When someone tells me their life goal is to live with no regrets, I tend to smile and nod politely. “Good luck, I sincerely hope you succeed,” I always think.
But the truth is, I don’t know anyone who has achieved that.
The older I get, the more I recognize that no one gets out of this life without desperately wishing that some things could have happened differently. There are situations you can repair, and there are things you desperately wish you could change—but can’t.
Maybe you regret an action that ended up costing you more than you anticipated. Maybe you regret an accident. Or perhaps you regret an omission. Sometimes we experience the worst remorse from opportunities we let pass. It’s that love we should have professed, or that person we wish we’d invested in more before we lost them. Nothing haunts like the words “if only.”
There are areas in my life where, after years, I’m still paralyzed by acute loss, pain and even shame in some circumstances. Here is part one in a series on dealing with regret:
Live with appropriate transparency.
Sometimes we deal with our disgrace by hiding our shame. Either we fear the judgment of others, or we don’t want others to see how harshly we judge ourselves. But what’s hidden has a tendency to rot. You do yourself no favors by quietly carrying your humiliation deep inside.
First, you need to be open with the people involved. This can be horribly painful, but it’s like setting a broken bone. The accident or sin that you’re carrying has likely affected others, and they deserve your honesty and openness.
You need to be wise about this. The other parties involved may not be ready to involve you in their healing. This is more about your willingness to be open than it is about your need to unload your burden. Sometimes sharing with the parties involved will do more harm than good. Be discerning about the how and why, but be open when the time’s appropriate.
You also need trustworthy confidants who will help you carry and understand your remorse.
At times, we all need cheerleaders. It’s important that you have an intimate community who knows who you truly are. Nothing can help release you from the prison of anxiety like committed people who know the worst about you and love you anyway.
Your story is yours, and you need to be wise about how you share it. Carrying your shame in silence can cause damage but so can oversharing.
That said, an important part of having a wound is using your brokenness as a salve for others. It is entirely fitting to draw upon and share your story in relating and ministering to others around you. In fact, true ministry will always originate from that broken place.
This is so cliche, but that doesn’t negate its validity. It takes a lot of forgiveness to get through the worst situations. Obviously, you need to get to a place where you can forgive someone who’s wronged you, but it’s also important learn to forgive yourself. There comes a time when you need to accept that beating yourself up isn’t changing anything but your ability to draw meaning from today.
But there are others you need to forgive:
You need to forgive those who will never forgive you. It’s easy for people to find the momentum they need to move forward when they’re driven by hatred. It’s not ideal for them, but that’s outside of your control. You need to forgive them for your benefit—even if they’re never able to reciprocate.
You need to forgive those who won’t forget. The things you regret generally come out of situations that are emotional powder kegs. Sometimes you’ll have someone lash out just to hurt you. It’s hard, but you need to forgive them too.
You need to forgive God. When life-changing, soul-crippling tragedy strikes, it’s hard not to blame God. If He’d only intervened … If He’d only stopped you, prepared you or helped you, this never would have happened. You need to forgive God. Not because He’s at fault, but because you need to release Him from the responsibility tied to your tragedy.
Forgiveness is never a one-time affair. Whether it’s you or others who need to be released from your prison of bitterness, you’re going to have to forgive often and aggressively. Those captives will need you to liberate them often. Make sure you do.
Remember yesterday isn’t tomorrow’s final word.
We spend a lot of time judging others for their behavior and ourselves for our intentions. We need to be honest—we are what we do. We can’t afford to allow ourselves the luxury of pretending we’re one thing when we’re obviously another. And our behavior is the best indicator of who we are.
But what you did yesterday doesn’t have to define who you are today. This is the wonder and miracle of grace.
That’s important to remember because remorse is going to try and convince you otherwise. The accuser (through the machinations of your own conscience) will try to convince you that you’ll always be who you were at your worst moment.
It’s important to remember because some people will define you by your most shameful moments, too. There’s nothing you can do about it except pray for their best and move forward. But you can’t let yourself get mired in their opinion.
Remorse, a form of shame, was never intended to be experienced. Now that it’s been introduced into this world, we need to use it to our advantage and allow it to drive us to Christ—the One who can guarantee that tomorrow isn’t defined by today.
A version of this article originally appeared at jaysonbradley.com. Used with permission.
is the content strategist for the Overthink Group, and he writes regularly for MinistryAdvice.com.