What is regret, remorse, or sorrow—and how should we handle it? Better yet, is this a good thing, or is there some point at which it can become counterproductive to the work of God in our lives?
“…being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge…” (Ephesians 17b, 18, 19a)
Second Corinthians 7:10 tell us that there are two kinds of sorrow: godly sorrow and the sorrow of the world: “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
The obvious reason God allows us to feel remorse over something is to cause us to repent. Repentance, interestingly, is a term that is frequently misunderstood. Many believe it means feeling sorry, but feeling sorry is simply the beginning—the remorse part that prompts us to repent, to change something in our lives. If we change whatever behavior caused us to feel sorry in the first place, we have allowed God to affect our character for good, and something positive came from the entire experience. If, however, we fail to repent—if we don’t alter our wrong behavior—remorse has not accomplish the desired result.
There is a situation, however, in which grief or remorse can be ineffective, simply because it is unnecessary. This is the circumstance where there is no change that can be done. Grieving over a situation that is in the past, or the outcome of which you have no control over, is counterproductive. It is related to the issue of wrongly feeling guilt. If you have not done anything wrong, you ought not to feel guilty; in the same way, if there is nothing to be gained—no change that can be effected—remorse or sorrow has ceased to be useful.
So what do you do if there is nothing you can do about a certain situation, but can’t stop grieving? My eighty-six year old mother, who had lived with us during the past four years, recently passed away. In the beginning I grieved terribly. Although a member of our household was definitely no longer with us, this grief wasn’t primarily because I missed her. I believe in Christ and in the forgiveness we have through Him, and I am hopeful that she is happier now than she was in this life. Rather, I experienced regret about ways we failed her. I thought of how lonely she was toward the end; how little enjoyment she had in her life–how she probably suffered. Yet for the most part, these were things which, if time could be turned back, might still not be any different simply because of the limitations of time, energy, and finances.
In the beginning, this regret did serve a useful purpose; God showed me that even though I had sacrificed much and worked hard for over four years taking care of her, I had nothing to boast of. Life and human limitations being what they are, the very things I stood in jeopardy of being prideful of fell far short of the ideal. Yet, as time progressed and I kept crying night after night, it became apparent that this grief was not serving a useful purpose. To the contrary, it was keeping me riveted in the past—a past in which I had tried to do my best and about which nothing could now be changed.
This, I believe, is wrong sorrow. While it is natural to grieve when someone dies or something bad happens, once these feelings stop accomplishing something good in us—once there is no longer any real purpose to them other than to make us uselessly miserable—they run the risk of becoming harmful.
We have all heard of situations where spouses follow their loved ones in death within a short period of time. While it is true that “…in Your [God’s] book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them” (Psalm 139:16), excessive and inappropriate remorse and grief impact our well-being as well as render us less focused on what God would have us accomplish now.
So what should we do, if we find ourselves struggling to climb out of sorrow which serves no good purpose? First of all, we must recognize God’s love for us—“the width and depth and length and height…the love of Christ which passes knowledge”–and that His activity in our lives is good, not harmful. Then, we should do the same as with any situation we struggle with—call on God in prayer. That is what I did, and He has helped me. Jeremiah 29:11 assures us, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” God’s heart toward us is love and a desire to effect a good purpose in us, not cause us unnecessary grief or despair.
Help us be rooted and grounded in love; help us to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height of your love toward us; help us to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge. Cause us change anything in our lives that needs changing, but also to stop grieving when it becomes counterproductive to Your purposes. Amen.