Regret wouldn’t be necessary if we had time machines. We could go back and avoid past failures. If those failures were just mistakes, we would have a knowledge of the future to make better choices. If those failures were outright sin, we could see future consequences that would help us escape the grip of temptation. Failure would become obsolete, and so would the self-loathing that comes with it. Seriously, why don’t we have time machines?
We are creatures bound to our past. We are creatures who are always responding to our past in the present. Regret is a response. This observation will help us approach the topic biblically. This post is part of a series that attempts to show how Scripture provides a framework for addressing different ways that our hearts respond to the world. My introductory post laid out our guiding principle: God designed people to respond from the heart to the unique situations in which He places them. The question this post addresses is, how should we understand regret as a disruption of how God wants us to respond to our past?
Regret is explicitly mentioned in Scripture only a few times, and many of those instances actually speak of God’s regret. The Lord “regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 6:6). Similarly, He came to regret that He made Saul the king of Israel (1 Sam. 15:11). Yet, the Lord “will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (v. 29). So, God can experience regret, but He does not experience regret like a man. Making sense of this riddle reveals a lot about the human experience of regret.
God never makes mistakes (Deut. 32:4), so His regret does not involve remorse over His own failure. Yet, He is also acknowledging that the situation He has brought about does not fit His ideal. In Genesis 6, He is grieving that mankind, because of their sin, has failed to be what He called them to be. In 1 Samuel 15, He grieves Saul’s failing to be what He called a king of Israel to be. But, God cannot have regret in the same sense that we have it, because it was not a failure on His part that led to this failed situation, nor was it that He failed to anticipate what would occur. This makes His regret different than ours.
So here is a working definition of regret as it applies to people: Regret is grieving what should have been and our failure to bring it about. That means regret involves both a preference for how the past should have been different and a disapproval of ourselves for not making it happen. Let’s unpack these features a bit.
Regret and an Imagined Ideal
One of the problems with regret is that we are the ones who are determining what should have been. Then we become preoccupied with past. We imagine the past in “if only” form, envisioning in your mind some better situation than the one we’re in. This ideal can be about personal choices—If only I’d made a different decision. It can be about missed opportunities—If only I had chosen a different path. It can be about sin—If only I had done what I knew was right. All of these imagine that a different past direction would have resulted in a better present situation. The point is that regret involves some imagined version of a better life. The problem is that ideal does not match up entirely with God’s ideal. Even if we had the time machine and could create the better situation, we would not necessarily be closer to God’s glory.
Regret and Self-Condemnation
Part of imagining a superior situation is feeling a certain way about it, feeling a certain way about ourselves for failing to attain it. This ideal becomes the plastic ruler we use to measure ourselves. Regret is an indication that we’ve measured ourselves by some standard and have found ourselves lacking. The question is, how does that standard compare with God’s standard? For Christians, the hash marks on this ruler sometimes line up with God’s moral standard (I shouldn’t have sinned in that way), but often they reflect our own expectations and dreams (I should have gone into a career that makes way more money). Regret jumbles up our own wishes for ourselves with God’s desires for us.