How Should I Handle My Regrets?
Interview with John Piper
How should we consider our life regrets? The question comes from Marvin, a podcast listener. “Hello, Pastor John. I am a 72-year-old man with four grown children. My wife is with the Lord. All in all, my life has been good, and I think I served the Lord for a lot of those years. But I can look back on many opportunities I missed in life: missions trips I did not take, missionaries I did not support, even professional opportunities I did not take and probably should have, ways to better invest and redeem my time at every stage along the way. At my age I harbor a bunch of little regrets about my past. All those small regrets add up and leave me wondering: Is it possible for an older man to look back over his life and conclude that I frequently missed God’s will over the years? Or is who I am now the will of God perfectly manifested in all my decisions, and therefore, I should have no regrets at all? How should an old man, in Christ, who believes in the sovereign orchestration of God’s providence, look back on his failures and his missed opportunities?”
Well, as you can imagine, this strikes very close to home. He’s 72 and I’m 73. I am that man, right? Marvin and I are both in our early seventies. We both look back over most of our lives already being lived — most by far. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing — this is what hits me sometimes so hard — we do can change the past. It sometimes hits me with tremendous force.
“Press on in faith toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ.”
My 33-year chapter as a pastor is complete. It had a beginning: 1980. It had an ending: 2013. And every second of it — every word spoken, every attitude felt, every deed done or undone — is written in the books of heaven, and they are more fixed and unchangeable than Mount Everest. Nothing I do — nothing — makes those years better or worse. That’s an awesome thought. I mean, it’s obvious as can be, right? Like, duh. But it doesn’t hit you until you’re almost done with life, and you look back. I used to think in terms of “I’m going to make my pastoring better. I’m going to be a bit better. I’m going to get better.”
Well, it’s over. You’re not going to make it better. It’s over. You’re not going to make those 33 years better or worse.
And so, Marvin is just forcing the issue again. Thank you, Marvin. It’s good for me. It’s really good for me. At this point in my understanding of how to look back at the past, I have four things that I can make fit into an APJ.
1. Christ died for a million regrets.
Let’s begin, Marvin, by remembering that we have the kind of Savior and the kind of salvation that says to the thief on the cross, just hours before he dies, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Think of it: Just before he dies, he realizes that everything — everything — in his past is regrettable. Everything. Nothing was done from faith. Nothing was done for the glory of Christ. And he will be with Jesus forever — welcomed.
That’s an amazing reality, an unspeakably sweet reality of grace. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3). And that’s where we start, Marvin. We just start there: Christ died to cover a thousand regrets — ten thousand, a million.
2. Your memory deceives.
Marvin, your memory and my memory and everybody’s memory of our past is utterly unreliable. If you start to try to measure the spiritual successes and failures of your past — the good versus the bad, the loving versus the unloving, the helpful versus the helpful — you’re kidding yourself. My memory, your memory, is utterly not up to the task, for four reasons.
1. Many of my sins were hidden from me. “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12).
2. I have long forgotten many things entirely. Paul himself said in 1 Corinthians 1:16, “I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.” Thank you. Paul didn’t remember whom he baptized. Well, there are ten thousand things I don’t remember which may have been good or may have been bad. I don’t know. I can’t remember them. I’m absolutely hopeless if I try to rehearse my past and add things up like that.
3. My heart is deceitful. It recalls some things as good that weren’t good. I’m going to deceive myself. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
4. Paul ponders his own record of faithfulness, and here’s what he says: “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:4). In other words, even a good memory and a good record is not decisive. Christ is decisive. So, beware of thinking too highly of your memory, whether good or bad.
3. Remember regrets to a point.
It’s good to remember our sins and feel regret. It’s good. It’s good to feel regret up to a point. And I say this again for four reasons.
1. A life without regrets is built on a mirage. If you don’t see sins when you’re looking back over your life, and you don’t regret those sins, you’re not seeing reality. You’re not feeling reality. You’re seeing a mirage. We all have sinned. There were plenty of attitudes, words, deeds that were not for the glory of God but selfish, not loving but uncaring, not from faith but from fear. There were plenty of things that came out of your mouth that were not designed for upbuilding, and plenty of good paths taken with defective motives. A life without regrets is a life built on a mirage.
2. Paul said to the Gentile converts in Ephesus, “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12–13). Their memory of their regretful condition was commanded: remember.
3. Surely the reason for this, this memory, is that it deepens and intensifies our thankfulness for grace.
4. And here’s the last reason for this remembering of sins in our lives. Paul never forgot his regretful past. Writing near the end of his life, he said, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). That was a regret, and he never forgot it.
So, I conclude that it is good to remember our sins and feel regret up to a point.
4. Press on in faith.
The time for forgetting — what is it? Paul said this: “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own.” That is, I haven’t become perfect. I haven’t arrived yet. “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14).
“A life without regrets is a life built on a mirage.”
In Ephesians 2:12, Paul says, “Remember.” And in Philippians 3:13, he says, “Forget.” And if you said, “Well, when do you do which?” here’s my sense of what he means for us old men: Wherever remembering our failures will help us fly to Christ, love Christ, rest in Christ, cherish grace, sing of mercy, serve with zeal, then let’s get on with remembering and regretting.
But wherever remembering begins to paralyze us with the weight of failure and remorse so that we don’t love Christ more, or cherish grace more, or serve with greater energy, then let us forget and press on by the power of grace for the little time we have left. That’s the main word: press on in faith toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons.