“I have sinned…Surely I have acted like a fool and erred greatly.” 1 Samuel 26:21
The legendary French singer Edith Piaf famously declared, in perhaps her best known song, “Je ne regrette rien” – I regret nothing.
Well, I reckon you’d need to be a pretty confident person – you might even say a pretty arrogant person – to make such a claim. I know I couldn’t. It’s like claiming to have lived a perfect life.
Most of us probably feel more like King Saul of Israel in the words I have quoted. Saul has been trying to hound David to death, only for his efforts to be met with mercy. This undeserved kindness pierces his heart, so… “I have acted like a fool”, he admits. He regrets what he has done.
As you read this, perhaps you find yourself thinking of your own regrets. They probably spring from two main sources – sins you have committed, and mistakes you have made. They may be large or small – a terrible crime, or a petty oversight. They may be truly life-changing or relatively trivial. But the very fact that you remember them tells its own story: we all have consciences, and when we go against them it leaves its mark deep in our souls.
The big question that arises is simple: What should I do about those “if onlys”, those “I wishes”, in my life? I think it’s best to start with two things we shouldn’t do.
First, don’t try and forget all about them, to bury them in the depths of the past. That’s futile and self-destructive. “Be sure your sins will find you out” goes the saying. And it’s true. That nagging, gnarling feeling will always be there, destroying your peace of mind and your ease with yourself.
But equally, second, don’t allow them to dominate your life. I have known people who acted foolishly or wrongly many years ago and simply will not let go of the folly they have been guilty of. All credit to them for not letting themselves off too easily. But the fact is that this approach can be just as destructive as the first.
No. The thing to do with our regrets is to face up to them as frankly and openly as possible, to make a clean breast of them, and then, with God’s help, to move on. This, in essence, is what the Bible means by that great word “repent”. And the good news is that God loves to forgive those who repent, and to give them a new start; no-one has to live with that crushing burden.
In some cases it may be possible to put right what we did. At the simplest level a word of apology to someone may be enough for that.
But suppose the person we have treated badly is no longer around? – suppose they have disappeared completely from our lives? With the best will in the world there really is nothing we can do.
The answer is simple: lay it all before God, trusting in his understanding, and ask him for help in benefitting from the memory. If we have the honesty and humility to feed bitter experiences into the full perspective of our lives, we can become better, stronger people.
Here’s a prayer we might like to pray: Lord, you know I have been struggling under this burden of regret for far too long. I cannot turn the clock back and re-live those days. But I can, and now do, gather up all those bad and negative memories and lay them at the foot of the cross, where Jesus died for all – yes all! – my sins. Dear Father, help me to learn from them, and so to become a more humble and Christlike person. Amen.
Here’s a brief afterthought… I suspect that most of our regrets have to do with our relationships with other people. That’s certainly what I find as I look into my own life.
Yes, certainly there are regrets about under-achievement, or big disappointments. After all, I never did play centre-half for Crystal Palace… More seriously, could I have done better academically or in terms of my work?
But the really pressing “I wishes” are far more personal. I wish I had been… a better son to my parents; a better brother to my siblings; a better husband to my wife; a better father to my children; a better friend to my friends (not to mention my enemies). And so I could go on…
I know someone who has had significant success in his working life: well respected in his field, an author of several books. But then his marriage fell apart. And he said to me “I would gladly give it all up to have that relationship back again.”
Relationships – that’s the crucial thing. Oh to be able to look at our relationships and say with Edith Piaf “Non, je ne regrette rien”!
Loving Father, help me to treat my relationships with others, and my relationship with you, as absolute top priorities. Amen.