Godly vs. Worldly Sorrow
II Corinthians 7:8-10 For even if I [Paul] made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it. For I perceive that the same epistle made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.
Psalm 51:1-4a Have mercy upon me, O God…. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight….
Paul had sent an earlier letter to the church at Corinth, one that caused some pain and, happily, repentance. Here he says that while he is sorry in one sense for the pain involved, he is not unhappy about it, for it led to a godly sorrow.
What is godly sorrow? It’s more than a feeling, as we all “feel” bad when we’ve been rebuked, or a sin is exposed, or when we realize we’ve made a mess. But that’s worldly sorrow. Worldly sorrow occurs when we regret the effect that our sin has on us. Perhaps some things don’t work out because of something bad that we’ve done. We’ve been embarrassed, or inconvenienced. There is regret, but it’s primarily because of the effect on us.
If we are genuinely sorry because we have hurt others, that’s better, and is a kind of combination of godly and worldly sorry. Certainly it’s better than the self-centeredness of worldly sorrow; being aware of our actions’ effects on others is a sign of maturity. But it’s not yet the kind of sorrow that brings true repentance and heartfelt change.
True godly sorrow has God at its center. It’s aware of the impact of our sin on ourselves, but is much more focused on the negative effect it’s had on others, and even more, on how it has hurt God. This produces real repentance, because the ultimate root of sin is rebellion against God.
Perhaps the greatest example of godly sorrow we find in Scripture is King David’s. After murder and adultery, David is cut to the quick by a word from the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 12:7), and finally pours out his heart in Psalm 51. His awareness of God—and of his violation of God’s laws—is so acute that he sees that all his sins have ultimately been against the Lord, even those that involve others.
This kind of repentance is probably the most painful, yet it’s the only one that leads to cleansing. Once godly sorrow is in the heart, there is nowhere to go but to the Lord. He’s the one we realize we’ve most hurt by our sin, and yet He’s the only One that can provide forgiveness and freedom.
Prayer: Father, move me past worldly sorrow when I sin. Help me to be sensitive to the effect of my sin on others, but most sensitive to when I hurt You. I give You permission to go deep in my heart to produce the kind of “repentance that leads to salvation, not to be regretted.”