Many of us are painfully familiar with the sorrow that follows sinful acts. Whenever the cheap thrill of a transgression wears off, our souls swell with regret, frustration, and maybe even despair. But this is a good response, isn’t it? Only regenerate hearts respond negatively to sin, right?
Our grief certainly can be evidence that the Spirit has given us a new heart—if it is the right kind of grief.
The apostle Paul wrote:
“ . . . 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. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” – 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 (emphasis mine)
There are two very different kinds of grief we might feel in response to sin: godly and worldly. The former works for our spiritual benefit. Godly sorrow produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret! The latter, though, is spiritually fatal. Worldly sorrow may appear on the surface like an appropriate and righteous response to sin. However, it doesn’t fan faith into flame and produce repentance that leads to salvation. It smothers faith and produces hopelessness and powerlessness that leads to death.
So how do we figure out which kind of grief we are experiencing? I think it’s pretty simple: we must determine why our has sin has made us sorrowful. What are we really grieving?
The chief concern of godly sorrow is God. The person who mourns sin rightly is the person who grieves over the way sin dishonors God and the way it fractures his or her fellowship with him. For example, let’s say a woman has been having an adulterous affair for a number of years but has recently decided to end the affair and confess to her husband and pastor. Though she is definitely sorrowful over the embarrassment this sin will bring on her and her family, her relationship with the Lord is what concerns her most. She hates that she has offended the One who loves her and delights to satisfy her with every good thing. She hates that she has fractured her fellowship with God. More than anything else, she longs to enjoy unhindered fellowship with him again. And this longing is what has driven her to confess her sin and put an end to it. Whatever the temporary consequences of her adultery might be—and they could be severe—she knows she can face them with the forgiving Christ by her side. This woman has experienced godly sorrow that produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret!
On the other hand, the chief concern of worldly sorrow is self. The person who mourns over sin wrongly is the person who grieves solely over the temporary consequences of sin. For example, let’s say a man who professes to be a Christian is caught in adultery. How his sin has affected his relationship with God does not concern him nearly as much as how it is going to impact his earthly relationships. He grieves over the tremendous embarrassment he has brought upon himself. He laments his soiled reputation. He can live with God’s displeasure toward him, but he can’t bear for others to see him for the man he really is! Swallowed up by his despair, he decides to quit his job, divorce his wife, and move across the country to start a new life. This man has experienced worldly grief over sin. His sorrow will never produce repentance that leads to salvation but only debilitating hopelessness that will lead to spiritual death—unless God intervenes.
And the good news is that God often intervenes! I speak from personal experience. There was a time in my Christian journey that I lost sight of God and was concerned only for my personal happiness. I hated the sins that were running rampant in my life—but only because of their adverse effects on my emotional state. I despised the dark and heavy feelings of guilt and shame that always followed a sinful act. I wasn’t so much concerned about loving and pleasing God as I was about just being happy (with or without Jesus!). I wallowed for a while in my worldly sorrow and made absolutely no progress toward real repentance. But God, in his great mercy, eventually revealed to me the ungodly nature of my grief. He gave me strength to pull my eyes away from myself and fix them again on him. And as I set my eyes on him (by reading and meditating on his Word), I began to feel great remorse and disgust over my sin because of the way it dishonored God and interrupted my fellowship with him. This godly sorrow produced exactly what Paul said it would: repentance that leads to salvation without regret!
If today you find yourself experiencing worldly, self-centered grief over your sin, I plead with you to open the Word of God, look in Christ’s direction, and pray that the Holy Spirit would give you the invaluable, life-producing gift of godly grief. And don’t stop looking and asking until he gives it!