It annoys me when people say they live with “no regrets.” I can’t help but think they’re lying to others—or to themselves. Either way, it’s not a healthy way to live, no matter how appealing the sentiment.
If you don’t regret a decision, you can’t learn from it. Plain and simple. Regret is simply the acknowledgement that a different decision would have been better for our lives. It differs from remorse, which is a shame-based response to a regretful decision. Healthy regret is the recognition of a bad decision that needs grace (God’s and others’) to overcome. Even the apostle Paul spoke openly about his regrets—and he wrote half the New Testament! There’s not a hint in any of his writing that he wouldn’t—in a heartbeat—undo his early persecutions of the church. In fact, he referred to himself as the “greatest of sinners.” Put that on a tee-shirt and see how well it sells.
Yet, how many people promote a lifestyle of “no regrets” as if we can live unapologetically free of the consequences (and presumed learnings) from past mistakes? It’s a way of proclaiming ourselves as the absolute authority of the rightness of our actions. We’re saying, in effect, “I’m going to live in such a way that I will never judge my actions—and so you shouldn’t either.”
It’s likely you’ve mistakes—perhaps some very serious ones. You may feel regret about it. That’s ok. It’s healthy.
Where regret becomes unhealthy is when it devolves into remorse. That’s when we become so preoccupied with our mistakes that we become disabled by them. Shame kicks in and condemns us to hopeless self-deprecation. We didn’t just fail—we are a failure. Remorse sees no learning, only waste. It’s terrible way to live.
But fortunately there’s grace. Grace is what covers the gap between what’s expected of you and your ability to meet that expectation. Instead of the hopelessness of remorse, grace brings redemption from past mistakes. Grace gives you the ability to move forward and make regret an ally for action instead.
You can’t optimize every decision in such a way that you never make a bad one. But when you do make a bad decision, what do you do about it?
There’s a line from Alexander Graham Bell that we often like to quote, but usually only the first phrase: “When one door closes, another opens.” It actually continues: “…but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
We can’t avoid regret; it’s part of what makes us human and able to accept grace. But we can process regret well in order to see the new opportunities that await and to make better decisions next time.
Comment below: What have you learned from the regrets in your own life?