The Real Root of Regret

This is a re-post from a few months ago. I’m hearing a lot these days about regret and self-recrimination:

When I was a kid, I remember being a sucker for taking dares. (I jokingly call it the Middle Child Syndrome.) I desperately wanted to be esteemed by my peers as the brave and mighty Wonder Woman. So, one day when I had on my trusty roller skates, a few older kids dared me to assume the stance of a water skier, and allow two boys to pull me with a rope attached to their bicycles. They proceeded to pedal. “Faster I said”…and faster they went (with playing cards attached to their wheel spokes for the necessary sound effects), and I was on my way to glorious infamy. I was rolling at what felt like the speed of light! But, contrary to my outward shouts of glee, something told me that this circus wasn’t going to end well. Why? Because we were doing it on an uneven, bumpy, tar and gravel road.(Can you say, “stupid”?) Well, you can just imagine when loose rocks got caught up in my wheels. I proceeded to tumble head over heels, and ended up breaking my arm, not to mention the gravel bits they had to pick out of my teeth. My friends were more than a little amused, and this whole scenario could have been absolutely avoided if I hadn’t been fearful about my social-standing among my peers. So, due to my status-seeking insecurity, I took a dare that I regretted because I ended up being totally embarrassed in front of my neighborhood gang. In fact, the regret for my stupidity was worse than the finger-to-shoulder cast I had to wear for 6 weeks. (I did, however, receive a consolation prize. I was given a Chinese Checker set from Butch, one of the mean bicycle boys, as a token of his apology. I’m sure his mother made him give it to me because he was otherwise pretty cocky).

Fear is a powerful motivator. It can get us into a heap of trouble which we’ll come to regret. So consequently, there are things in our pasts, many of which were driven by having been fearful, where we wish we could have a do-over…. doing or saying something in the heat of an argument, not doing or saying things you wish you had, withdrawing from a relationship for fear of the future (I’m not talking about abuse), not trusting someone you wish you had, trusting someone you wish you hadn’t, etc. So, in light of these past failures, I’d like to focus on how we often use regret as a self-inflicted, battering board.

The official definition of “regret” is, “To feel sorry about an event, or to have remorse over one’s acts. ” I think we’d all like a re-do of the way we’ve acted, or something we’ve done, as we look back over our past. Even the Apostle Paul spoke of his struggle in Romans 7:18, when he said “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Paul was speaking of the reality of his, and our, struggle to meet the godly conduct and moral demands of the law because of our sin nature. We’ll always fall short because of that, but he was also NOT beating himself up with regret, because he understood how Christ’s sacrifice freed him from the slavery of it. In fact, Paul goes on to say in 8:1, that because Jesus died for our failures, we will not be condemned for them. But, here we are anyway, bludgeoning ourselves with the failure to have lived life (or currently doing life) in a way that feels condemning at times. Whatever the case, if you’ve consistently struggled with regrets and failure, then you’ve probably beaten yourself up with it as the guilty party, and used it to justify victimhood, or to excuse inaction, or worse, to give up on God.

So, the first question to ask yourself, before you think about how to grab onto what Christ has done with the guilt of your failure, is to ask yourself, “Have I been struggling with false guilt? There were times I didn’t hurt anyone, but me. Maybe I feel guilt that isn’t true guilt. I mean, have I created an internal expectation of myself or a standard, that I haven’t kept?”

The answer is yes and no. Perhaps, you feel you’ve let someone down based on your internal voice that says, “I’ll never live up to their expectations of me. No matter how hard I try, they’ll always find something else to criticize me for doing or not doing. Their list is so impossible. ” This happens a lot as we try to please our parents, our employers, other family members or friends, actually just about any and everybody! What a shame…. we work so hard to be who we think others require us to be, and we feel guilty of letting others down, when in reality, we’re the ones who have put an impossible pressure on ourselves to perform for someone so maybe they’ll think better of us.We use our failures as a battering board to beat ourselves to death because we break our internal rules.

Let me ask you, “Is there someone in your life who you’re trying to please, so much so that you’re constantly coming away from that relationship feeling ‘less than’? Or, a relationship that is now jeopardized because you didn’t act the way you thought they expected you to act?” I’m not talking about a legal, ethical, or moral violation. I’ll cover that in the future. I’m talking about being disapproving of yourself, or experiencing another person’s disapproval because you weren’t, or can’t be all things to them.

I didn’t sin against any of my friends when I accepted the dare to roller-ski. My regret came from having humiliated myself. So, my guilt was an internal one for a standard I couldn’t keep, and I broke MY rule. (“I have to be a super hero.”) So is that real guilt? God never said I had to be that. Hmmmm…We’ll see.

We think, “Okay, now I recognize that my struggle isn’t really with the other people I can’t please… in fact, other people may never have even spoken of their expectations of me….could my struggle just be with me, or perhaps someone else?”

You see, many times we experience regrets which don’t appear to have sin involved, but rather a disappointment in ourselves. This isn’t clearly wrong at face value. But, if we’re willing to examine our heart’s intent, we see that, in fact, those kinds of regrets are rooted in living for the approval of other people. It’s called fear of man. We haven’t/didn’t perform well, so we’re bummed about it. We lost face, lost reputation, lost relationships. Our efforts to win others over didn’t work. Woe is me. But wait! Have we spent any time regretting the real problem here?

When we fear others’ approval, it not only encourages us to do things that could be harmful , but it hinders the freedom that the cross has given us to live as just us, and it keeps us in bondage to our failures. So, even though in my roller skating fiasco, I didn’t sin against any individual directly in the bicycle incident, I still struggled with deep regret over being humiliated and looking like a fool. But wait, what’s still wrong with this picture? I hadn’t stopped to realize that even though I didn’t really hurt anyone, I was burdened by the regret of my intent to please others, more than I felt remorse for my unconfessed sin of treasuring others’ opinions. I had not trusted God and His precious ownership of me as being enough. (Our internal dialogue says, “I have to ‘stay safe’ by impressing others… I’ll give them the power to name me.)

So, I’ve illustrated how we can confuse regret and self- recrimination with the real issue of a deeper problem. We should have regrets over real guilt. One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to convict us when we’ve been/done wrong. By that, I mean, when we break God’s standard. So if you’re burdened by real, unconfessed sin, then own up to it before God, ask Him to show you if you need to ask someone else’s forgiveness, and then ask His forgiveness. If you’re still burdened by a weighty regret, and you’re beating yourself up, then perhaps you haven’t gone deep enough to see the real problem. Do you believe God’s grace of the cross was sufficient to remove your guilt? Do you want Jesus to be re-crucified because the first time didn’t work? And here’s the big one: If you believe that God is truly sovereign, and His will can never be thwarted, do you actually think that if you had done it differently, the outcome would have changed, contrary to His will?! (That’s deep, but fundamental.)

Believer, use your forgiven guilt as a springboard to go forward as a recipient of the gospel of grace. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you go deep enough, that you will see the real issue in the burden of regret. Ask Him to help you Turn Around and repent. Be encouraged….God is faithful.

4 thoughts on “The Real Root of Regret

  1. Right on, my friend! Great explanation of false versus valid guilt. Satan is such a liar, and I often get pulled into his accusations. Thank you for sharing truth.


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