This was probably a familiar scenario either when you were a child or now as an adult. Some instruction has been given by an authority. Let’s say, for example, “Do not eat the cookies.” The cookies look really tasty. They smell fantastic. And you really really want one. Likely, you will get one after dinner, but you want one right now. No one is looking. No one would see if you just reached quickly and snagged one off the plate. You grab it and scurry off to a corner and gobble up the cookie. It is delicious and gone far too quickly. You rise from your illicit snack, turn around and there is your parent. She saw the whole thing. There is no denying it. There is not explaining it away. You’ve been caught. Immediately, you feel an emotion wash over you. What is it? What is that feeling? It might be regret. Or it might be repentance. And the difference between the two is significant.
We see something similar to this in the book of Judges. In Judges, the people of Israel go through cycle after cycle of sin, oppression, crying out to God for help, salvation through a judge, peace, the death of the judge, and then more sin. One would hope that one revolution of this cycle would lead Israel to faithfulness. But it does not. They go through this cycle again and again. It seems that they never learn their lesson. In Judges, it seems that the people crying out to God for help is not a true cry of repentance. It is a cry of regret. It is a genuine cry of distress. They deeply regret their situation. But they have not repented of their sin. They are sad that they are experiencing the consequences of their choices.
The apostle Paul wrote “For godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor 7:10). There is godly grief that produces repentance. There is worldly grief that produces regret and eventually death. It is important that we distinguish in our lives between regret and repentance. I want to highlight four ways that they differ, and how understanding these differences will, Lord willing, lead us to a better understanding of redemption and restoration.
Regret focuses on self. Repentance focuses on others.
If you get pulled over for speeding, the initial emotional response usually has more to do with your getting caught than with your breaking of the law. Our concern is seldom, “Oh no, I’ve violated civil statutes and endangered myself and others around me with my driving.” It is usually, “Argh, I can’t believe I’m going to get a ticket.” Your focus is not on the law you broke but on the consequences you’re going to experience. Regret focuses on how our getting caught affects ourselves. Repentance realizes that a transgression has violated some relationship and potentially harmed others. Regret thinks about self. Repentance thinks about how others have been affected. Repentance sees that ultimately our sin is against God (Ps 51:4).
Regret looks for escape. Repentance looks for healing.
When we are caught in a transgression, regret will seek the quickest path out of the situation. No one likes to be in the wrong. No one likes the feelings that are associated with that. Regret will say or do anything to stop those feelings and return to some kind of emotional détente. Regret uses the words “I’m sorry” but it means, “Please stop talking about this, so we can go back to ignoring this problem.” But when a transgression occurs, that which is wrong must be made right. When we sin, we strike against the holiness of God. We violate the relationships of others. Repentance seeks to make right what was wrong. Repentance will enter into greater emotional turmoil to seek out healing.
Regret changes a situation. Repentance changes a heart.
A friend’s rental house was recently condemned because of mold. The owner had neglected a leaky roof for years. Every time water damage appeared, the owner covered it with a fresh coat of paint. Eventually, mold began to grow until now the house was uninhabitable. Regret treats sin like this. A deep relational rift in a marriage isn’t solved by buying flowers. As kind a gesture as that is, what needs to happen is a change in your heart. Regret buys flowers. Repentance confesses and seeks to change. Regret says “I’m sorry.” Repentance risks being hurt by saying, “Please forgive me.”
Regret tries to use God to fix something. Repentance seeks to be restored by God.
What’s more important, the gift or the giver? We know the right answer is the giver, but often we get more enamored and excited about the gift. Regret values the gift more than the giver. Regret seeks to use God to improve your circumstances. I don’t like feeling bad about my sin, what do I do to stop that? Repentance seeks to be restored to a right relationship with God. I have grieved a holy God with my sin and I need to be restored to him. Repentance sees that God’s glory is to be more cherished than my personal circumstances.
We are often like the kid who stole a cookie. We are often like the people of Israel. We often regret our sin, but we fail to truly repent. But life is found in repentance. And regret produces death. Seeing the difference between the two can help us better understand the grace of the Gospel and receive the salvation offered by Jesus Christ.