I’ve noticed some talk about regrets in mainstream American culture. Most recently, Republican candidate for President, Donald Trump, expressed his “regrets” over remarks he made in the past. But beyond the world according to Trump, I’ve heard many people answer questions about regrets this way: “I don’t believe in regrets. I think everything happens for a reason and has made me the person I am, so I don’t focus on regrets,” or some variation on that theme.
Whether or not one believes in regrets, it seems that most of us wish we had done some things differently. I have many regrets and it seems to me that regrets should help us to make different and better choices in the future. We shouldn’t focus on regrets, we should learn from them. For example, I regret opening my mouth and making a widespread judgment of a group of people, especially when I realized that I offended someone I cared about. More than ten years later, I am more careful (though still not perfect, unfortunately), about thinking about what I say before I speak, especially with regard to how my words might be received by my audience. Ignoring regrets is an attempt to pretend you didn’t do something wrong that you realized was wrong/bad/damaging. What’s the use in that? Isn’t it better to acknowledge the mistake and work to refrain from making those same mistakes?
On the other hand, an expression of regret is not the same thing as an apology. As a parent of a three-year old, I see the difference between regret and an apology on an almost daily basis. Our daughter feels regret keenly. She often voices that she is sorry she was caught (probably because she knows she will be punished). I think most of us regret getting caught. But that isn’t the same thing as apologizing for the wrong we committed in the first place. An apology recognizes the wrong and the wrongdoer. As a professor, I see the difference between regret and an apology on an almost daily basis. Many students regret not putting in the effort once they see the grade they received. Many students regret plagiarizing something in a paper once they are caught. But that is different than admitting they made a mistake, apologizing, and asking for forgiveness or a second chance.
Repentance is even more difficult. And rare. Repentance requires a turning away from sin – an acknowledgement of the sin or pattern of sin and an attempt to avoid the behavior or the temptations that often result in that behavior. Church history and human history is full of examples of people attempting to change their sinful behavior. Regardless of the method: severe punishment, public shaming, a public confession, rituals of purification, self-inflicted punishment, performance of public service, fines, or many other methods, repentance is tough to do. Changing patterns of behavior is difficult and requires commitment, discipline, and accountability. For Christians, Christ calls us to a life of repentance. While we will never be perfect on this earth, we are always looking to change our behavior to fit the patterns of Christ’s perfect behavior, through the grace of God. Paul wrote about what godly sorrow produced to the Corinthians in I Corinthians 9-11a (NIV),
“yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.”
What has ‘godly sorrow’ produced in us?
How often do we see sincere apologies or repentance? Do we admire and appreciate those who sincerely apologize and repent of their mistakes? Or are we content to allow regret to substitute for a real recognition of wrong?
Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College