In John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem Maud Muller, a poor maiden and a rich judge, upon a happenstance meeting, imagine how different and better their lives would be if they left their own situations and lived like the other. But their chance meeting was soon over, with neither having voiced their imaginations, as the judge closed his heart knowing his family would oppose him accepting a lower station in life.
He married rich; she married poor. Years later, each recalled their youthful dream in an effort to escape the reality of their lives – the judge to escape the chains of responsibility and riches, the maiden to escape the drudgery of ordinariness and poverty. The poem’s narrator concludes:
God pity them both! And pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall.
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
Salvation Is Not Accomplished Via a Do Over
It’s no wonder that stories of time travel are so popular. They represent a universal desire to be able to fix the past thereby erasing both the consequences of our decisions and the resulting regret. In these stories, missed opportunities need no longer cause us sorrow as a second chance is offered. In them, the consequences of sin and evil are removed or altered via a sort of cosmic “do over.”
Time travel stories are appealing because in our imaginations we identify with a protagonist armed with knowledge of the future, pursuing a noble cause and having sufficient power to accomplish his purpose. But these stories are vastly inferior to the real story unfolding throughout history. They are vastly inferior to God’s story in which sinful people are redeemed and not merely rescued from the consequences of past actions.
Feelings of Regret Are a Poor Substitute for Thankfulness for Providence
And this is why words of regret are so sad. Regret searches for relief from our circumstances by dreaming of an alternate reality, one that might have been but cannot be. They are sad because they reveal a lack of understanding of God’s plan and his Providence. Surely we grieve and regret our sins against God that harm others and ourselves, but the Christian has the healing balm of forgiveness in his arsenal. Regret extended far beyond repentance and forgiveness paralyses us, preventing us from moving forward and assuring us of further failure.
Words of regret are sad because they don’t recognize and appreciate what God has given us. They blind us to God’s redemptive and sanctifying work. Words of regret reveal a lack of contentment and they block our path to resting in Jesus.
We are tempted to kick ourselves over lost opportunity, but that only perpetuates the problem. Fretting over lost opportunities clouds our vision of God’s providence in the past and for the future. God is sovereign over our missed opportunities as surely as he is sovereign over those we capitalize on. He is in the business of making everything beautiful in its time (Ecclesiastes 3:11). He is a God of second chances, but not of the sort imagined in time travel tales. God is in the business of making things new (Revelation 21:5).
There Is No Greater Contrast Than That Between Regret and Salvation
One should not presume there will always be a second chance or a better opportunity when it comes to faith in Christ. Today is the day of salvation. Dying having missed the opportunity to believe in Christ results in the greatest regret of all, one that lasts for eternity.
For Christians, our sorrow over sin brings repentance that leads to a salvation without regret (2 Corinthians 7:10). Let’s encourage one another to forget what lies behind and press on toward our heavenly calling (Philippians 3:13).