Most mornings, my wife and I will sit and talk while we drink our first (hers) and second (mine) cups of coffee. Recently, we were talking about regrets in life that we both have, situations which we wish we would have handled differently.
There are a few people I have heard say, over the course of my life, that they have no regrets, but those are the exception, and they may be more bravado than reality. The vast majority of us have regrets as we look back over our lives. It may be the way we treated a parent or a friend. It may be decisions we made along life’s path. For me, much of my regrets involve how I handled, or rather mishandled, romantic relationships when I was young. As a follower of Jesus, I regret I didn’t exhibit more Christ-like attitudes and behaviors. I wish I would have held myself to higher standards.
But here is what I have wrestled with for years: Paul tells us that godly sorrow leaves no regret. (II Corinthians 7:10) So is it right to have regrets if we follow Jesus? This was the question my wife and I discussed that morning.
When I think of Paul’s life, early on he was a self-righteous jerk. It seems his life was one of making sure everyone upheld the Jewish law as he and his fellow Pharisees interpreted it. In many ways, he was probably akin to the Taliban of Afghanistan. When the Jews tried Stephen, Paul had no problem with the verdict—death by stoning. And soon after, he was threatening and arresting followers of Jesus. Given such a sordid history, how are we to interpret his words of grace which he later spoke to the Corinthians?
Regret seems to be a way of punishing ourselves for wrongdoing. Through regret we acknowledge the seriousness of our offense. We are holding ourselves to account. To do otherwise, is to let ourselves off the hook, which in turn seems unjust given the offense. So, without knowing Paul’s Corinthian comments, I would expect that he would feel awful about what he did and never forget the pain he caused. I would expect it to remain a haunting part of his past that would accompany him to the grave. In fact, if he were living today, it would be tempting to mock his words in light of what he did. He would likely be “canceled” via social media, and demands for a reckoning would be raised.
Yet, Paul seemed to be at peace with himself. He didn’t deny his past (I Corinthians 15:9; I Timothy 1:15), but he accepted God’s grace upon his life. (I Timothy 1:16) So how could he have done such hideous things and have no regret? The key is that which comes before having no regrets. He says godly sorrow leads to repentance. My guess is that the regret comes when we truly realize what we’ve done and then repent. This happened to Paul on his way to Damascus. Jesus confronted him with what he was doing. During his time in the house of Judas, it is likely he experienced sorrow and regret. He faced it there, then was baptized, and then began his Christian ministry. So why no continued regret?
I believe by continuing to regret our past sins which we have confessed and from which we have repented, we are saying to God that his grace is not sufficient; we need to keep punishing ourselves. In reality, while we might feel justified in doing this, it actually is an affront to the Lord. And the root of this is pride. We have an inner need to prove we are worthy, which makes receiving unconditional and complete grace difficult for us. We want to earn it.
Paul knew he could never earn God’s grace because he was such a sinner. His Damascus Road encounter with Jesus had humbled him. In that humility, he accepted God’s gift of grace and embraced it for the rest of his life. Unlike so many, regrets never weighed him down or kept him from being an effective witness for the Lord. The Lord forgave him; who was he not to forgive himself?
When we come to terms with our sin, confess it, and repent, we are then off the hook and free to move on with our lives, not with regret but in the abundant grace of the Lord. Like Paul, we are free to live in joy knowing we can never, ever earn grace, so regret is no longer necessary.
© Jim Musser 2020