Awhile back, when I was in my mid-twenties, I became so frustrated with single life that I found myself in the lobby of a dating service, ready for them to help me find a spouse.
This was the mid-00s, well before online dating had become one of the more accepted ways of meeting people. Match.com and Eharmony were around, but meeting a stranger online seemed sketchy and dangerous. Apparently, I would rather have had a corporation control my romantic destiny.
I sat in a small conference room, lonely and unconfident, across from an attractive salesperson who knew exactly how to manipulate me. She looked into my eyes and confided that she knew exactly how difficult it was to make a connection in this busy world. She leaned over and lightly touched my leg as I told her my story of woe. She smiled softly as she convinced me to agree to pay $2,160 (in 36 easy installments) just for access to a database where I could meet other desperate strangers.
For that price, I got a photo and a video interview. I did not get any dates. Great Expectations was not all I’d hoped for.
It’s safe to say I regret that decision. Despite the funny and self-deprecating stories it allows me to tell, if I could do it all over again, I would keep my two grand and just wait to meet my wife (which happened not through a dating service but via an old-fashioned set up).
But to admit regret seems passe in today’s culture. The more popular thing to do, when asked if we have any regrets about life, is to confidently say no, that every action we’ve taken has turned us into the person we are today.
It seems like a solid answer, one that respects the sovereignty of God and doesn’t dwell on the negative. There is serenity in looking at the past and realizing that our decisions and actions have not destroyed us but have been instrumental in making us the human beings we are at the moment.
But often, the subject of regret crosses my mind, and I wonder whether life can really be lived with no regrets and, more importantly, whether a good life can be lived without any. I’ve come to the conclusion that regret is a good, necessary thing for us to have, particularly as we go through the process of sanctification and become more like Christ.
The gift of regret
The truth is that there are things in my life that I regret saying or doing. I regret that lost $2,160 and a single life I spent mired in misery instead of making the most of my solitude. I regret sending an email to my district manager at the Bible bookstore I worked at that I intended to be a clarion call for strong theology and Godly business practices but was, more realistically, just a showing of my hubris and self-righteousness. I regret having good friendships that I squandered by becoming judgmental and pious instead of loving and forgiving. I regret angry words to friends and family, idiotic purchases, and times when I chased after my own selfish desires instead of submitting to the joy and will of God.
Regret, in the right light, can be a gift from God. It is an emotion, a strong dissatisfaction with the things I have done. Regret is the reminder of the fallout and consequence of my sin and bad decisions. When I look back at the times I have wandered from the fold, regret is the shepherd’s crook that pulls me back. It’s a reminder that says, “Remember how that felt? Let’s not go down that path again.” It is a practical and powerful tool that reminds us of our mistakes and puts us back on the right path.
Regret is a reminder that I am a fallen, sinful man in constant need of cleansing and forgiveness. It is the kick in the ribs that forces my eyes to the cross to reveal my need for a savior. Were we to live life without regrets, we would likely not take time to remember the blood shed to atone for our mistakes and the life lived to give us the strength to continue on in obedience and improvement. Regret is a powerful and much-needed way of reminding us of our need for a savior and its stinging rebuke is washed away in the blood of Calvary.
I think we all, whether we admit it or not, have our regrets. Like I said, it’s important to if we ever want to improve and grow as human beings. I suspect what people actually mean when they say they have no regrets is that they try not to live a regret-filled life. They regret decisions but don’t dwell on them. They look at the mistakes, feel a twinge of shame and foolishness, and then move forward with the resolve not to make the same mistake again. That’s not a life without regrets — that’s a life with healthy regret.
Of course, at the end of life, the Gospel teaches that only followers of Christ can live truly regret-free lives. As John Piper is fond of saying (and I have long-since forgotten who originally coined the phrase), “Just one life, will soon be passed; only what’s done for Christ will last.” How horrible it will be for those who have not trusted Christ to look back at the end of their lives and realize they’ve wasted it, that the one true source of life and joy was refused. And yet, for the follower of Christ, there will be the reminder that no matter our sins and failures, the cross was our uniting point, our goal and our life. The problems we encountered, the sins we committed, they are washed away in the blood of Christ as we realize that a life lived in light of the cross, by the power of Christ and for the glory of God is a life that we will never regret.
And in that, Christians can rejoice in healthy regret, knowing that it is the prodding of the Spirit to become more and more like Christ. We often give our mistakes too much credit — It is not the mistakes that have made us the people we are today, nor is it our initiative to move forward with an attitude not to make those mistakes. We never should thank our sins or our own feeble motives, and we should always look back on them saying “I can’t believe I did that; what a foolish mistake.”
But after that twinge of regret should come an exhalation of praise. Yes, we have sinned. And yes, we are right to regret that sin. But that’s not the end of our story. Because we have a sovereign and wonderful God who takes even our sins and faults and turns them into something glorious and beautiful so that even a life full of regrets should never be a regretful life.