As we finish up this month’s focus on faith shifts, I’m including some words from my book If Only: Letting Go Of Regret here because they apply. Midlife started for me with confronting a regret I thought I’d successfully ducked for years. I suspect it might have to do with launching the process of coming to terms with our mortality as we realize life doesn’t come with a “do over” button. In the nearly three years since the book released, I’ve heard from many readers who’ve shared their own stories of regret with me – enough of them to know that regret can imprison us. I also know that God can redeem and repurpose every one of those regrets. Read on a bit and let me know if any of these thoughts resonate with you:
For months on end, it seemed as though every conversation I had with friends, workplace acquaintances, or the checker at the grocery store included one of them using the two saddest words in the English language.
“If only I would have gotten a second opinion…”
“If only I would have listened to my children…”
“If only I would have listened to my parents…”
“If only I would have asked for help…”
“If only I would have done something to help…”
“If only I would have said no…”
“If only I could have said yes…”
I was tuned to the frequency of those two little words in these conversations because I’d been singing harmony to their blues song in the key of me. I’d been successfully ignoring my own regrets for years, choosing instead to warehouse them in a distant corner of my heart. Perhaps I imagined that they’d just quietly disintegrate over time. Perhaps I didn’t believe that there was a place for them if I was doing my best to live the victorious Christian life. Or maybe I was just too busy to notice my regrets were stacking up like trash bags during a garbage strike.
As I approached midlife, I discovered that my internal warehouse was running out of space.
I wasn’t the only one. The choir singing sad songs of lament seemed to be made up of lots of women in my age-group. But they weren’t the only ones. I heard from one woman nearly twice my age. Younger women just launching into adulthood. Teens.
The pain of regret overwhelmed them to the point of deep depression. Others coped by throwing all of their energies into performance, trying to convince others they were not just OK, they were fabulous. There were a few others who discovered that their “if only” list was a catalyst that spurred them toward real spiritual and emotional growth.
Few of us walk through life without accumulating regret. At some point, our past choices collide with the reality that there is no do-over button in life. Those two little words—“if only”—shackle us to a life that falls short of the freedom and joy promised us by Jesus. Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, once observed that regret causes us to become “cannibals of our own hearts.” Unre- solved regret is a leech that steals from our present in order to feed the pain of our past, hindering our future in the process.
Meet the “If Only” Family
The “If Only” family has two “siblings.” Their names are “Re- gret” and “Remorse.”
Regret is our awareness of the consequences of an event or action. We experience a sense of loss in the wake of a poor or painful choice we’ve made as we realize what has followed in the wake of that decision: “I wish I wouldn’t have eaten that cold pizza out of the office refrigerator for breakfast because I felt like puking for the rest of the day.” Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe summed up the essence of regret with a single question: “Why did I do that?”
Remorse reflects our sense of moral guilt at our own (real or perceived) failure. It speaks to our emotional distress about our choices and has to do with our sorrow over the choice itself, rather than the consequences: “I shouldn’t have stolen that cold pizza out of the office refrigerator and eaten it for breakfast because it didn’t belong to me.”
Remorse and regret bleed into each other in the same way blue and violet merge on a rainbow. It is helpful to understand the dis- tinctions, but it is also important to remember that the two work in tandem in our lives. We do something we regret, and we feel remorse about it. If we act on that remorse, it can lead us forward to a new course of action.
Our regrets, on the other hand, shove our emotional gearshift into reverse.
In Western culture, we face an endless buffet of choices every day: everything from what school our kids will attend to what outfit we’ll wear to a dizzying menu of church choices to which kind of toppings we’d like to order on our next pizza. Choosing one thing means excluding others. Researchers who have studied regret learned that the more choices we have before us, the more opportunities we have to accumulate regrets.
Regret researchers from the University of Illinois–Champaign and Northwestern University queried 370 adults about their most memorable regrets.1 Almost 20 percent of respondents reported they had a regret about a romantic relationship. Sixteen percent shared stories of family issues and an additional 9 percent cited specific parenting mistakes. Other categories of regret included ed- ucation, vocation, financial decisions, and health choices. A recent LifeWay study2 found that nearly half of those polled said they were currently dealing with the consequences of an earlier bad decision.
Jesus promises his followers something better than a do-over. He promises a new life (John 3:1-21). Paul echoed this promise when he told his friends at Corinth, “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor. 5:17).
We may sing that God’s grace is amazing, that we once were lost and now are found. Our churches encourage us toward bold faith and celebrate stories of transformation. So we wonder what is wrong with us because we may still be lugging around lingering regrets from our lives before we came to faith in him. Or we feel ashamed because we’ve managed to rack up a regret tab in the time since we’ve been found.
And the situation isn’t helped when those of us who’ve battled regret are met with breezy certainty that regret should be a nonissue. “You’re forgiven . . . period,” these people insist. “Your regrets should no longer have any power over you now that you’re in Christ.”
If only it were always that simple.
Denying that our regrets exist is a setup for spiritual frustration. It is a recipe for a divided heart. On one side of the divide is the life we think we’re supposed to be living. On the other side is our regrets. Christ indeed makes all things new. He is at work to reunite our divided hearts. This means that he will reclaim, redeem, and repurpose every single one of our regrets as we submit ourselves to his work in our lives. In light of our regrets, we can pray: “Teach me your way, LORD, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” (Ps. 86:11).
I’d learned to ignore my own list titled “If Only” until the weight of my regrets threatened to collapse the place I’d stored and ignored them for years. I didn’t realize how those regrets owned me. That prayer was the beginning of a wonderful journey toward freedom for me, though I didn’t realize it the first time I prayed it. I’m journeying with Jesus out of that dark warehouse-sized prison of regrets.
It’s a journey to which he’s inviting you too.
You can click the link if you’d like to order the book for yourself or to read together with a friend. And we will be giving away a copy or two during June as part of our official Perennial Gen lauch.