Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
2 Corinthians 7.10
The ability to distinguish great preaching from routine sermonizing is a knack you acquire being reared in a pastor’s home. You learn to look for signs indicating the strength of what the preacher’s about to deliver much like a poker player watches for “tells” indicating whether his/her opponents are betting or bluffing. When a guest preacher at my parents’ church began by following the sermon’s subject with its definition, my brother and I slunk into our seats in anticipation of being bored silly. So I start today’s post in the same manner with wincing reluctance. Yet grasping the truth in 2 Corinthians 7.10 requires us to remember “sorrow” has two vastly different, if closely related, meanings.
The Random House Dictionary defines it as: 1) distress caused by loss, affliction, disappointment, etc., and 2) a cause or occasion of grief or regret. Paul’s use of modifiers (“godly” and “worldly”) explicitly tells us he’s writing about two sorrows here. But which is which? Obviously, godly sorrow is better; it “leads to salvation and leaves no regret,” whereas worldly sorrow “brings death.” Indeed, Paul’s comparative usage of a single word to explain two conditions urges us to embrace the first kind of sorrow to escape the second. In emotional terms, though, both sorrows are basically the same, a feeling of sadness and remorse. How then do we know when sorrow is good and not bad? Here the dictionary becomes a friend, since Paul isn’t discussing sorrow as an emotional response but the thing itself.
Where, Not What
What causes sorrow? Random House ends its list of contributing factors with “etc.,” which we can lump together as mistakes and misfortunes. Thus, it’s fair to assume godly and worldly sorrows spring from similarly, sometimes identically, regrettable circumstances. Yet Paul’s take is radically astute. He’s less concerned with what leads to sorrow than where it leads. And he implies we decide if our sorrow will be godly or worldly, if it will lead to salvation or death. Type I sorrow—distress caused by mistakes and misfortunes—is the lethal, worldly strain. It feeds a victim mentality that produces self-pity and apathy. Either we adopt a woe-is-me attitude or we resign ourselves to accept our sad fate without question. We neither admit to past failures that generate sadness nor do we change how we think and act to avoid future sorrow. On the other hand, Type II godly sorrow is an occasion of grief and regret. It’s the moment we repent from old attitudes and behaviors that created sorrow for us to pursue healthier lives. It leads to salvation and leaves regret behind.
Salvation only comes with true repentance—abject sorrow for all we’ve lost and suffered because of our sin. This is more than telling God we’re sorry we’ve displeased Him. It’s realizing our need to change and trusting His grace to help us overcome thoughts and desires that foster sin. In 1 Chronicles 7.14, God lays out a multi-step protocol for repentance: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin.” If we pair this with Paul’s advocacy of godly sorrow, we see repentance begins by humbling ourselves to admit our errors. Regretting wrongs we’ve committed against God, our neighbors, and us kindles urgency to seek His forgiveness, which He readily offers. 1 John 1.9 promises, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” What John glides over, however, is God’s expectation that we’ll truly repent—that we’ll turn from our sinful ways.
Forgiveness for sin remains open and available for every time we fall short. Yet we can’t misconstrue this as a license to ill. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace my increase?” Paul asks in Romans 6.1, answering, “By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Godly sorrow kills our desire to sin. Worldly sorrow, on the other hand, lives with the distress sin causes. It allows regret to linger, slowing leeching the love, faith, and hope that make life worth living. It leads to death. Godly sorrow works entirely to the opposite. It’s initiated by profound regret, yet it moves us away from regrettable errors, leading us toward salvation and ultimately leaving us with no regret. It draws our focus from past mistakes to see a future bright with hope. In the end, it makes us glad.
Regret for wrongdoing brings true repentance--turning away from sin--that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.
(Tomorrow: Deadly Lies)