“For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season. Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death (2Co 7:8-10).”
Paul, in his previous letter to the church at Corinth, strongly rebuked them for their tolerance of sin. There were divisions in the church caused by partisanship. They had dishonoured the Lord by their frivolous attitude toward the Lord’s Supper. Worst, they had even boasted of the sin of a brother living in open immorality.
All these demanded reproof and rebuke from the apostle. Ungodliness must not be allowed to fester and grow in the church through condoning or reluctance to address hard issues. Church integrity and discipline must be upheld.
However, to the apostle’s joy and comfort, the Corinthian saints responded positively to his letter. There was the possibility that they might react in anger and defensiveness and lash out at him but they did not do that.
They were grieved at having their sins pointed out. No one enjoys being told where they had done wrong. It can be embarrassing and hurtful. But we learn from the Scriptures that there is a right response to that.
Paul said, “Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance.” Their grief led them to examine themselves and realise where they had come short. Having become aware of their sins, they determined to change and turn back to the Lord.
The apostle said, “…ye were made sorry after a godly manner.” This is the right response when we are made aware of our sins. Paul called this response ‘godly sorrow’. “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation.”
The opposite of that is worldly sorrow. Such a person is embarrassed for having been called out and exposed, but he is not genuinely sorry for what he has done. Perhaps his conscience tells him he is indeed wrong, but he justifies his behaviour with excuses.
“I’m not the only one! Others do it too!” “What’s the big deal? It’s not as if I actually hurt anybody badly!” “Fine, I know I shouldn’t have done it. But nobody’s perfect, right?”
Also likely, this person, stung at having his error pointed out, reacts in anger and attacks the ones who showed him his sin. He might spread malicious lies about them, or he might criticise them behind their backs where they aren’t given a fair chance to answer his accusations. But when invited to discuss issues face to face, he dodges and evades.
He might influence others to his side and form a band to join him in his vindictive reactions. The ‘sorrow of the world’ is not genuine, heartfelt sorrow for coming short of the gospel standard, but a loss of face or hurt ego lashing out at others.
Paul said, “…the sorrow of the world worketh death.” Do note the vast, unbridgeable difference between these two responses. One leads to repentance unto salvation, the other leads to death.
We find in the Psalms many expressions of godly sorrow. One psalmist cried, “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand (Psa 130:1-3)?”
Another psalmist wrote, “Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps. Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves (Psa 88:6-7).”
These men exercised godly sorrow. They were aware of their sins, they realised they had actually sinned against the Lord and it evoked in them a sense of grief at having disobeyed their God to whom they owed everything.
Do we sorrow like this when we sinned? Or do we react in hurtful pride, which is the sorrow of the world? Do we realise we have actually sinned against the Lord first and foremost? “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight (Psa 51:4).”
“For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of.” Let us observe further the godly response of the psalmist.
“But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning (Psa 130:4-6).”
The psalmist did not wallow in self-pity and lose all hope. Rather, he turned to Jehovah in faith, trusting in His mercy and readiness to forgive. His focus was on the God who is mighty to save. A major key we must learn is humility.
What stops so many from exercising godly sorrow is often nothing more than ugly, self-seeking, conceited pride. Such pride tells one that he has done no wrong, that he is justified in his conduct, or that he isn’t bad enough so to provoke the Lord to wrath.
This is adding sin to sin. Let us learn from the Corinthians and psalmists who sorrowed to repentance and were made sorry after a godly manner. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.