Guilt, Shame, Regret…and Grace
“The Benediction Project”
(This is a follow-up to the previous posting, in which we began to consider “regret.”)
We have all experienced regret, and perhaps are still suffering from this very painful condition of heart and soul. We may struggle with regret because we have done or said harmful things to others, or did not do or say the helpful things we should have. The apostle Paul had some initial regret over the doing of good, as we saw in the previous posting, and this was good regret. But what if we have regret over the doing of harm, and the committing of sin against God and others. How could we not possibly regret such things?
Wouldn’t we be terribly calloused if we said, “I don’t regret having sold addictive drugs to young people. God has forgiven me and I live with no regrets. After all, I’ve heard people state their philosophy of life as ‘No regrets,’ and they seem to be happy.”
People might say such things as “I made some poor choices,” or “I did not intend to offend anyone,” or, the most evasive of all, “mistakes were made,” but rarely do we hear “I regret” or (even more scarce) “I was wrong” or “I sinned.”
It is true that regret for wrongdoing is, for people of conscience, difficult to live with. The starting point for help is, without hesitation, to come to our merciful Lord and ask him for forgiveness of those things that have grieved God and harmed others. Ask him, as I often do, to search your heart and show you the sin—past or present—you may not even be aware of (Ps. 139:23-24).
Then we need to do or say whatever we can to help right the wrong. This is often no longer possible when, for example, the person we hurt has died. But if we can acknowledge our wrongdoing and our regret for it, and do what we can in specific ways to improve the lives and spirits of those we harmed, we should do so.
One specific matter concerns decisions and decision-making. You may say, even after many years, “I regret that decision.” In some such cases you may not have asked God for guidance, either because you never thought of it or because you were in a place of rebellion against God. In other cases you may have asked God to lead you, but you already had your mind made up before.
In situations such as these God does not berate us nor keep bringing up the past to torment us, but he does want us to acknowledge our failure and seek him with our whole heart in the future. It may not be possible to undo some poor decisions, but God has ways of turning ashes into beauty when we choose to live in faith and obedience from this time onward.
There may be cases when you sincerely asked God for the wisdom to make the right decision and then chose what you believed was God’s will. But as time passed after your decision you found yourself thinking “I regret that decision.” You may have thought this, and perhaps still do, about such major matters as your choice of a marriage partner, your decision (consciously or subconsciously) to follow a certain philosophy of parenting, your heavy borrowing for an enjoyable but not very practical college education, or your too “day-at-a-time” attitude about pursuing the advanced schooling that you, for years, have wished that you had pursued.
In such situations, when you sought God in submission to his will, open to his direction, you are not pleasing God if you say, “I regret that decision.” The epistle of James (1:5-8) makes it clear that if we ask God for wisdom as I just described, we are to trust completely that the decision we made was the one God had for us.
As you pray and make a decision in such situations, you are to do so with full confidence in the Good Shepherd who leads his sheep, knowing that your choice will be God’s choice. This is true even if you have some “fuzziness” about your choice at the time you make it. 100% certainty is not always present, but you should never move ahead with any serious doubt.
Once again, there may be times—sometimes painful times—when, some time after you made a decision while seeking God’s will, you begin to feel that you made a bad choice. It is my conviction, based upon personal experience and over 50 years of Bible study as a seeker of truth, that you did make a right decision. (See also I John 3:18-22; 5:14-15.)
Think of it: if you met the conditions of James chapter one and asked God for the wisdom to choose rightly, why should you dishonor him by doubting that he did what he said he would do? He knows we are very imperfect and that our motives may be somewhat mixed even when we desire them to be pure. He does not look for perfection in us but for a heart that yearns for his will, for his glory above all.
Today, much of what we are and who we are is the result of our past decisions. None of these decisions can be re-decided, unless it concerns some choice made so recently that the consequences of the decision have not yet taken effect. Whether our choices were made while we were seeking God or not, we must move forward. In the former case, with regard to a specific decision, we are to live with the confidence that God did guide us. In the latter case, we are to repent once and for all of our failure to seek God wholly and ask him regularly for the “joy of the Lord” which will be our strength (Nehemiah 8:10).