I’m not completely sure it’s authentic, but something in my moderately dark sense of humor hopes it is. I’m talking about the photo of the man who got a massive tattoo across his chest, intending to declare to the world: “no regrets” – but accidentally misspelled it “no ragrets.”
I’d say he’s got at least one regret now.
Maybe you identify with people who say they have no regrets – I don’t. I have plenty. From honest mistakes to specific sins to missed opportunities I can’t get back, there are many things I’d change about my life if I could get my hands on a flux capacitor and the 1.21 gigawatts necessary to power it.
Regret is a fact of life; at least life lived honestly. At its worst, it can be an enslaving sorrow we are powerless to overcome. But I’ve also found that regret is necessary. We never have the opportunity to grow if we never see the places we fall short. The bottom line is this: regret is a horrible master, but it can be a good motivator. To get there, we need to remember two key theological truths: providence and forgiveness.
While it is good to take responsibility for poorly made decisions, we must always remember the providence of God. The intersection of God’s sovereignty and our failure is delicate theological ground—even the most robustly Reformed confessions are careful to state that God is not the author of our sin (i. e. WCF 3.1). Yet those same confessions helpfully establish the doctrine of providence and ground it in the Scriptures.
“God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy” (WCF 5.1).
“We believe that all things in heaven and on earth, and in all creatures, are preserved and governed by the providence of this wise, eternal and almighty God. For David testifies and says: ‘The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down upon the heavens and the earth?’ (Psalm 113:4ff.). Again: ‘Thou searchest out . . . all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, Thou knowest it altogether” (Psalm 139:3 ff.)…'” (From the Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 6).
“He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1)
Sometimes our regret isn’t actually frustration with ourselves; it’s frustration with God. Even though we have been told that this life is fleeting and heaven is forever (2 Corinthians 4:17-18), we often get weighed down by everything we wished our life on earth could be – a sort of FOMO on steroids.
While our theology and our worship do a good job of grounding our hope in the world to come, we are all too quick to mourn the loss of our earthly desires. To be sure, there are losses in this life worth mourning—and no one should be falsely guilted for those tears—but there is a difference between godly sorrow yearning for eternity and enslaving, earth-bound regret. Far too often, we regret that we are not omniscient, omnipresent, and infallible. We’d like to be able to sing, “Almighty, quite visible, me only wise,” but only God is wise enough to be trusted with the meticulous detail of the nearly infinite moments, implications, and impacts of human life. We must take our regret to the same place the Lord calls us to take all our cares—casting them fully upon him.
Not all our regret is a failure to trust the providence of God. Much of it is the clear result of our sin, and the blame lies squarely on our own shoulders. While no one living today has literally denied Christ three times on the night of his crucifixion, many of us know something of Peter’s bitter tears (Matthew 26:75).
A life without regret would be a life lived in continual, perfect harmony with the Moral Law of God. Thus, “no regrets” is another way of saying, “I have no sin.” That’s not something we want to say—unless we don’t mind running afoul of 1 John 1:8 and 10 (If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us … If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.)
But right in between those two verses lies the place we need to bring all our sinful regret: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Regret is one of the most powerful forces in reality, but it can’t withstand the blood of Christ. It’s not that we don’t remember our failures or seek to repent of our sins. It’s not even that we don’t mourn the pain we’ve caused ourselves and others. Part of our faith in Christ is despairing of hope in ourselves—thus, the godly sometimes do dress in sackcloth and ash—but never forever, and never forgetful of the blood of Christ.
This is the paradox at the heart of the gospel. The gospel tells me I’m a sinner who has a dead heart, a ruined record, and manifold reasons for regret (Romans 3:23). But then it takes me to Christ, and through Him, I am a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). His righteous record becomes mine; my sin is borne by Him; the blood of Christ cleanses me from all sin.
Regret makes a horrible master, not only because we can do nothing about it but because Christ has done everything about it. Regret is enslaving, but Jesus liberates captives: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
When these two truths of providence and forgiveness are held continually before our eyes, we can approach our regret as a motivator rather than a master. The gospel makes us bold to say with John Newton, “I am not what I ought to be; but I am not what I once was. And it is by the grace of God that I am what I am.” That’s what it looks like to trust God’s providence and forgiveness: I seek to be faithful today rather than yearn for a lost yesterday, knowing He’ll be with me still, even if I stumble tomorrow.
I can’t say I’ve got no regrets, but I can say I’ve got a Redeemer. And that makes all the difference.
Nicolas Alford serves as Pastor of King’s Cross Church in Kirkland, WA. He is a graduate (M.T.S.) of Reformed Baptist Seminary where he serves as a Guest Lecturer in Systematic Theology, and has authored or contributed to several books, including Doxology: How Worship Works and In Praise of Old Guys. Nick is married to Shelby and they are blessed with three children.