January 24, 2010
Is Regret Good for Us or Bad?
“Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that He had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, 'I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.' And they said, 'What is that to us? You see to it!' Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:3-5).
How should we deal with the painful reality of regret in our lives?
When we reflect on the errors that we've committed and the damage that those errors have done, there is at least a momentary stab of remorse. If we know that we've been forgiven, the sharpness of the remorse is perhaps softened by the passage of time, but it never seems to go away entirely. There are those who believe that any such lingering regret is inherently unhealthy and that some psychological expedient must be found to get rid of it. But is regret always a bad thing?
The evidence would suggest that those who ask us to get past the feeling of any regret are asking, if not the impossible, then at least the unnatural. If the mistakes we've made are relatively minor, it might be possible to forget about them or to feel no pain when we think about them. But in the case of the truly heinous sins that we've all committed against God and against other people, it would be a villain with an especially hard heart who would feel no regret at all when he remembered what he'd done.
But apart from the question of whether we can forget our sins, there is a serious question whether we even ought to do so. Regret, like all the other sadder emotions, can serve a useful purpose. It need not be an unhealthy thing. If we think of regret as we should and respond to it in the right way, it can be an important part of what keeps us moving in God's direction.
If, like Judas, our regret is filled with the poison of selfish concern it will drive us away from God. That sort of regret shows no evidence of a penitent heart. In fact, it is a self-pity no less sinful than the deed that produced it. But our regret need not come from a selfish heart. If our hearts are turned toward God, then pure regret can be a gently poignant reminder of our continuing need for God’s grace. It can be a part of the hunger that brings us to God.
“If your regret results in greater humility and increases your desire to serve God, receive it with gratitude as a gift from heaven. If it creates anxiety, makes you sad, depressed, fearful, and slow to do your duty, then we can be sure it has been suggested by the enemy. Disregard it” (Lawrence Scupoli).