Our Biggest Regrets

Tom Gilovich and Vicki Medvec, two Cornell social psychologists, have studied and researched how we deal with regret. They place regret into two broad categories: actions (things we wish we had not done or said) and inactions (things we wish we had done). In their research they discovered that in the short term, we tend to regret actions more than inactions. Based on their research, in a given week, 53 percent of our regret thinking is about actions we committed and 47 percent of our regret thinking is about our inactions. In the short term we are most bothered by our own actions.

But in the long term, based on the research, we regret our inaction way more. They discovered that when a person evaluates his or her life as a whole, the inaction regrets outnumber the action regrets 84 to 16 percent. In the totality of our lives, we are most bothered by the things we choose not to do, the conversations we fail to have, the risks we fail to take, and the decisions we continually lack the courage to make.

Most people (and church leaders) live with a sense of wondering what could have been if they had made bolder moves and had thrown themselves more fully into what they were called to do.

It is interesting that throughout history, Christians have often placed sin into two broad categories: sins of commission and sins of omission. And while sin is ultimately about our hearts and thus much deeper than our actions, perhaps we will regret our sinful inactions more than our sinful actions. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”

Knowing our days are numbered should motivate us to do the good we know we ought to do (James 4:17). Knowing this life is temporary and the days are evil should encourage us to pray big prayers and make bold moves for God’s kingdom. Knowing that Christ has already secured our salvation and given us His approval should liberate us to take risks, play offense, pull triggers, and aggressively throw ourselves fully into the work He has given us. Because of Jesus, we can freely and actively share our faith, give generously, express hospitality, and forgive graciously.

We really don’t want to play it safe. By God’s grace, we don’t have to.