The moment the fragrance and jewelry commercials end on Christmas, the weight loss and exercise equipment commercials begin. Advertisers know that a new calendar year inspires many of us to make resolutions, set goals, or claim a word of intention for the coming year. It seems that a lot of those efforts are connected to regrets big or small: “I need to read my Bible more consistently (because I haven’t been doing so)”, “I need to exercise more (because I have become increasingly sedentary)”, or “I have to quit this vice once and for all (because I know its no good for me)”.
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 – shackles 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”.
Unresolved 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 regret 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 distinctions, 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 gear shifters 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. Almost 20 percent of respondents reported they had a regret about a romantic relationship. 16 percent shared stories of family issues and an addition 9 percent cited specific parenting mistakes. Other categories of regret included education, vocation, financial decisions and health choices. A LifeWay study found that nearly half of those polled said they were currently dealing with the consequences of an earlier bad decision.
Regret is a recurring theme in pop culture. Moves ranging from Schindler’s List to 500 Days of Summer and TV shows like Lost and Breaking Bad speak to our shared longing for a do-over.
Jesus promises his followers something better than a do-over. He promises a new life (John 3:1-20). 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 Corinthians 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 in 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 non-issue. “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 set up for spiritual frustration. It is a recipe for a divided heart. On one side of the divide, the life we think we’re supposed to be living. On the other side, 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 entitled “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.
Cover photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash