There are two reasons for regretting or relenting: One is because I am finite and limited in knowledge and understanding and therefore make decisions that are not best. For example, purchasing a car with a faulty engine that was disguised with some clever mechanical wizardry. But then in a month, the real engine appeared, and now I regret ever setting my eyes upon that hunk of junk.
Another reason for regretting is because of the emotional impact of a choice while maintaining that you would do it again. For example, as a parent I can honestly say that I regret spanking my children – I hated it because of the feelings it created in me and of course the pain that I saw in my children. But I would do it again because of the good outcome it brought. Another example would be the experience of a soldier in combat coming face to face with the enemy. You either kill him or he kills you. You think of your country, your family back home, and your own life. You do not wish that his wife become a widow and his children become fatherless. But you kill him anyway. He is dead and you are alive, and now for the rest of your life you will feel a real regret in your heart for what you did. But if you were faced with the same circumstance again, you would pull the trigger. Why? Because there is something greater to your heart and worth the pain of knowing what you did, than if you had not: Living your life with your family is worth feeling the regret of taking another man’s life. In fact, you knew in advance the regret that you would feel in your heart but yet you willfully, voluntarily, and with full knowledge, did something that would break your own heart because something of greater value was at stake that makes a lifetime of regret worth it.
It is this later example that explains how God can truly feel regret while maintaining his full and perfect knowledge of the future. God does not regret like the first example, like we regret due to lack of knowledge or understanding of the outcome of our decisions. God does not make mistakes.
1 Samuel 15 is helpful. In verses 10 and 11 it says, “The word of the LORD came to Samuel: I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” Verse 29, “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” And also verse 35, “And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.”
Depending on your English translation, the word that is translated as “relent,” “repent,” or “regret” is the same Hebrew word in all passages. Notice that there is a way that God does and does not relent.
We know that God knew in advance what kind of king Saul was going to be because in chapter 8 the Lord warned his people that Saul was going to be a wicked king who will take and take and take from them (vss. 10-18). But the Lord gave them what they wanted with full knowledge of his own feeling of regret in advance, much like what dad experiences when he gives his rebellious child the consequence of his actions. The parent was not making a mistake just because he now feels sorrow and regret over the discipline of his own child; if he had to do it over again – he would. The Lord disciplined his son Israel for not wanting Him as their King. That the Lord feels sorrow over his own actions does not mean that he regrets “as a man” does.
Other scripture passages on this subject come from Moses. In Genesis 6:5-7, we read, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart . . . for I am sorry that I have made them.” Again we see God’s heart for the brokenness of mankind. How else is God to feel? But as in the Samuel passage also here as well, this text does not mean that God did not know that man would sin, or that God did not know his own response of flooding the earth that would cause him to feel sorry for his own actions. Scripture teaches that God knows everything in advance because he has ordained everything that comes to pass. And at the same time, God appropriately feels in the moment the grief and joy of his own actions. How else could Jesus cry, “My God, My God – Why have you forsaken me?” and it be genuine real-time despair even though the Son of God knew in advance the cross and the reason for the cross? Future knowledge of pain does not lessen the feeling of sorrow nor does it imply stupidity of decision.
Moses also says in Numbers 23:19, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” Here we see that God’s character is completely reliable. If God says that he will bless his people – it’s as good as done. If you try to speak a curse against what the Lord has planned, God will turn your curse into a blessing. The point is that God does not change his mind because he made a mistake or erred. If God says that he is going to do one thing if you sin and another thing if you do not, that is not a mind-change. It is simply God’s promise that if you do one thing, then he’ll respond accordingly. If you do another, then he will respond to that. He is not like us who say we’ll help clean the house this Saturday and make those long overdue repairs on the house, but then one of our buddies calls up and offers free tickets to a Chicago Bears game that day – and we “punt” our previous words of commitment.
What have we learned then?
1. There is a way that God relents, regrets, repents, and says “sorry” and a way that he does not.
2. God foresees his own regret and sorrow as a result of his own actions and those feelings are valid and real without undermining his character or sovereignty.
3. He Relates to us as Persons. He “gets his hands dirty” along with us. Not that he sins with us but that he genuinely interacts with us. While his sovereignty assures us that his plans and purposes can never be threatened, his relating to us assures us that he treats us with integrity as persons. God does not relate to us as robots or machines but as real persons. God’s regretting is an expression of empathy that is fitting for the present circumstance. We stand in amazement and wonder that the God who needs no relationship apart from his eternal relationship with the Son and the Spirit has deemed it good and wise to design, create, enable, empower, pursue and even be affected by us for his glory and for our good.
God has not only chosen to affect his creation but he has chosen to be affected by it.
4. God will always be God. Though man attempts to make God in his own image He will never be anyone else than the multi-emotionally complex God that he is. God is capable of weeping and rejoicing at the same time for thousands of prayers. He is able to feel complete mercy and white-hot anger at the same time for tens of thousands of sinners. This gives us deep confidence that God will never fail in doing what is right and good, with perfect and appropriate feelings for all of our circumstances.
When God relents and regrets his own actions in your life, don’t quiver in fear that he has botched things up, but draw near to him for he saw not only his own actions in advance, but his emotional response of his actions as well. He genuinely grieves over what he has done while maintaining full control at all times to bring about something greater than if he had done nothing.