Question: "What does the Bible say about dealing with regrets?"
Answer: Regret is sorrow or remorse over something that has happened or that we have done. Regret can also be a sense of disappointment over what has not happened, such as regretting wasted years. To be human is to have regrets because making mistakes is a universal experience. The Bible gives much instruction that, if followed, will result in fewer regrets. God’s commands and boundaries are written down for us in His Word, and the more we adhere to them, the less we have to regret. However, in God’s grace and mercy, He has also provided a way to deal with regrets when we have not lived as wisely as He wants us to (see Psalm 51:12).
In considering what the Bible says about regrets, we should start with the fact that in a couple of places we are told that God “regretted” an action He took. The Hebrew root for the word “regret” actually means “to sigh.” Since we know God does not make mistakes, the concept of sighing is a more descriptive term for the kind of regret God experiences. Genesis 6:7 says that, after seeing the wickedness on the earth, God regretted making man. This does not mean that the Lord felt that He made a mistake in creating human beings, but that His heart was sorrowful as He witnessed the direction they were going. Since God knows everything beforehand, He already knew that sin would bring consequences, so He was not surprised by it (1 Peter 1:20; Ephesians 1:4; Isaiah 46:9–11). Instead, this glimpse into God’s character shows us that, even though He already knows we will sin, it still grieves Him when we choose it (Ephesians 4:30).
Human regret is different from God’s regret. Human regret occurs because we do not know all things and we do make mistakes. As we age, we often look back on decisions made in youth and regret our choices. However, those regrets usually fall into one of two categories. Our regrets arise from either foolish choices or sin choices, and each requires a different response.
First, we may experience regret because of foolish choices, situations in the past that we wish had been different. For example, let’s say we had chosen to attend Z College and major in X. After years of fruitlessly pursuing a career in X, we regret that college decision. The choice of college major was not a sin, and we may have thought at the time that it was a good choice, but we now realize it was not. We can deal with that kind of regret by claiming Romans 8:28 and asking the Lord to make it work for the good. We can choose to focus on the positive aspects of all we learned and trust that, if we were seeking the Lord at the time, nothing was wasted and He can use even our immature decisions for good if we trust Him. We can forgive ourselves for our immature decision and purpose to grow wiser from what we learned (Philippians 3:13).
Peter is one biblical example of someone who deeply regretted a foolish decision. Although Peter was committed to Jesus, his fear made him run away when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, and he later denied his Lord. His actions did not come from a desire to sin, but from impulse, spiritual immaturity, and fear. He deeply regretted his actions and wept bitterly (Luke 22:62). Jesus knew about Peter’s regret and specifically asked to see him after His resurrection (Mark 16:7). We learn from this that our regrets are not hidden from God and He desires to restore us when we return to Him (Malachi 3:7; Jeremiah 24:7).
Other regrets are due to sin choices that may have left scars and consequences. After a lifetime of selfish debauchery, some people in their later years are so overwhelmed by regret they cannot experience joy. The consequences of their sin for themselves and others may haunt them for years. The pain of regret can drive us to decisions we would not otherwise make. Judas Iscariot is one such example in the Bible. After he realized that he had betrayed the Messiah, Judas was so filled with regret that he tried to undo his actions by returning the blood money. When that didn’t work, he went out and killed himself (Matthew 27:3–5).
Regret can lead some to self-destruction, but God wants to use it to lead us toward repentance. It’s important to understand that regret is not the same as repentance. Esau deeply regretted his decision to sell his birthright, but he never repented of his sin (Hebrews 12:16–17). Regret focuses on the action that has brought sorrow; repentance focuses on the one we have offended. Second Corinthians 7:10 explains the difference between mere regret and true repentance: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” Rather than allow the regret to win, we can allow Jesus to transform us so that our past sin choices magnify His powerful grace. When we come to Him in repentance, believing that His sacrifice on the cross was sufficient payment for the debt we owe God, we can be forgiven (2 Corinthians 5:21: Romans 10:9–10; Acts 2:23).
Two men betrayed Jesus on the night He was crucified. Judas had worldly sorrow (regret), and his life was ended. Peter had godly sorrow (repentance), and his life was transformed. We have the same choices those men had. When we face regret, we can let it consume our lives, or we can lay our fault at the feet of Jesus, turn from it, and let Him restore us (Psalm 23; 2 Corinthians 5:17).