(Originally published on OCN’s The Sounding)
We were working alongside the blind monk Isidoros from Philotheou Monastery of Mount Athos when a conversation began among some of the women and the old monk.
“Papouli, what is the difference between regret and repentance?” one of the woman asked.
“Ba! Regret! We don’t care about regret! The Christian cares about repentance. Forget regret!” he responded.
The Christian cares about repentance, not regret. But just how exactly can we distinguish between the two?
Regret is that almost despondent feeling you get when you reflect on something you did or did not do. I say “almost” because at first regret may not fill the mind with despondency. At first it may look a lot like repentance, self-reflection. However, one can tell the difference between regret and repentance by the fruit that comes from each.
Regret is a 60-year-old man looking back on his life and seeing all the mistakes, all the mishaps, the things he wishes he could change, the things he says he will try to make up for in the present. However, such a reflection is filled with sorrow, with despair.
Repentance is a 60-year-old man looking back on his life and seeing all the mistakes, all the mishaps, the things he wishes he could change, and accepting he only has the ability to change the future. Repentance is tears, sighs, even moans for one’s mistakes, the things one shouldn’t have done, the things one has done, and the things one should have done. But, it is accompanied with a sober acceptance that I am mistaken. I am accountable for my mistakes and I will continue to make mistakes in my weakness if God does not help me in His mercy.
Regret is the thought, “I’m better than that.” Repentance is the thought, “I am weak, but God is strong.”
Regret is mingled with pride. Repentance proceeds out of humility.
Regret is wrapped up with egotism. Repentance is abandonment to God.
Regret is hopeless; it yields no positive change. Repentance is hope-filled; it knows that with God all things are possible.
Regret is of earth. Repentance is of heaven.
Regret looks backwards, yearning with a sick nostalgia to correct the past. Repentance looks forward, only glancing backwards to remind the self that the roads travelled in the past will not reach the desired destination.
Regret paralyzes. Repentance frees.
What is the fruit of regret? Regret. What is the fruit of repentance? Change. Regret fills the Christian with sorrow. Repentance fills the Christian with humility, trust that Christ’s mercy can heal past wounds, and hope that Christ’s grace will produce good from evil.
St. Peter of Damaskos tells us:
“It is always possible to make a new start by means of repentance. ‘You fell,’ it is written, ‘now arise’ (Prov. 24:16). And if you fall again, then rise again, without despairing at all of your salvation, no matter what happens… On the contrary, place your hope in Him and He will do one of two things: either through trials and temptations, or in some other way which He alone knows, He will bring you restoration; or He will accept your patient endurance and humility in the place of works; or because of your hope He will act lovingly towards you in some other way which you are not aware of, and so will save your shackled soul. Only do not abandon your Physician, for otherwise you suffer senselessly the twofold death [ie. both in this life and in the next]…” (“The Great Benefit of True Repentance,” Philokalia, vol. 3, p.170).
So, let us take heed of Monk Isidoros’ words. Let’s forget regret and cling to repentance, the hope of Christians.