The Regret Trap

I am pretty sure that we could all make lists of our regrets. I could quite easily start with my pencil back in elementary school and fill a page with stupid, foolish, and sinful things I did that I regret. Then I could move on to fill a couple of pages with junior high and high school, and then get a new notebook to start with the college years. And that would only be the stuff I remember.

But God intervened in my life in 1973, the summer after my junior year of college. Not that He had been absent all those years before. But He shed His light in my heart, opened my eyes, and turned me from darkness to light. I was forgiven, washed, restored, and put right. In fact, for a minute there I was sparkly clean.

But I soon discovered that even though many of my old sinful habits were gone, and even though I was a new person, inside and out, I still had plenty of remaining sinfulness left to be dealt with.

So do you suppose I have any regrets since 1973? Have I done any dumb, foolish things? Have I made decisions that didn’t turn out the way I thought they would? Have I said stupid things I wish I hadn’t? All of these are rhetorical questions. Of course I have! But I have consistently sought God’s forgiveness for these stupid and/or sinful things. Sometimes they are truly sin (most of the time) and sometimes they are simply foolish, which may or may not be sin. Either way, I’ve put things right with God and right with others countless times. Call it an ongoing bath. Regular scrubbing. That’s what repentance is.

Real repentance seeks real forgiveness, but it can still feel like a fool. And regret is disappointment over what we’ve done. It’s what keeps us looking back, and it keeps that humiliating disappointment alive. But I believe that regret is all tangled up with pride. Pride says, “Why did I do such a stupid thing? I know better. I am not that kind. I am wiser than that. I am pretty sure that it was a momentary blip caused by hunger or hormones or not enough caffeine. I am so embarrassed.” Regret flatters us into thinking we are really better people than we are, that we would do it better if we were given another chance.

A real repentance deals with the root of the matter, which means that we humble ourselves and confess to God that we really are the kind of people who say or do stupid or foolish or sinful things. Real repentance doesn’t keep any self-respect around to enable long-term mourning over our mistakes.

So. Don’t waste your time regretting. Regret usually begins with thoughts like, “If only…” or “I wish I hadn’t…” or “If I could do that again…” It is unfruitful. It focuses on the wrong things (what might have been) rather than on what’s happening now.

We all have plenty to regret, but regret can just feed discontent and increase our sorrow. We have far more to be grateful for. So when I am tempted to feel regret, I remind myself that it is not relevant. This is chapter ten, and fussing over what happened back in chapter six will only slow me down. It’s not productive. No one wants to hear about it. It’s unfruitful. It’s clearly not a fruit of the Spirit. We learn from our mistakes (failures, etc.) so that we can press forward, not so we can look back at what might have been or not been. God is good.

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22 thoughts on “The Regret Trap

  1. Thank you for this…as always, this is bang on for what is going on in my life. It’s good to be reminded about this and be sure that as I go through this part of my life I don’t do the “regret thing”. Who needs the baggage? :)

  2. Thanks, Nancy!

    Yes…I can see where the pride comes in, and I can see how much regret has in common with the sort of anger I’m prone to. I saw this in myself just last night. I was addressing some wedding invitations for a friend [The recipients included many names I recognized, including the proprietresses of this blog…look for an address in green ink!], and I messed up two envelopes in a row with the same mistake. I verbalized my frustration with myself (words like “stupid” or “idiot” or both probably made their appearance). The bride’s sister sweetly said something sympathetic, but I confessed to her that it was pride that made me think I could do things without mistakes.

    Regret just keeps doing stuff like that retroactively. I can call myself an idiot for things that happened years ago. Another aspect is that often, as happened last night, the event wasn’t even a sin, just a mistake. That adds another layer of pride — I’m creating my own standards and being my own judge when I don’t meet them. It feels pious because I’m not excusing myself, but it’s just idolatry through and through.

    John Newton is an example that comes to mind of the opposite of regret. What a life that man lived before he came to Christ! What horrible things he did! It’s tempting to be indignant with him that he didn’t spend the rest of his life in sackcloth and ashes, beating his breast and bewailing his sin. But he really believed in amazing grace, and he lived in the joyful light of it. There’s a fictionalized biography of Newton, Servant of Slaves, that ends with a wonderful story that has stuck with me:

    Newton was preaching, and repeats “Jesus Christ is precious” three times. You read his inner dialogue, as well. He thinks something along the lines of “They probably thought my mind was wandering when I said it yet a third time.” But he was just telling the most important thing he had to tell them, the most important thing they needed to hear, and it bore repeating.

    Regret, in contrast, is like repeating over and over, “I am precious” (or perhaps, “I am the precioussssss“). It’s focused in exactly the wrong place, self instead of Christ, and on exactly the wrong thing, evil instead of good or my failure instead of His glory. (I notice that regret also lets me give myself permission to wallow in my sin — not just in remembering it, but in going back and doing it some more. That seems counterintuitive, and I haven’t quite worked out why, but I know it’s a pattern I see in myself.)

    My new mantra in response to discontentment is, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to Your word.” God has ordained whatever circumstance is vexing me, and I need to embrace my role of finding a way to serve Him in the midst of it, trusting that something good will be born of it. I think my new mantra in response to regret should be “Jesus Christ is precious. Jesus Christ is precious. Jesus Christ is precious.” And then I need to run forward rather than looking back.

