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Have you ever found yourself wishing you had done things differently in the past? Ever been tempted to think if only I had done this or that my life would have turned out better?
My guess is all of us can sing right along with Frank Sinatra the first line of the second verse of his classic I Did It My Way: ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few.’ And all of us I am sure are envious of the next line: ‘But then again, too few to mention.’
Because the truth is that most of us have more than a few things we regret.
Bonnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, and author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, describes the following regrets as being in common among her patients:
“I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
“I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
“I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
“I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
A regret is defined as when we feel sad, repentant, remorseful or disappointed because of something that we have done, or something we haven’t done or a loss or missed opportunity.
Regret interferes with our happiness because we can’t be happy and sad, repentant, remorseful or disappointed at the same time.
John Greenleaf Whittier expressed the concept of regret poetically:
“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are, ‘It might have been.’” 1
Do you think we are the only people of God who have regrets?
The Bible is full of people who had regrets. For a big cigar, who can guess what Biblical character or characters who had the biggest regret? It has to be Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit, right? From Adam and Eve, we could move right through the Bible’s list of heroes and villains; every one of whom had regrets.
And that includes the Apostle Paul. Anyone care to guess what Paul’s biggest regret was?
By his own admission, before Paul met the Risen Christ, he had been a persecutor of Christians.
‘You know what I was like when I followed the Jewish religion how I violently persecuted God’s church. I did my best to destroy it,’ he writes the Galatians (1:13).
When you read between the lines of Paul’s letters, you realize that those bloody days left lingering regrets in Paul’s psyche despite the fact that he knows he’s been forgiven. For he records the same sentiment in 1 Corinthians 15:9, Ephesians 3:8, and I Timothy 1:15-16. The Apostle’s words to his friend Timothy “I am the worst of them all” (15) tells us that Paul was one who could have been haunted by regrets.
Could have been haunted by them . . . but by the time he wrote his letter to the Philippians, it is apparent that he has been working on overcoming them. In today’s text in Philippians, after mentioning in verses 5 and 6
I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church.
he writes a few verses later:
but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (13b-14).
“I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead.” Paul is doing his best to let go of the past, where all regrets lie!
We would do well to imitate him, for if we don’t at least try, we are in danger of getting caught up in a ceaseless cycle of regretting past decisions, thinking we could have and should have made better choices. We think we should have done something better, but didn’t.
We should have chosen a better mate, but didn’t.
We should have taken that more exciting but risky job, but didn’t.
We should have been more disciplined, but weren’t.
We regret these decisions made in the past because we compare them to an ideal path that we think would have happened. If only I would have taken that other job, surely, I would be much better off.
If I let myself go there, I think if only I would have decided to remain on the railroad instead of quitting that job to go into the ministry, I could have made gobs more money retired at 30 years and out at age 49 and lived very comfortably off of my railroad pension.
The problem is I cannot say for sure that that ideal outcome would have come true. I may have been killed or severely injured in a railroad accident. I may have done something stupid and lost my job. Any number of different scenarios could have and probably would have played out.
But we keep comparing the unchangeable choice we actually made to this ideal scenario which always makes our decision look bad.
Hey, we only have a limited amount of emotional energy. I highly recommend we not waste any of it on the past, where by definition all regrets lie. Are there things we wish we had done differently in life? Of course. But we can’t dwell on them because we can’t change them!
Happiness requires learning to let go of the past because we cannot change the past. Happier is the person who chooses to focus on what is in front of them, rather than on what lies behind.
I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead.
Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead!
The Apostle Paul did not get caught up in the endless cycle of regret indulging himself in self-pity and unproductive anxiety. Rather, he channeled his memories into a fiery zeal that would propel him some 12,000 miles of rigorous travel in three missionary campaigns preaching the gospel of Christ and establishing communities of faith as he went.
Yes, we all have regrets, but let us use them, like Paul did, in a positive way to motivate us to action now – to a better future tomorrow!
What are some action steps we can take? Make a list of your regrets. And then write either ‘fix,’ ‘forgive,’ ‘forget’ or ‘strategize‘ by each one.
