Summary: The good news is that we don’t have to be paralyzed by regret, we don’t have to let it rob us of the joy and hope that God has promised us as our birthright in Christ
In "A Christmas Carol", Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, who against his will, takes him back to a time when he was still a young man. Scrooge sees himself proposing to the woman he loved, a woman who later breaks their engagement because she realizes that he has come to love money more than her. As Scrooge watches the scene unfold, we can see the emotions playing out over his face. We can imagine what is going through his mind: What a fool he had been! How his life would have been different if he had married, if his heart hadn’t been hardened by the love of money. Perhaps that young man wouldn’t have become this wretched, bitter old miser.
Well, consider this: How would you like to be visited by the ghost of your past? How would you like to go back and relive your sins, your mistakes, the foolish choices that changed your life? How would you like to be forced to watch helplessly, knowing what the outcome is going to be, unable to do anything to change the result, feeling the sharp pain of regret at not having taken the other path, or at least wondering what would have happened had your choices been different. Well, for most people, there’s really no need for a nighttime visit from one of Charles Dickens’ three spirits. Because we do it ourselves. We replay the past, again and again. We see it projected on the screen of our minds. Don’t you sometimes wish you could go back and talk to yourself at those key moments, talk to that person in the movie of your life, warn them, tell them where the road they’re taking will lead?
We’ve all experienced regret over the past. It takes many forms:
· Regret over marriage. Imagining how much happier your life would have been if you had married someone other that person sitting next to you. Or if you’d never married that person you’re divorced from.
· Regret over divorce. Regret over broken relationships of all kinds.
· Regret over mistakes you made raising your kids.
· Regret over bad career moves, missed business opportunities, poor vocational choices.
· Regret at not following God’s call to the ministry, or His call to become a missionary.
· In general, regret over all kinds of sins and their consequences. [You fill in the blank].
Now, sorrow over sin can by healthy, up to a point. It can help us learn from our mistakes so that we don’t repeat them. This is the "sadder but wiser" phenomenon. It can lead to repentance and forgiveness. But regret is anything but helpful; it’s destructive and debilitating. It allows the sins and mistakes of the past to reach out and poison our present. And if it’s not handled appropriately, it will just lead to more wrong choices and more regret, in a vicious cycle. As Paul writes,
"Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death." -- 2 Corinthians 7:10 (NIV)
For instance, sometimes people respond to regret by trying to undo the consequences of their past choices in ways that are illegitimate. A man decides he’s married the wrong woman, so he divorces his wife and marries someone else, leaving a shattered family behind. Often, he’ll find that the second wife wasn’t the "right one" either, and will continue repeating the cycle. Or a couple have sexual relations outside of marriage and the woman becomes pregnant. They try to undo what they’ve done through an abortion, even though in their hearts they know that what they’ve created together is a baby, and not just a mass of cells. And so the abortion creates more guilt and more regret. The problem is that we can’t undo the past, and we usually just make things worse when we try.
You may recall that the Israelites tried this in the Old Testament, with disastrous results. Let me summarize the story: God freed them from their slavery in Egypt, and brought them to the border of Canaan, a land that God had already promised to give to them, a good land described as "flowing with milk and honey." But before crossing the border, the people send in twelve spies to explore the territory and bring back a report. Unfortunately, the report wasn’t good. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, urged them to go in. But the other ten spies urged retreat: "The people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. . . We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are." (Numbers 13:27-28; 31, NIV).
What did the people do? Did they trust God’s promises? Did they obey him and enter the Promised Land? No. They panicked. They rebelled against God and refused to go in. As a result, God pronounced judgment on them. For forty years they would be vagabonds and wanderers in the desert. None of them would enter the Promised Land; only their children would. So what do the people do? Of course, they regret their disobedience. And, here’s the key point -- they try to undo what they had done, but illegitimately. [Numbers 14:39-45] So first they disobeyed God by refusing to enter when He said, "Enter." Then, they regretted their first disobedience, but disobeyed again by trying to go in when God said, "Stay out". Regret becomes destructive when we try to undo our bad choices illegitimately. The result is only more bad choices and more pain and regret.