“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”
The context in which Paul was writing is that he has been correcting and rebuking wrong behaviours and actions in the Corinthian church. Although he was sorry to have hurt them, he rejoiced that his letter brought them godly sorrow. Godly sorrow is that which brings the repentance that leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:8–9). There are a couple of biblical examples we can read about in order to understand how Godly sorrow is different from worldly sorrow.
After David’s sin with Bathsheba, David confessed and repented before God. He wrote Psalm 32 and Psalm 51. David cries out “Against You, You only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight.” (51:4) And again, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” (51:17) We can see his heart and we can see that he was a broken man. In contrast, we read about the downfall of King Saul who disobeyed the Lord’s instructions in 1 Samuel 15 and Samuel uttered these words: “I have sinned” yet he wanted to be honoured in the sight of the elders. He wanted to avoid public embarrassment to save his reputation. He confessed his sin and yet remain selfish until the end. Saul’s sorrow was just for show and for his personal advantage or comfort whereas David’s sorrow was Godly sorrow because it was sorrow towards God, and cares about the offense to His holiness, and the impact of the sin upon others.
In the New Testament, we can compare the stories of Peter and Judas. Peter denied Jesus 3 times. Peter wept and repented whereas Judas betrayed Jesus and instead of repenting, took his own life. To repent means to change the mind of purpose and to restore a personal relationship with God. Peter repented but Judas only regretted. Feeling regret is not enough, you must go one step further. There needs to be inner transformation and not just outer appearance of regret. Worldly sorrow will not bring about spiritual change. Being sorrowful over things of this world means that they are not grieving over what their sin cost Jesus but grieving over what their sin cost to themselves. It could be that they are focusing on damage to their reputation or losing their friends. The primary focus in on self rather than focusing on God.
If we learn from the example of King Saul, saying “I am sorry” or “I have sinned” or feeling regret like Judas without any change in behavior is not enough. How is Godly sorrow different? Godly sorrow leads to repentance which is not just a change of mind but it must be accompanied by action. Godly sorrow means you turn to God, seek his forgiveness and commit it to God. The Bible says God will be faithful to those who confess our sins and forgive us and purify us from all unrighteousness. Through the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, we will experience a positive change in our lives. Letting go and being sorrowful of sin may be difficult for some. However, as believers we are called to a life of obedience and faithfulness to God so we can experience God’s joy, a joy that is worth more than anything this world could ever offer.
Father, forgive us where we have disobeyed you. Where we have willfully sin or tolerated sinful behavior, we know that it grieves you. Give us strength to repent and not be weighed down by regret. Change me and bring about a transformation in our lives because we want to live a life that is pleasing to you. Amen.