First, whatever regrets lurk in our shadows, that may to a degree be fixed; fix them!
One of the Apostle Paul’s lessor regrets was the falling out he had with Mark, as detailed in Acts 15. Years later, in his second letter to Timothy writes:
Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me in my ministry’ (4:11).
You have heard me make reference to my father in the faith, Bruce Bequette. He was my first pastor and more than anyone else responsible for me going into the ministry into the United Methodist Church. When I left the Methodist Church and a couple years later went through a divorce, Bruce was as disappointed in me as much as I was myself. We stopped communicating over ten years ago. The last couple of years, my kids have been encouraging me to call him. “I will one of these days.” Ten or twelve days ago, my phone rang two times and quit. When I picked it up, I saw Bruce’s name. Since it only rang twice, I wondered if he pocket dialed me. I decided to wait a day to see if he would call back . . . he didn’t. So the next morning I called him and we talked and talked. Guess what? He became disgruntled with the Methodists too and left them. It’s amazing what you discover in situations like these when we simply talk. Bruce and I plan on meeting as soon as practicable.
Right whatever wrongs you can, while there is still time.
Second, sometimes fixing a relationship requires that we forgive another person. If you checked that you regret holding grudges, then forgiveness is the key to letting that regret go.
I don’t need to remind you that Jesus said that the person who refuses to forgive subjects him or herself to inner torture.
Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be ‘tortured’ until he had paid his entire debt. “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart” (Matthew 18:34-35).
Third, I encourage you to forget something you regret? How can we forget?
You to begin by fixing and forgiving. If we don’t first fix and forgive, if necessary, then it’s highly unlikely we will be able to forget it. But if we will take the steps of fixing and forgiving, then we can start working on forgetting.
I wish Paul had told us in this passage how he worked at forgetting, but alas, he did not.
I was searching the internet on this subject last week and saw an article on the Christian website Beliefnet. Therese Borchard writes:
I once saw a beautiful canister that was labeled “regrets.” The idea was that you’d write down your regret, put it in the jar, and forget about it. This suggestion is grounded in research. A new study from The Ohio State University found that when a person writes an unwanted thought down on paper and throws the paper away, he or she mentally discards the thought. 2
I don’t know if that will work for you, but I can’t think of a better idea. Please try it and let me know how that works for you.
Fourthly, strategize; that is, if you have done everything biblically possible to remedy past mistakes, resolve that even though regrets linger, you will not let them control you and disable you. Determine that you will use them as a springboard to a higher good than you might have accomplished otherwise. This is God’s will for us, as it was for Paul.
Look at your list of regrets, circle those that you need to strategize and apply the fruit of the Spirit to each one. And then ask yourself, how can I apply love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness or self-control to this situation.
Lastly, if the regret that haunts you concerns a sin you committed, if you haven’t already, seek God’s forgiveness.
You’ve all heard the story about the Catholic Priest who had been ministering in the Philippines for some 35 years. But he was haunted by the memory of a grievous sin he had committed years before when he was in seminary. In his parish was an older lady who often claimed she had dreams in which she not only saw Jesus but also talked to him. One day, the Priest, who was getting a little tired of her claims, said, “The next time you talk to Jesus in a dream, ask Him what sin your Priest committed when he was in seminary. She said she would be glad to and a few days later she was back in the church building. The Priest asked, “Did you have a dream about Jesus?”
She said, “Yes, I did.”
He asked, “Did you ask what sin I committed?
She replied, “Why, yes sir, I most certainly did.”
The Priest asked, “And what did Jesus say it was?”
He said, “I forgot what it was.”
If you are plagued by the regret of a sin that you committed and have not received the forgiveness that you must surely crave, then I point you to the cross where Jesus died. There He gave His life to pay the penalty for our sin and restore us to God. And get this: He not only forgives them, He forgets them. In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer, speaking on behalf of God says,
Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” (Hebrews 10:17).
If the regret that haunts you concerns a sin you committed, if you haven’t already, seek God’s forgiveness. I guarantee you that is a choice you will never regret.
1 Phillips, Bob. Great Thoughts and Funny Sayings. [Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House
Publishers, Inc. © 1993] page 268.