Popular music anthems are typically dismissive of regretting the way one has lived one’s life, perhaps none so resonantly as Édith Piaf’s ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ and ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra – both common musical themes for funerals. They convey the message that regretting is a waste of time and by implication of no benefit. Yet, it takes courage to look back and examine one’s life. This was recommended by Socrates, the ‘Father of Western Philosophy’ who concluded that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Indeed, without self-examination, we are doomed to having our personal history repeat itself.

Whereas regret is all about the individuals’ assessment of the impact of their decisions and actions on themselves, remorse “creates a sense of guilt and sorrow for hurting someone else, and leads to confession and true apology.”[ https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/stop-caretaking-the-borderline-or-narcissist/201507/regret-vs-remorse]

This week witnessed the sentencing of an American icon, Bill Cosby, to a prison term of three to 10 years for drugging and sexually assaulting women. It seemed like the final chapter in his fall from grace, leaving us wondering if there is any hope for redemption at his advanced age of 81. What was most glaringly absent from the trial was his apparent lack of remorse even when given an opportunity to make a statement to the court prior to sentencing [http://www.theweek.co.uk/96704/bill-cosby-jailed-for-sexual-assault].

Indeed, it takes courage to admit, first and foremost, to yourself, that you ‘missed the mark’ especially when you have done it over and over again. This experience is not unique to certain ‘bad’ people, it is part and parcel of the human condition. Missing the mark is known in the Christian faith as sin. The original meaning of sorry was ‘to show sorrow for sin’. We are told that“… everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.”[Romans 3:23, NLT].

Yet, by no means, is God in the business of condemning. Jesus posed the question to the woman caught in adultery whose male accusers were demanding that she be stoned to death as just punishment – “woman, where are your accusers?” In response to Jesus’ instruction to them  – “…let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!…” [John 8:7-11, NLT]   –  they all scuttled off the scene, the oldest first, since no doubt he had done the most sinning by virtue of having lived the longest, and was therefore the most deeply aware of how unqualified he was to judge her. Finally Jesus turns to her and says – “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.

God wants to give us the opportunity to start over with a clean slate, but this only comes through genuine regret, and repentance. To repent , according to the biblical meaning, is to do a 180 ° turnaround and go in the opposite direction. Without it, we will keep going in the same direction, doomed to repeat the same mistakes. This is the very embodiment of hopelessness, and being trapped in a rut.

To avoid such a fate, when we commit wrongdoing, it is not enough to dismiss it as petty or to pretend it never happened. Rest assured, our consciences (that part of us we often wish we didn’t have but which God designed to be our spiritual alarm system) will keep reminding us that we have overstepped the boundaries. Biblical truth asserts that “…we all stumble and sin in many ways…”[James 3:2, AMP]. An accurate self-assessment need not lead to self-condemnation, but is often the doorway to healing and transformation. Not only do wrongdoers get to begin again, regardless of age and reputation, but victims get to have their pain and trauma acknowledged so that they can hopefully gain emotional relief and release, and also experience a fresh start.

Regret normally comes in the form of ‘I wish I …’, ‘I wish I did not…’, ‘If only…’, ‘I should have…’What’s striking about the current #MeToo Movement and many victims’ stories is how long it often takes them to come forward during which time so many find themselves trapped in a cycle of shame, self-hatred, depression and suicidal tendencies. Waiting for your perpetrator to open the ‘trap’ door, can mean a hopeless and agonising wait for a release which never comes.

Regretting what you endured as a victim can be an emotional stranglehold. Forgiving your perpetrators, whether or not they express remorse, may seem too demeaning and demanding. The concept of forgiveness attracts common misconceptions, namely:

  • you can only forgive someone who asks for forgiveness;
  • forgiving the perpetrator minimises the wrongdoing, and lets the perpetrator off the hook;
  • withholding forgiveness punishes the perpetrator even more.

The unfortunate fact remains that those who have been wronged rarely hear any words of acknowledgement or apology from their wrongdoers. This can leave them with a sense that their pain and suffering has never been validated.

Being able to talk about their pain and distress with a compassionate third party or partake in some type of counselling or group therapy brings a sense of validation and relief. Finally they are able to come to terms with the fact that they did not deserve their mistreatment and that it was not their fault.

Being willing to embark on this journey could mean the difference between life and death, mental distress and emotional well-being and closure. Forgiveness is a never-ending cycle of seeking God’s forgiveness, experiencing the joy of being forgiven and of extending it to others. Regrets may be a clue that we need to seek and accept God’s forgiveness, seek the forgiveness of others, and make genuine overtures of repentance.  It paves the way for a ‘life reboot’, and is the ultimate gift we give to ourselves as well as others. Society does not need more victims or perpetrators, but will benefit from more reformed wrongdoers and restored lives.

Carla Cornelius

Dr Carla seeks to bring a fresh and thought-provoking perspective to today's popular culture. With her Ph.D. in Biblical Counselling, she invites readers to see the relevance of the Bible in addressing the difficult and disturbing issues of our times.