The not-so-good decisions in our lives can stay with us for years. Even after the effects have worn off, regrets can remain. Thankfully, there are steps we can take to live without regrets.
It’s easy to regret those “I can’t believe I did that” moments. And it’s not wrong to regret mistakes. However, a problem develops when regrets take control of our life.
Bad decisions can cause regrets. Decisions like lying, premarital sex, theft or even murder can, and most certainly should, cause regret. Whether we’re rich or poor, famous or an average Joe or Jane, we’re all susceptible to regrets when we make not-so-good decisions.
David was chosen by God to be king over Israel. God sought David specifically (Acts 13:22). Yet David made major mistakes as king—mistakes that displeased God and caused David great regret. Through his actions, David committed adultery with a faithful servant’s wife, signed that faithful servant’s death sentence to hide his own guilt and so made a widow of that servant’s wife. He broke God’s commandments and ultimately brought about the death of his own son (2 Samuel 12:9-18).
David had a legitimate reason to harbor regrets.
And unfortunately, David wasn’t the only chosen individual to make regretful decisions.
How would you like to be remembered as the most notorious person ever to persecute the Church?
Saul, later known as the apostle Paul, was that persecutor. Saul approved of Stephen being stoned to death and also “made havoc of the church” (Acts 8:3). Many in the early Church were imprisoned, and some were put to death, all because of Saul’s persecution (Acts 9:1; 26:10).
If anyone had a reason to be filled with lasting regret, it was the man who became the apostle Paul!
So why wasn’t he?
How did Paul surmount the regrets of his past? And how did David overcome the regretful tragedies he triggered?
First, let’s look at David. He could have allowed the effects of his bad decisions to separate him from God—but he didn’t. David took his regrets to God.
What did David do when he had that “I can’t believe I did that” moment? David humbled himself before God. The prayer of David in Psalm 51 shows us three primary steps to removing regrets. These steps are:
- Acknowledgment: David confessed he had sinned against God. He also admitted that God was a just and blameless judge, which is important for us to remember when we suffer the consequences of our bad decisions (verses 3-4).
- Repentance: David began his prayer by asking for mercy—for forgiveness. David realized he couldn’t recover and move forward without God’s help. He needed God to cleanse him from his sin (verses 1-2). We, too, need to ask for God’s forgiveness, and the forgiveness of those affected, when we make mistakes that cause offense (1 John 1:9).
- Commitment: David asked God to deliver him from his guilt and restore his joy. In return, he would praise God’s righteousness and teach others to do the same (Psalm 51:12-15). To remove regret, we must change—be converted—and understand that our righteous Father has given us new life and then strive to become a positive example to others through our words and actions. These examples will go a long way toward helping those affected by our wrong decisions to heal and have forgiveness as well. For a better understanding of forgiveness, see the sidebar “Six Steps to Forgiveness.”
David overcame regret through his faith in God’s forgiveness and the understanding of his calling to be a righteous example to all.
From persecutor to apostle
So how did Paul live a life without unbearable regrets?
Paul acknowledged his past (1 Corinthians 15:9). He also recognized that his calling was not by his own deeds but by the “grace of God” that helped him to labor “more abundantly” (verse 10). Paul’s true repentance and acceptance of God’s Holy Spirit allowed him to see past himself—to see God’s plan for his life.
The difference between repentance and regret is that repentance leads to physical and spiritual change, while regret only leads to remorse and guilt.Without true repentance, Paul would have only been left with regret. The difference between repentance and regret is that repentance leads to physical and spiritual change, while regret only leads to remorse and guilt. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Paul found a way to move beyond regrets by repenting and then accepting that the old things had passed away through Jesus Christ’s forgiveness (2 Corinthians 5:16-19). Paul put his past behind him and kept his eyes on what he could change, not the things he couldn’t (Philippians 3:13).
Hope for living without regrets
The steps taken by David to overcome his regrets are the same steps taken by the apostle Paul to move beyond his past. We, too, have the ability to follow these same steps.
Yes, regrets have a way of sticking around far longer than the mistakes that cause them. Regrets can also make us feel worthless or unable to make amends. The great news is that there’s hope for moving past our regrets. We must accept the fact that we’ve messed up—that we’ve negatively affected the lives of others, our own lives and, most important, our relationship with our Father in heaven. We must ask our gracious, just Creator for forgiveness, as well as ask for forgiveness from others we’ve affected. And we must have faith in God’s mercy.
We all make bad decisions. It’s what we do afterward that determines the direction of our life. We’re not condemned to live a life of self-loathing with no hope of clemency—if, that is, we move forward, striving to be better, striving to overcome, striving to live each day as a righteous example to others. By following these steps, we can truly remove regrets.
Sidebar: Six Steps to Forgiveness
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you needed to ask for forgiveness from God and others? Here are a few steps to remember:
- Accept responsibility: The first step in obtaining forgiveness is admitting we did something wrong. Too often people fall into the denial or “blame game” mind-set when they do something that affects others. God’s Word tells us, “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13).
- Repent: Once we’ve admitted we made a mistake, our next step should be to go to God. Nothing is more important than letting our Father know we realize we messed up and want to be right with Him. We must express godly sorrow and ask to have our sins covered by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. To repent means to change—to show determination not to repeat the sinful thoughts and actions.
- Ask for forgiveness: Asking someone to forgive us for what might be a serious situation can be stressful and even frightening. When faced with the daunting task of asking for forgiveness, remember the words recorded by the apostle Paul: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). Asking God for help and peace during this task can make asking others for forgiveness easier.
- Be reconciled: The act of being reconciled or making restitution is a key element to forgiveness. Scripture shows us the importance of making things right with our brother before we can have a right relationship with our Heavenly Father (Matthew 5:23-24). Restitution can take many forms. It might mean restoring money or personal property or even trying to mend the pain caused by hurtful words. Whatever can be done to correct a situation must be done, or the other person is not likely to forgive and reconcile.
- Pray for a forgiving heart: Just because we follow the previous steps doesn’t mean the person we’ve offended will be ready and willing to forgive us. It’s important to also pray for the other party to have a forgiving heart. The prayers of the righteous can have a positive effect (see our online article “Five Keys to Answered Prayers”).
- Accept the outcome: We can follow every step for forgiveness and still not be able to wipe away the hurt feelings and mistrust the other person experiences. He or she may still lack the willingness to forgive us. If this is the case, and we’ve done everything in our power to make the situation right, then the rest is up to God. God heals the brokenhearted and binds their wounds (Psalm 147:3), but everyone has the responsibility of going to God for healing. At this point our responsibility is to continue to pray for the right mind-set in everyone involved (including ourselves) and to show the right example moving forward.
Forgiveness is a godly trait. Our Father shows us forgiveness when we seek it properly, and He also provides guidance on how to give and receive forgiveness. Forgiveness is a key element of God’s plan for humanity. Study more in our online articles “How to Repent” and “What Is Forgiveness?”