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How can an all-knowing God experience regret?

One reader asked the question, “How can God both know everything and still experience regret?”

The reader who submitted this question is referring to a few circumstances in scripture where God regrets an action that he committed and how this emotion seems to be, on the surface, in direct contrast to the sovereignty of God and the all-knowing, omniscient nature of God.

There are two times in the Bible where God regretted something he had done in the past (Genesis 6:6–7; 1 Samuel 15:11). Beyond this, there are over a dozen where God says that he might regret something he was about to do in the future (Exodus 32:12–14; 2 Samuel 24:16; 1 Chronicles 21:15; Psalms 106:45; Jeremiah 4:28; 18:8; 26:3, 13, 19; 42:10; Joel 2:13–14; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:9–10; 4:2).

To further complicate matters, in 1 Samuel 15:11, God says, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” Just a few verses later, however, when God tells Saul about his frustration through the prophet Samuel we read: And Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret (1 Samuel 15:28-29).” So which is it? Does God experience regret or not?

Well, there is a sense in which he does both. In verse 11, God does feel the sorrow of regret over what Saul has become, but in verse 29, he does not regret as in he wasn’t caught off guard and surprised. The point is that God still would have made Saul king, knowing full well that he would be regretful of Saul’s actions. Saul’s actions would not undermine his divinity, his sovereignty, nor his omniscience, but God can still feel regret about it.

Don’t believe me? You do the same thing. If you are a parent, you know all too well this exact tension. When your child does something wrong, you punish them. When they are young, this might be a spanking or a timeout. As they age, it might be removing a privilege which they are desperately excited about - a sleepover at a friend’s house, the school dance, or whatever else it might be. When you, as a parent, discipline your child because it is the right thing to do and your son or daughter is devastated by the punishment, you naturally feel regret even though you KNOW it is the right thing to do.

The other day, my three year old nephew ran out of my front door into our street without telling anyone. The thing is my street is not the kind of street in which you can play. Cars often whip down it way too fast. When we accidentally realized what happened, I raised my voice and very strongly told him to come inside immediately. He was visibly startled by my voice. I felt bad for him, taking him onto my lap and trying to let him know I wasn’t mad at him, but that he needed to not do that again for his own safety.

Did I feel regret that he was scared by my voice? Absolutely. Would I do the same thing again in hindsight? Yes! If I, as a human, can have such complexity in my emotions, why should I think that God cannot also have even more (perhaps infinitely more) complexity in his?

Perhaps the strongest example of this in the Bible is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the death of the Son of God. Did God the Father regret seeing Jesus beaten, spat upon, whipped, rejected by his own people and pierced? You better believe it. It broke his heart. Would God have done it again? Yes - it was his plan all along.

God, in his sovereignty, predestined that the crucifixion would be used to mend our broken world. God, in his omniscience, knew that the people of God would reject Jesus and, rather than crowning him king, would crown him with thorns as a rebel. Did it break his heart and cause him emotions of sorrow and pain? Yes, but this is not because he didn’t see it coming or had no control over the events of the day. Rather, God experienced these emotions because he is an emotive God.

God can, indeed, know all, be in control of all and still experience regret. When all's said and done - to me - this reality doesn’t make him a walking contradiction. On the contrary, it makes him even more wonderful than I had previously thought. I will rejoice that my God is an emotive God and not a stone-cold, heartless deity.