  3. Valerie,
    A suggestion: Just confess it and move on. Don’t try to analyze sin. Sin is irrational, so it never makes sense.

  4. Analyzing isn’t necessarily healthy. And sin never makes sense. Better to pray that God will open your eyes to your temptations and make you wise to resist them. Whenever I start trying to figure out why I sinned the way I did, my husband usually suggests that I not. It’s not important or even relevant. But take note of the temptation, and pray that you’ll be better at resisting next time. That’s my take on it.

  5. Valerie, what Nancy said. (And take this as a “struggling with this along with you,” not as a “got all the answers.”)

    Something I’m learning, but forgetting almost as fast as I learn it, and then having to learn it again, is that we don’t have to figure everything out. Not because we don’t need to know many things in some sense, but because God will sort it out for us. If you need to know how you’re susceptible to sin X in order to avoid it, He’ll make it clear some way or another. Trying to figure it out yourself by trying to outsmart your sin leads to the pitfalls Nancy points out.

  6. Thanks, Nancy! Makes me think of Philippians 3:12-16…not that I have already attained, but I press on that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has laid hold of me…forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus!

  7. Wow. Another wonderfully potent piece of wisdom for me to chew over. I tend to over-think the past, which always brings feelings of discontent and regret. I love your no-nonsense approach and have been implementing it when those useless thoughts of the past come to mind: “Stop. Just stop. Now, what’s something constructive that I can do around here?” Usually works. :-)

  8. Love reading your posts! I just recently found your blog and I am quite moved by your words. Might I add that regret is, simply put, the devil’s work. He will make you second guess your salvation and God’s grace every chance he gets.

    Blessings!

  9. Just thought of a favorite pairing of verses:

    “My sin is always before me.” (Psalm 51:3b)

    “I have set Yahweh always before me.” (Psalm 16:8a)

    The first is passive — I don’t have to work at getting my sin in front of my face; it’s just there. The second is active — I must deliberately endeavor to focus my attention on God.

  10. Self-analysis (including analysis of the past)is encouraged by modern education. It is dialectic and tends to either soul-numbing despair or soul-numbing paralysis. It rarely comes up with the simple answer: “Sin; repent; press on”.

  11. Great great great post! God is so good and we make clear how badly we need Him is every foolish slip. I would not last in the “Pull your self up by your own boot straps,” camp. Every day more that I live I realize a little more how deep my need is for my Savior. This is an encouraging post. It is easy to over analyze when we sin or when we are sinned against and it does seem to make everything more muddy, not more clear. Thanks!

  12. I relate very well to regret increasing sorrow. I think going over and over mistakes is being proud but it is also something that allows one to wallow in his mistakes and not getting past them, and it works on a lack of trust in Christ. Thank you for these points.

  13. Thank-you for this post. I can’t find the words to express how much it encouraged me in this particular area.

  14. “But I believe that regret is all tangled up with pride. Pride says, “Why did I do such a stupid thing? I know better. I am not that kind. I am wiser than that. I am pretty sure that it was a momentary blip caused by hunger or hormones or not enough caffeine. I am so embarrassed.” Regret flatters us into thinking we are really better people than we are, that we would do it better if we were given another chance.”

    True, I do agree. But I think that regret offers positive information as well about our origins. Regret is a “natural” reaction because we were, in fact, not made to “be this” and we are meant to be better, to actually know better. I think, sometimes, that regret, though often entangled with our sinful pride, is also a remnant of the dust of Eden. It is evidence of a moral consciousness beyond the stupid act itself. Regret reveals the ability to discern good and evil. Hmm…sounds a bit like that forbidden tree, eh?

    Makes you wonder…what choice was God actually extending on that sunny forbidden day? The choice of loving Him without the knowledge of regret?…or the choice of loving Him because we know what the loss of Him feels like? It’s hard to say…God is truly mysterious. And although I believe in His goodness, I also believe in His wildness.

    We can tell ourselves such lofty things as “don’t waste time in regret” and to some degree we are right. But regret is a natural process of this life too. And just as much as it is easily entangled with sin, the chosen and the unchosen, it is also evidence of the hope of who we ARE meant to be…and someday will be, by the will of that good and wild Lover of our Garden Hearts.

  15. @Valerie: “But he really believed in amazing grace, and he lived in the joyful light of it.” I read the comments to this post and something you shared about John Newton really caught my attention as I continued to read Nancy’s response to not get caught up in overanalyzing your sin, or just simple mistakes. Please allow me to encourage you to “live in the joyful light of your belief in God’s AMAZING GRACE!” We all know that living delighted in His grace is the only way to go. When we analyze our sin so critically we tend to believe that God is just as critical and He doesn’t treat us this way, He is slow to anger and gives us the confidence to approach His throne of grace because of the hope we have in Jesus Christ. I once too overanalyzed my sin and as I get caught up in the vicious cycle of analyze my sin I start to get so dizzy in my downward spiral that I forget to look to the God who picks me up, turns me around and places my feet on solid ground, the One who saves me completely by His graces alone, as a gift to me. What a reason to continuously recieve His grace over and over and over!!! Live in the joyful light of HIS GRACE! With all my love in Christ!

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