Nathan Hale elevated the term “regret” to a new high in 1776. Hale, a lad of twenty-one years, was a captain in the colonial army. He was arrested by the British as a spy and sentenced to hang. His courageous, final words were: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
More often than not, however, “regret” has a troubling connotation.
Normally, “regret” may be defined as a distress of mind, or a painful memory, over something that happened in the past. It often reflects the contemplation of a circumstance that lies beyond the possibility of repair. On the other hand, the somber term can signify a situation that is not beyond the scope of correction. It may simply suggest that, as yet, the grievance is not remedied.
John Greenleaf Whittier expressed the concept of regret poetically:
“Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
the saddest are, ‘It might have been.’”
As one contemplates various shades of regret, that on occasion disturb one’s peace of mind, several categories may engage his attention. Some examples of such are illustrated in the Bible.
The Regret of Personal Consequences
There is a type of regret that vexes the soul intolerably due to a horrible sin that one has committed; and yet, the perpetrator cannot rid his life of the consequences associated therewith. A man may commit a murder, and be sent to prison for the crime. He may regret his plight, but have little or no moral remorse for his heinous deed.
The rich man, featured in the Lord’s illustrative narrative that deals with covetous self-interest, doubtless regretted his post-mortem environment — a place of horrible torment (Luke 16:19ff). Yet there is not a solitary word escaping his lips that reveals any level of godly regret.
Had he neglected his neighbor? Yes he had. Had he dishonored his God? Unquestionably. But as far as the record goes, he cared nothing for the disgrace of either transgression. He merely was distressed about his anguished, irrevocable condition.
The Regret of Personal Guilt
Equally pitiable is the sort of regret that could be assuaged somewhat if the victim of the sorrow would seek the assistance of God.
A prime example is that of Judas, the treacherous disciple who betrayed the Son of God. After his act of betrayal was consummated, Judas was struck with the reality that his wicked intrigue would result in the “condemnation” of Christ. Thus, he “repented himself” (metamelomai — to have regret, remorse), and brought back the thirty pieces of silver for which he had sold out the Savior (Matthew 27:3ff).
It scarcely can be said, however, that the wayward apostle “repented” in the noblest sense of that term. His subsequent suicide, though dramatic, demonstrated the superficiality of his feelings toward Christ (see: Bromiley 1985, 590).
Judas’ regret could (and should) have impelled him to a higher plateau of spirituality, a change of life, wherein he could have found pardon and relief. For whatever reason, he refused that option.
There are many today who harbor regrets that stalk them mercilessly, but in their stubbornness they resist every offer of divine grace. One can only pity the person who resolutely languishes under the burden of a malignancy for which there is a cure, but a cure that is refused.
There also is that type of regret that lingers still, even after one knows that he cannot undo the wrongful deeds of his past, and he is confident that God has forgiven him. This is a healthy regret; one that motivates to action.
Prior to his conversion, Paul had been a determined persecutor of the Christian Way. He was a missionary of mayhem who sought to destroy the church of God (Acts 9:1ff; 23:9-11; Galatians 1:13; 1 Timothy 1:13). But those bloody days were not without lingering regrets, even after his soul had been refreshed with cleansing (Acts 22:16).
In his epistle to the Ephesians he chastised himself as “the least of all the saints” (3:8). He confessed to the Corinthians that he was “the least of the apostles,” not worthy of the favor bestowed upon him—due to his days of violence against the church (1 Corinthians 15:9). His anguish was expressed to Timothy in his claim of being “chief” of sinners. The present tense form, “of whom I am chief,” tells a story on its own; indeed, even in concert with his gratitude for Christ’s mercy.
But the indomitable apostle did not wither away, indulging himself in self-pity and unproductive anxiety. Rather, he channeled his memories into a fiery zeal that would take him some 12,000 miles of rigorous travel in three missionary campaigns and sundry other preaching adventures on behalf of the gospel of Christ. He resolutely endured persecution, and was made stronger for it (2 Corinthians 11:24ff; 12:9-10).
The Lessons of Regret
What, then, can we learn from this brief study? Two things principally. Whatever regrets lurk in our shadows, that may to a degree be fixed — fix them! Right whatever wrongs you can. And seek God’s pardon in his appointed ways — whether as sinner (Acts 2:38), or saint (Acts 8:22).
If you have done everything biblically possible to remedy past mistakes, resolve that even though regrets linger, you will not let them control you and disable you. Determine that you will use them as a springboard to a higher good than you might have accomplished otherwise. Such would be God’s will for you.