Guilt, Shame, Regret…and Grace Part Three
“The Benediction Project”
(This is the third in a series on guilt, shame, regret and grace. The two previous postings considered guilt and shame.)
I think it is safe to say that all of us have done some things we now regret doing. We wish we had never done them. Also, we have said some things that we regret saying. Furthermore, we regret not doing certain things and not saying certain things that we should have. As with guilt and shame, regret can cause great harm in our lives unless we learn to understand it and deal with it properly.
The word regret can be either a noun (“Does the prisoner show any regret”?) or a verb (“I regret that I said that.”). As a noun it has the idea of sorrow, remorse, or a troubled feeling over what has happened, especially if we were responsible. As a verb it means to feel sorry or remorseful over something, especially one’s own words or actions. Whatever it is one regrets, it is usually spoken of with negativity or disappointment: an angry outburst, cheating on one’s taxes, not making an important phone call, or even regret that we could not stay longer nor attend a friend’s wedding.
The Bible seldom uses the word regret. It is not found at all in the King James Version and occurs only four times in the New International Version. Second Corinthians 7:8-10 contains the fullest discussion of our topic, and deserves our consideration.
The apostle Paul had written a previous letter to the believers at Corinth, one that had caused them sorrow. (This was probably not the epistle of 1 Corinthians.) He wrote, “Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (NIV 2011, italics added).
Paul writes that it is possible for us to regret, at the moment, the necessity of having to do something (because it will hurt someone for a while), but not regret the action itself once we see the good results from the action. Paul also writes of two kinds of sorrow and commends the Corinthians for having the first: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”
This last verse strikes at the heart of our topic: there is a good, beneficial, godly form of sorrow (probably the key element of regret) and a bad, destructive, worldly form of sorrow. Worldly sorrow is not deadly because sorrow is a wrong thing in itself; it is deadly because it is so inwardly focused that it does not look to God in repentance and hope. Worldly sorrow, entwined with worldly regret, led Judas to hang himself. He was filled with remorse, not repentance, and he died in his sin (Matthew 27:3-5).
It is essential to realize that godly sorrow may have (and sometimes should have) a strong element of regret in it. Paul said that godly sorrow “leaves no regret,” not that it “involves no regret.” He had just written that he did regret having to write the letter—he felt sorrowful that he would cause sorrow—but it was sorrow that, in the end, “leaves no regret.” One admonition from this line of thought is that when we believe we should offer constructive criticism, we should not let the sorrow and regret of the moment keep us from doing the right thing. If we do hold back, we may experience more regret—long lasting regret with sad consequences for others and ourselves—than we would by offering the correction that was needed.
(In our next posting we will consider this matter of regret further.)