighbor better moving forward.”
The happy ending is coming. The regret that tries to kill you now will one day be turned into great praise. (6) Rejoice that in heaven all your regrets will be thanksgivings to God for his mercy. We shall perhaps see more of his purposes in our failings, but if not, we shall see Jesus face to face. All those sins we regret – He, the glorious Lamb, has washed them all away. The relationships we harmed – there is my brother or sister standing around the throne – by God’s grace, he too is here, despite my failings toward him. God was stronger than my failings, wiser than I could ever see, more loving than my heart would allow. Yes, child of God, your regrets will finally be killed when you see Jesus. Keep looking to him now and have a taste of his full and free forgiveness. And love him for his grace. Loving him, walk with him in faith and obedience.