For a generation bent on living for the moment and sucking all the marrow out of life, #noregrets has become the latest motto (#yolo, anyone?). But hashtags neither erase the past nor our memory of it. Many live with regret—the intense sorrow that comes from the realization that past sins have wrought devastation in our lives, and the lives of others as well. A friend recently asked, “What happens to regret for past sin when it meets the cross?” Sure, through Christ our debt of sin has been canceled (Col 2:14), and our consciences have been cleansed (Heb 9:9, 14). But what of regrets that can linger and nag?
Regret is distinct from godly grief, which “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor 7:10). Godly grief over sin can spur us toward holiness, love, and good works, while also standing as a warning against straying from the gospel. It should of course be constrained by the gospel, and therefore be condemnation-free (Rom 8:1). But if godly grief makes us sober-minded and focused on our pursuit of holiness, and also reinforces for us the gravity of our choices (past, present, and future), then it is our ally, not our foe.
However, past regrets yield no such positive fruit. And the gospel is the antidote for such an outsized view of the past: the only person who can bring a charge against believers has already died as our substitute, justified us, and is now sitting at the Father’s right hand interceding for us even this very moment. The gospel of grace brings freedom!
Beyond this fundamental gospel work—and it is most important—two further things might be said with regard to regret. First, when Joseph encounters his brothers in Genesis 50:20, he speaks remarkable words to them, saying, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Joseph rejoices in God’s sovereignty, boasting that even though he had been wronged, God had used it for good. In a different sense, this offers consolation to those struggling with regret over past sin and its devastating effects. God is able to use evil for good—whether that evil has been inflicted by others (as with Joseph’s brothers) or by even ourselves! Now, none of us is Joseph (a unique figure in redemptive history)—so we should be careful about reading all of our situations through the lens of his situation. Still, when Gen 50:20 is read in concert with Romans 8:28, we gain hope that for those who know Christ, God is able to powerfully use past situations for our good—even when those situations involved clear evil. Now, sin still has its consequences and fall out—but Joseph’s example provides hope that God can redeem the most broken circumstance for his glory and his people’s good. The person struggling with persistent, controlling regrets over their past sin might modify Joseph’s exclamation to say: “What I meant for evil, God can mean for good.” This hopes that, in Christ, God will act for them (and those who have been hurt by them) just as he did for Joseph and his brothers.
The second thought involves adopting some of the Apostle Paul’s resolute focus: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14). Paul hadn’t forgotten his past sins—he could even list them (1 Tim 1:13, 1 Cor 15:9)—but this memory didn’t hinder him. This was because he was consumed with maximizing his present for the kingdom of God. The past is unchangeable—for better or for worse. And so, to borrow a metaphor from sports, Christians should have a healthy amount of self-forgetfulness—we forget both our good plays and our bad ones, getting neither too high nor too low—so that with total focus we can make the next play. Our calling as believers is so critical—and our mission is so urgent—that we can’t live in the past. While we should acknowledge the past, be brutally honest about it (with ourselves and others), and take full responsibility for our actions—including making restitution when possible, our past regrets can’t define us. There is a prize to be won—an upward calling to pursue. And this requires every ounce of our energy. We must run the race with all our might—without looking back—so that we will maximize our lives for the kingdom and glory of God. Those battling regret must discipline themselves to think in this way, and to continue running hard and strong toward the finish line.
Our God is a gracious Father, not a vindictive warden—and the hope of the gospel beckons us to press into him and press on. And so we sing a joyful song:
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea. Micah 7:18–19