In his book The Power of Regret, Daniel Pink tells the story of Jeff Bosley. When Bosley was 29 years old, he decided to get a tattoo. He went to a tattoo shop and chose the Papyrus font. For $100, the artist inked nine black letters on his arm: “No Regrets.”
About one in every five people who get a tattoo eventually regrets his or her decision. Later in life, Bosley discovered he had plenty of regrets. He regretted not taking college more seriously. He regretted hurting his wife by seeking a divorce. He regretted not pursuing his longtime love of acting. And he regretted that tattoo.
However, he realized something: “I do have regret. [But] it fuels me. Regret [stinks], but I like that better than people who say, ‘No regrets,’ or ‘I don’t have regrets.’”
This is what Pink calls “the power of regret.” There’s a type of regret that, instead of being negative, can make us better. If your regret drives you to make a change in your life—in your attitude, your habits, or your desires—it can make you better.
Sure enough, prodded by his regret, Bosley moved to Southern California and is now making a living as an actor. Taunted by his tattoo, he eventually got it removed. You can imagine the humor in that.
Like Bosley, I have plenty of regrets. I regret not going to a different college when I had the chance. I regret the times I’ve been unkind toward my wife. One of my biggest regrets of the last year is not being more patient with my son. Every day, I regret the ways I sin against God.
Still, there’s good news: there’s a type of regret that can make you better and, in fact, leads to salvation. Thousands of years before Pink wrote his book, the apostle Paul said that if your regret leads to repentance, it brings about salvation without regret (2 Cor. 7:10).
There’s a type of regret that can make you better and, in fact, leads to our salvation.
2 Types of Regret
In that verse, Paul distinguishes between two types of regret.
The first is godly regret, which is what the Corinthians felt when he rebuked them (vv. 8–13). It seems there was a man in the church who’d wronged Paul, and the church should have enacted church discipline against him, but they didn’t. So Paul rebuked the congregation for their failure to act. Through his letter, they came to see their wrong and regretted not standing up for Paul—and not disciplining the man who’d wronged him. Regret led to repentance. They repented of their inaction and finally disciplined the man as they should have done.
That’s godly regret. It “produces . . . repentance” (v. 10) and leads to real change in your life. We may not repent perfectly, but we make a genuine effort to change and ask for God’s help to do so.
The other type is worldly regret. This is when we regret acting unkindly toward a friend or colleague but, in the end, do nothing about it. We feel a certain amount of remorse, but it leaves our minds just as quickly as it came. It doesn’t yield any lasting change in our life.
These two types of regret lead to two very different outcomes.
The result of godly sorrow is “salvation without regret” (v. 10). I remember a married couple from my first full-time church job. They were in their 40s, had two older kids, and had been unhappily married for years. Their issues came to a head, and they were about to get a divorce, but then they sought marriage counseling. After a lot of hard work—and after their regret led them to make real changes in their relationship—they reconciled. They decided to have a recommitment ceremony. I remember how special it was to be there when they reaffirmed their vows before family and friends. That was a little over 10 years ago, and they celebrated their 32nd anniversary last month.
Worldly regret, meanwhile, “produces death” (v. 10). You’ll fall into the same patterns over and over again. If your regret doesn’t lead to change, you dig yourself further into a hole, which only leads to greater regret. It’s like adding ink to that tattoo, pushing it deeper and deeper, making it bolder and bolder. But when it comes to our relationship with God, we’re not just talking about regretting a bad tattoo. We’re talking about eternal regret.
You Have a Choice
When you see the ways you’ve wronged others and sinned against God, will you settle for mere worldly regret, perhaps living by a functional “no regrets” mantra? Or will you acknowledge your regrets and let them propel you to repent before God and others?
Will you acknowledge your regrets and let them propel you to repent before God and others?
Even at its best, our regret is both worldly and godly. Even when we feel regret and strive with all our might to do better, we still struggle with the same sins—often for our whole lives. For that, we deserve an eternity of death. The good news, though, is that someone has lived and died on our behalf. Jesus is the only One who could truly write “no regrets” on his arm. Unlike the Corinthian church, he doesn’t fail to punish wrongdoing. However, because of his love for you, he took the punishment you deserve.
If you turn to Jesus, he will forgive your regrets. All of them. On the cross, he paid for your small regrets and your biggest, unspeakable ones. Through his Word and the power of his Spirit, he’ll produce true holiness. Instead of “no regrets,” he’ll tattoo on your heart a godly regret that leads to salvation without regret.
The Gospel Coalition