Maybe you’ve seen a meme that says something like this: “Don’t ever regret your past decisions. At one time, they were what you wanted.” This emboldening counsel is no doubt born of deep pain. It offers emotional and ethical self-defense as we process a personal history of questionable choices. Yet this morality is, in every sense of the phrase, self-righteous. And self-righteousness is never a good means of self-defense.
Notice that the slogan above ascribes all ethical power and authority to the self. It implies that something is good by virtue of the fact that I want it. That means that I myself am the standard of what’s good, true, and right. In theory, this ethic empowers me to live a life of no regrets because my desires, by definition, are never wrong. In practice, though, it provides no safeguards against self-deceit or the foolish things I do in my stubborn pride. Further, it seals me off from any life-giving, corrective counsel coming from outside me.
To exalt myself as truth personified is a lie that breeds aloneness. Loneliness leaves me more likely to make regrettable decisions, and more vulnerable to those who’d force their own choices upon me. Predatory philosophies and people prey upon hearts hungry for affirmation, spiritually starved souls who lack the skill, or the will, to recognize when they’re being manipulated and used. For the sake and safety of ourselves and others, we must resolutely reject the meme’s resolution against regret.
Regret is necessary to any morality not based in self-righteousness. Regret is essential to Christian ethics because repentance is essential to the Christian life. As believers, we know that all sin violates God’s loving law, the true standard of righteousness (Matthew 22:37-40). Contrary to the meme’s counsel, there’s just no denying the sinfulness of some of our past desires and decisions. But self-righteousness is so hard to avoid, even in well-intentioned efforts at godliness. Sometimes a sincere push away from licentiousness (per the meme) leaves us vulnerable to self-righteousness’s mirror opposite form: legalism. This version of self-righteousness doesn’t reject regret; it weaponizes it. And it turns it against the repentant sinner.
While licentiousness brazenly rejects God’s word, legalism revises it, and therefore distorts it (Isaiah 29:13; Mark 7). Both enthrone the self as sovereign, but legalism is insidious because, in the name of an ever-purer religion, it sets up false images of godliness – idols - in God's house. In our day, more and more believers are waking up to the awful truth that legalism and its attendant idolatries have characterized much of their Christian upbringing, especially in the church's teaching on matters of sex and sexuality.
Legalism plants dehumanizing idols in the soil of godly desires. Holy sexuality is indeed a moral must, but we commit idolatry when we exalt sexual purity as the essential goal of godliness (and marriage as the mark of human wholeness). Christian community becomes a punitive culture built on false promises. Unrealistic expectations of marriage add pressure to already heavy warnings about how much we’ll regret not arriving there in a state of complete sexual blamelessness. The pursuit of godliness here becomes less about honoring the Savior and more about attracting a godly spouse. If we stumble on the path of purity (as those steps are defined by any number of extra-biblical, purity-themed programs, books, and organizations) regret cannot serve a redemptive purpose because we’ve given away what cannot be gotten back. We’ve forever forfeited the pleasurable rewards of good behavior. Regret becomes purely retributive.
While many are feeling the disorienting aftershocks of young life lived in the crucible of purity culture, others are enduring the trauma created when family and church avoid all discussion of sex and sexuality - even the confession of sin. One young lady told me that early in her teen years, her mother warned her that if she ever sinned sexually, she must never tell her father because it would devastate him. You can imagine the sense of isolation, fear, and shame over sins not even committed which this created in her young heart. There are so many young adults like her languishing in that dreadful aloneness. In these ostensibly Christian contexts, the message is clear, and crushing: A sin of sexuality is a transgression too far. Regret, rather than lighting a path forward in life and godliness, relegates us to the darkness of our past.
As many of Christ’s disillusioned disciples are feeling in our day, moral aspirations pursued outside Christ’s redemptive work prove merciless. In the grips of graceless religion, regret over past sin twists godly sorrow into legalistic self-loathing. We are right to lament the licentiousness of our day, and how in the church all but the most obvious transgressions of biblical sexual ethics are trivialized. Among young adults, sexual activity prior to marriage is practically a given, whether intimacy goes "all the way" or the participants rationalize every activity that doesn't cross that line. But we have to realize to our shame as Christ's church that part of the reason why the trivialization of sexual sin is so tempting is that the church’s engagement of sexuality can be so traumatizing.
Even as we look at our past sin through the lens of Scripture, and not legalism's distortion of it, and even if we're well loved and led in our family, church, and among our friends, regret reminds us that there are undesirable things unalterably true about us. This sorrow can feel paralyzingly hopeless in the intensely intimate context of sexuality. The choices we make in this aspect of life are profoundly personal and consequential. Touch can't be taken back, and there are no second chances at first time experiences. Because the past can't be undone, it's tempting in the midst of regret to conclude that we can't be put back together. How can we get ourselves back when we’ve given so much of ourselves away? I spend a lot of time on this in my book God Breathed. But in short: Only God can do this. God does do this. God loves to do this. The God of the Bible is not the god of second chances. He’s the God of new creations.
Under the cruel shroud of legalism, it’s so easy to lose sight of how much God values us, which is the reason behind biblical strictures regarding sexuality. God’s moral law is his heart in the form of commands. Regret over sin is there to remind us that God is good. He wants his image-bearers to live in the divine freedom of a life completely characterized by love (James 1:25). Sexual sin is by no means the only, or the most severe, expression of sinfulness (Romans 1:16ff, Mark 3:29). The Father sent the Son to redeem us from all our sins, and from all kinds of sin (Romans 5:20). Redemption in the risen Christ provides a way forward for us that is both righteous - it reckons with the true moral significance of our sin rather than editing such in hindsight - and restorative. Redemption is the path to wholeness and holiness, the path to full human flourishing and freedom – freedom even from our past.
In processing our past, it helps to distinguish between our history and our ontology (who we really are). Our history is essentially us in that we cannot change it. It was what it was, so it is what it is. Jesus neither rewrites the past nor edits its ethical significance. But he does redeem the repentant people who lived it. He renews us in our essential being (Psalm 51:6). Here’s why this renewal is truly righteous, and how it provides true hope for all of us, and for humanity itself.
Three humans started life sinless, and the first two didn’t make it (Romans 5). Adam and Eve fell, but because the second Adam stood strong, humanness cannot be thought of as inevitably, ontologically sinful (Hebrews 2:14, 4:15). Therefore, nothing sinful and no sin can essentially define those whom Christ covers in his righteousness, who can say as new creations that “Christ is my life” (1 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:4). John declares that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-10). Regret brings us before our merciful Lord. As we bow humbly to face the temporal consequences of sins eternally forgiven, we can rise in Christ’s redemptive love to move on in life, knowing that it is morally right to do so (Psalm 32, 51; 2 Samuel 12; Romans 4).
Sexual sin makes for especially painful regret. No wonder the Holy Spirit takes special pains in Scripture to emphasize God’s revitalizing work on this tender field of life. Jesus handles sexual compromise with special compassion (John 4; 8). Where our wounds are most personal, Jesus’s renewing grace is most profound.
The way of Christ is the biblical path between licentiousness and legalism (Psalm 1, 119:105; James 1:16-26). Redemption in Christ allows regret to be life-giving. Redemption lets our burdened souls walk a righteous path between denying the sinfulness of past sin, and letting that sin run, and therefore ruin, our lives in the present. In Christ, regret serves repentance over past transgression and even lovingly defends us against future sin. (1 John 2:1-2; Proverbs 5). In Christ, we can own up to our past and know that our past does not own us.