Godly grief

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor 7:10)

Two kings

Not too long ago, under the bright glare of television lights, we witnessed a sporting king weep tears of grief. He wept for the premature end to his career—not because of injury, but because of his own foolish behaviour. He mumbled apologies to his team mates and his family before beating a hasty and humiliating retreat. A few days later, the newspapers and TV broadcasts released the details of the infidelity of Wayne Carey, the now infamous captain of the Australian Rules team, the Kangaroos. He was guilty of adultery with the wife of his vice captain and best friend. He was sorry because he was left with no choice—sorry because the consequences of his sin were costly. He had to resign his captaincy and leave his team in disgrace. Not least of all, he had put in jeopardy his relationship with his new bride. His stolen moments may lead to a lifelong regret.

3,000 years ago, there was another king who wept tears of sorrow. By his own judgement, he was a man deserving death. He was guilty of stealing the only wife of his faithful servant when he had many wives of his own. And if that was not bad enough, he then murdered her husband to cover his adultery. This time I refer to David, King of Israel. The consequences of King David’s sin were costly too—the death of a son and a dynasty at war with itself.

Two kings, both caught in adultery; both wept tears of grief. Is there anything to differentiate their responses to what they did? We turn to the letter of 2 Corinthians to find an answer.

Joy in sorrow

2 Corinthians 7 speaks of a sorrow that leads to repentance, which Paul describes as “godly grief”:

For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that the letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us (vv. 8-9)

Paul reminds the Corinthians about another letter he had written them in which he had rebuked them for sin—the details of which we do not know. How did they respond? They were hurt by Paul’s rebuke—and Paul rejoiced! He isn’t being sadistic; rather, he is happy about what their sorrow produced.

I am reminded of taking my twin daughters for their vaccinations. When I take them, I’m happy about it, but if you see me on the day, you might not think so. I hate holding them down while they get jabbed—in fact, I hate it so much, I usually let my husband do it. And I dread all the crankiness that is part of the immediate after-effects. And I really feel bad for their pain; I usually wince in sympathy when the needle goes in. But I’m happy about what the injections produce; now the girls won’t get whooping cough or mumps or measles.

Paul is not happy about the Corinthians’ sorrow in itself; he’s happy that it produced repentance—the Bible’s word for ‘change’. The Corinthians were not only remorseful over their sin, they took steps to reject it. Verses 6-7 tell us that Titus brought Paul news of the Corinthians’ change of heart, and Paul is thrilled at the results of their change:

For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! (v. 11a)

In fact, such is their effort to make amends that Paul declares them innocent (v. 11b). They are experiencing the benefits of ‘godly grief’.

Two kinds of grief

Verse 10 showed us the two kinds of sorrow at work in people, and the different outcomes of these sorrows:

1. Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret …

What images come to your mind when you think of godly sorrow? Do you imagine a woman alone by her bed, weeping silently as she confesses her sins, or a man breaking down after years of resistance? What do you think godly sorrow looks like?

It may be slightly surprising to discover that it is not primarily emotional, but practical. Tears and breakdowns may (or may not) be part of the picture. The fruit of godly sorrow is godly change. It’s the kind of practical response that Zacchaeus made. In fact, he is a model of godly repentance. When that chief of tax collectors repented, having won his vast wealth through extortion, he gave half of his possessions to the poor. And to those whom he’d cheated, he repaid four times. Can you imagine seeing a response like that in today’s corporate or government worlds?

The Bible tells us that, ultimately, repentance leads to salvation. What gives repentance this power? It is the death of Christ, who became sin for us. Earlier in 2 Corinthians, Paul had written: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). God dealt with the spiritual consequences of sin eternally in Christ; when we turn away from sin, there is no judgement left on us because Christ has already paid that price.

Furthermore, sin need not leave a residue. There need be no regrets. Stewing over our past shouldn’t consume our days. Once we’ve repented, godly sorrow has served its purpose. Of course, it doesn’t mean we no longer regret the wrong things we’ve done or that we are somehow happy about our past mistakes. And it doesn’t mean that we won’t have to wear some of the dirt.

But there is, as the psychologists say, closure. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.

2. … whereas worldly grief produces death.

Godly sorrow is, in fact, opposite to worldly sorrow. This kind of grief is still grief—it is genuine, heartfelt, distress. It is real regret. However, that is where it stops. Worldly grief doesn’t cause us to turn back to God. It is built on self-pity; it is consumed with us rather than with God. Therefore, worldly sorrow ultimately ends in spiritual death; you pay the price for your own sins.

Without repentance, disobedience to God will eventually become the norm. We will become immune to the pain of godly sorrow; it will have a decreasing effect on us and then no effect. And it will eventually lead us to spiritual death.

Questions to ask yourself

Godly and worldly sorrow can look very much alike, but they lead to very different outcomes—in fact, one leads to life and the other to death.

How do you tell them apart? The Bible tells us that godly sorrow produces repentance. King David’s sorrow led him to repent; where Wayne Carey’s sorrow will end is yet to be seen.

But what about us? We need to ask ourselves three questions.

1. Do you care about sin?

Remember, tears are not the mark of godly sorrow. When it comes to crying, we are all on a spectrum. Some are instant weepers, moved by anything and everything; others find it almost impossible to cry. It is not the volume of our tears that will mark our sorrow, but whether or not we care that we have not lived the way God desires us to. Do you care about your sin?

2. Is your sorrow godly or worldly?

In other words, has it led you to repent? How do you feel when you tell a lie? Or, more tellingly, what do you do about it? I have to admit that I easily feel sorry about it. And I would also pretty easily whisk off a quick prayer to God, saying I was sorry. But the test of my response is what I do next. Do I then tell the truth to the person I lied to (no matter how humiliating that is)? Or do I continue to lie?

Godly sorrow leads to repentance. Is your sorrow godly?

3. Do we accept God’s forgiveness?

Many of us waste time and energy clinging to our guilt and remorse, instead of making the changes that God requires of us. Do you wallow in your feelings of shame, or do you turn to God and away from all that is wrong?

Do you accept God’s forgiveness?

Let us pray for ourselves and each other that we will be led away from death and into repentance. Let us pray for the strength to have godly sorrow.

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