Making regret your ally for action

A friend of mine recently felt trapped. For many years he’s been nursing a dream of a new career that would take him and his wife overseas where they would have impact on people around the world. Recently, that longing has grown so intense that it’s keeping him up at night. Not with excitement, but with regret.

A number of years ago, when real-estate was still appreciating in value, he invested in some major improvements in his home, betting he would gain more than his investment in return when he sold his house. At the time, it seemed like an easy decision. A safe bet. That bet morphed into deep regret, however, as housing valuations plummeted leaving him a prisoner to his own home—held captive by an upside-down mortgage.

As we talked, it became clear that my friend suffered from more than regret. He felt shame; those incessant reminders that he not only failed, he failed irreparably and would continue to do so. Regret can do that. Left unchecked, it nags at us becoming full-blown shame until we believe that all is lost because of our poor decisions. It can be utterly debilitating, because once we’re in a state of shame we have no shortage of mistakes with which we can accuse ourselves.

The problem, of course, is that the words of shame spawned by regret aren’t true. In fact, regret, itself, can be an ally for action if you respond to it correctly. Regret is an emotional response to a decision gone awry. Some decisions are foolish and avoidable, like engaging in an affair, for instance. Some, like my friend’s investment in his home, are not. They were made in good faith with the best information and counsel available at the time. The consequences merely did not turn out as he had hoped.

We’ve all made decisions like that. They seemed right at the time but didn’t pan out. When that happens, how do we transform our regret into an ally for action? Three things might help:

  1. Embrace your limitations. God never expects you to be omniscient. That’s His department. Berating yourself because you should have known better only leads to shame and leaves you feeling trapped, like my friend. It robs you of the confidence you need to move forward toward your dream. Continued self-criticism denies the sovereignty of God and is simply another form of pride. Get over yourself. Embrace your weaknesses and bad decisions, and move on.
  2. Transform obstacles into incubators. There’s an old saying I’m fond of: “There are no problems, only opportunities, some of which are insurmountable.” It’s funny, but true. Some of our best opportunities are insurmountable. “Could it be,” I asked my friend, “that God affirmed that decision in you in order to have you stay put in your present job and incubate your dream even more?” He looked startled by the thought, smiled and said, “You may be right.” It wasn’t his decision that imprisoned him. It was how he thought of it that did. If you feel you have to stay put, you can still go somewhere; go deep.
  3. Lean into your regret. One of the deep places we can go is in our area of regret. This may appear counter-intuitive, because our natural response to failure of any kind is avoidance. When the check engine light goes on in our car, it’s wise to follow its advice. Check the engine. Get a proper diagnosis and get it fixed. Likewise, when regret appears, we should check our internal engine as well. It may be that we’ve made something or someone more important than God in our life. Perhaps we’ve grown dependent on that person or thing to make our dream come true, forgetting that God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:2). By unearthing these dependencies and asking God to free us from them we affirm our trust in God to lead us, regardless of where we now find ourselves.

Share your thoughts with other readers: What are some of the ways you’ve transformed regret into action?

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2 thoughts on “Making regret your ally for action

  1. Focusing on our regrets keeps us looking backward instead of moving forward. Joseph is a great biblical example of a leader who determined not to live in the past but to remain faithful in the present, even when the future looked bleak. (Genesis 37-50). It was in the cauldron of the present that God forged him into a leader that was ready for the task. Not a moment of waiting was wasted.

    Of course, one of the biggest challenges we all face is aligning ourselves with God’s dreams for our lives. This is especially difficult when the dots don’t seem to connect. In my own live, that’s when I can be sure that God is up to something, however. C.S. Lewis captured this idea when he wrote:

    “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, runn8ing up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” Mere Christianity

    “Father, help us to not rush ahead
    enticed by the cadence of our own desires and dreams
    nor lag behind out of apathy or fear;
    But to walk side by side with You today,
    Seeing our opportunities and challenges through Your eyes;
    Being Your hands and feet in the spaces ordained for us today.
    Not trapped by our regrets and what might have been, but set free by your Grace
    to dream again those God-sized dreams that only You can bring to pass.”

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