Finishing Without Regrets
A prominent doctor says most people die with three common regrets. Scripture tells us how to avoid that fate.
When the apostle Paul sat in a cold, dark Roman prison, he chose his final words carefully as he took inventory of his life, knowing it soon would end. He told Timothy, his son in the faith,
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Tim. 4:7–8).
Paul died secure in his faith, satisfied in his life, and devoid of regrets. But many people facing death have many regrets and express them freely before they pass away.
Dr. Simran Malhotra, a hospice and palliative care specialist, interacts with dying patients all the time and says death is a great teacher, providing lessons and perspective on life. In an interview published in Health Digest titled “What Most People Say Before They Die,” she cited three common regrets: (1) not spending enough time with loved ones, including years lost with a loved one due to a trivial disagreement, (2) spending too much time at work, and (3) lacking the courage to pursue one’s passions.1
Malhotra said these regrets taught her lessons that helped her “live a better life.” Though her framework is secular, her observations are insightful for believers in Jesus Christ.
The concept of death as a teacher is not new. King Solomon said it is “better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart” (Eccl. 7:2). So let’s take Solomon’s words to heart and examine these three common regrets by filtering them through Scripture.
Losing Time With Loved Ones
Life is short, no matter how many years we live. James 4:14 says, “You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”
Forgiving someone who has hurt you can certainly be challenging, but it’s a requirement in order to keep relationships healthy. God values relationships and desires to have one with us. And God, who is perfect, forgives us over and over: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy” (Ps. 103:8).
The apostle Paul wrote, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). How can we do any less than forgive?
Luke 15:11–32 tells the story of the prodigal son, a tale of family turmoil. The prodigal devastates his father by taking his inheritance early, leaving the family, sowing his wild oats, and wasting all his money. Penniless and alone, the son humbly returns home, hoping he can become his family’s employee.
Instead, his loving father forgives him. He welcomes him home and restores him to his previous standing. The son humbles himself and repents, resulting in a restored relationship.
However, not all live happily ever after. The older son who stayed home and worked with the father bears a grudge, feeling his younger brother doesn’t deserve his father’s lavish welcome. Though the older son may have reason to be jealous, he would have done better to “be kind . . . tenderhearted, forgiving . . . even as God in Christ forgave [him]” (Eph. 4:32).
Why lose precious time with our loved ones because we’re too proud or angry to forgive?
Working Too Much
We’ve heard it said, “You never see a moving van following a hearse.” Working is important because if you don’t work, you don’t eat (cf. 2 Th. 3:10). But working so much that it affects your health and family relationships can produce deep regret. “Work to live,” Dr. Malhotra said. “Don’t live to work.”
In Exodus 18:13–18, we find Moses, the CEO of Israel, so to speak, constantly at the office, neglecting himself and his family. His father-in-law, Jethro, noticed his long absences and told him, “The thing that you do is not good” (v. 17). He was right.
Long lines of people waited “morning until evening” (v. 13) for Moses to make important decisions for them. Jethro warned Moses he would wear himself out (v. 18). When work destabilizes your health and family, it’s a sign you’re working too much.
In part, God gave the Mosaic Law to Israel to prevent that problem. The Sabbath laws provide consistent, weekly physical rest and family time. God’s command to rest can be seen today when observant Jews turn off their phones and computers on Shabbat, keep their cars in the garage, rest their bodies, and spend time with God and their families.
Christians are not under the Mosaic Law (cf. Rom. 6:14), but the principle of appointing a regular time for physical rest and family bonding is a good one. Jesus said, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mk. 8:36).
Failing to Pursue Our Passions
Dr. Malhotra’s patients have taught her, “Follow your heart, pursue your passions, and don’t let others dictate how you should live your life.” A believer’s passion should be following Jesus Christ. To do that, we should obey Christ, who said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Mt. 6:33).
Jesus will give us abundant lives that satisfy our deepest longings if we seek Him first. Pursuing any passion other than Christ has left many believers with regrets because those passions become mere pleasures. John Bunyan, the Puritan preacher and author of the Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, spent considerable time thinking about how pleasures operate in our lives.
In one of his sermons, wrote Tony Reinke for desiringgod.org, Bunyan said, “‘Desires are hunting things.’ Stalking through cornfields in boots, camo overalls, and a blaze orange hat is a fitting metaphor for the restless heart in search of pleasures,” wrote Reinke. “Our hearts are hungry and our hearts hunt this world for something (or someone) to fill a void.”2
Without Christ, that void remains.
Final Words in Scripture
Long before hospice and palliative care existed, Scripture gave us the final words of people who died—words we should take to heart.
Samson, a judge in Israel before the days of the kings, regretted many of his actions. For the most part, he squandered his extraordinary physical strength and was captured by the Philistines, who gouged out his eyes, mocked him, and made him a slave.
But slowly his strength returned, and he pulled down a Philistine temple. His last words were to God: “Let me die with the Philistines!” (Jud. 16:30), indicating a repentant heart.
Stephen was a Jewish follower of Jesus who was martyred for his faith. His last words teach us what it means to have a forgiving spirit and a love for unsaved people. Immediately before he died, he said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:56).
As his tormentors dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death, he called on God: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (v. 59); and “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (v. 60). Then Stephen “fell asleep” in death (v. 60).
The thief on the cross teaches us that eternal life is for everyone who calls on the Lord Jesus for salvation: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Lk. 23:42).
Jesus replied, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” (v. 43).
Jesus had no regrets as He accomplished the work His Father had sent Him to do: “It is finished,” He said. “And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit” (Jn. 19:30). Those words and His sacrifice make it possible for you and me to become new creatures in Christ and to limit our regrets so that we can be like the apostle Paul and finish the race well.
- What Most People Say Before They Die, According to Top Palliative Doctor, Simran Malhotra,” healthdigest.org (tinyurl.com/simran-11).
- John Bunyan, cited in Tony Reinke, “What Your Passions Say About You,” desiringgod.org, August 31, 2013 (tinyurl.com/deesire1).