Godly Sorrow

Every one of us has been hurt by someone at one time. We have sadly also been the person who caused the hurt in another. It often happens without premeditation, even without malice, but it happens nonetheless.

When there is a rupture in a relationship (especially in our relationship with God) how do we restore that relationship? How do we rebuild what has been shattered? That’s the question we look at this morning from 2 Corinthians 7. In this passage Paul speaks about the hurt he experienced when he encountered hostility from the Corinthian church. He will explain to us what made the difference in restoring that relationship.

Please open your hearts to us. We have not done wrong to anyone, nor led anyone astray, nor taken advantage of anyone. I’m not saying this to condemn you. I said before that you are in our hearts, and we live or die together with you. I have the highest confidence in you, and I take great pride in you. You have greatly encouraged me and made me happy despite all our troubles. When we arrived in Macedonia, there was no rest for us. We faced conflict from every direction, with battles on the outside and fear on the inside. (2 Corinthians 7:2-5)

It is essential that we once again review the situation that led to the writing of this letter. Paul helped form the Corinthian Church. He entrusted the leadership of the church to faithful people and then continued to plant churches as God had directed him to do.

When Paul heard that there were problems in Corinth, he made an unscheduled visit. What he found broke his heart. We don’t know the specifics, but we do know this was a “painful visit”. Paul was under attack and he was accused of using the Corinthians and leading them astray. Paul was so upset (wouldn’t you be if someone attacked your character?) that he had to leave Corinth. He followed up his visit with a very strong or severe letter.

After sending the letter, Paul had second thoughts. He was concerned about how the letter would be received. He wondered if it would do more harm than good. When Titus had returned from visiting Corinth he brought the good news that the Corinthians had repented of (or changed) their attitude toward Paul. This prompted the writing of what we know as 2 Corinthians.

In this letter Paul continued to defend himself and his integrity. He told the church about his deep regard and love for them. All the conflict had taken its toll on the apostle. I think it is safe to say that Paul experienced a measure of depression because of the conflict he had experienced. But that is not where Paul remained.

But God, who encourages those who are discouraged, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus. His presence was a joy, but so was the news he brought of the encouragement he received from you. When he told us how much you long to see me, and how sorry you are for what happened, and how loyal you are to me, I was filled with joy!

I am not sorry that I sent that severe letter to you, though I was sorry at first, for I know it was painful to you for a little while. Now I am glad I sent it, not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way.

The word repent is an important word. When John the Baptist came preaching he said, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” In the verses that follow Paul explains what true repentance looks like.

10 For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.

11 Just see what this godly sorrow produced in you! Such earnestness, such concern to clear yourselves, such indignation, such alarm, such longing to see me, such zeal, and such a readiness to punish wrong. You showed that you have done everything necessary to make things right. 12 My purpose, then, was not to write about who did the wrong or who was wronged. I wrote to you so that in the sight of God you could see for yourselves how loyal you are to us. 13 We have been greatly encouraged by this. (2 Corinthians 7:6-13)

Two Kinds of Sorrow

Paul distinguished between two kinds of sorrow: Godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. Worldly sorrow is selfish. It is concerned about avoiding punishment. In theological terms it is called attrition. This is not so much sorrow for what you did; but a sorrow that you were caught!

This kind of sorrow is common with children. If you catch them doing something wrong they will say, “I’m sorry mommy, please don’t spank me.” You may express this kind of sorrow when a policeman pulls you over for speeding. Generally we are not really sorry that we are speeding . . . we are sorry that we got caught and are facing an expensive ticket. Such is worldly sorrow . . . it is focuses on sidestepping punishment.

Sadly, our repentance before God is often of this nature. We tell God we are sorry for something that we have done because we are afraid of the Judgment that we know we deserve. We try to avoid consequences rather than truly showing sorrow for our sin. This sounds like godly sorrow, but it is not.

Godly sorrow mourns the offense rather than the consequences of the offense. In other words, a child would be truly sorry that they broke the rules and showed disrespect to a parent. A driver would be truly sorry that they broke the law and possibly created a dangerous or unsafe situation. This kind of sorrow requires some kind of internal awakening that helps us to see beyond ourselves.

Do you remember the story of the Prodigal son from Luke 15? A man had two sons. The younger of the sons demanded to have his share of the Father’s estate (even though dad was still very much alive!). Dad gave it to him and he squandered it in fast living and pleasure seeking. He went from being rich and popular to being poor and alone. He finally had to take a job feeding pigs. He realized that even the pigs were actually eating better than he was. Then Jesus said, “He came to his senses”.  It was at this point that the young man realized what he had done and the offense he had committed against his father. That is the point when he returned home to beg for forgiveness from the Father he had taken for granted.

Before we can ever have true godly sorrow we have to recognize our sin as an offense against our Holy God. We have in a sense, bitten the hand that feeds us. We have committed an offense against the One who has loved us far more than we deserve. We have disappointed the One who believes in us. We have squandered the blessing that He has given.

Godly sorrow sees sin for what it is: something that is destructive both to our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. It is also destructive to us as people. Godly sorrow recognizes that this sin destroys life. It promises happiness but cannot and does not deliver.

If you have ever fallen for a “get rich quick” idea, or some telephone scam, you probably resolved to never be so gullible again. You decided you would be more careful. Godly sorrow mourns the fact that we have been so foolish as to have been taken in by the Devil’s scam. We resolve to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

What Is Biblical Repentance?

Verse 10 is a very important verse,

For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death

An important dimension to godly sorrow is repentance. The word repentance means a turning away; a change of direction. Think about it as an “about face”. Paul says sorrow without repentance will not lead to salvation. In other words, merely saying magic words cannot save you. God calls us to a genuine sorrow for sin that results in a desire to live differently.

We repent because we “feel” the sin in the depth of our being. It is something the Spirit of God must bring about inside of us. It is a conviction of sin that is devastating but necessary. We see the impact of our actions and choices, and it breaks us. You can’t get well until you clearly see what is wrong.

Repentance brings the attitude that says, “I never want to hurt somebody (and sometimes it is we ourselves who are hurt) like this again. Or I never want to dishonor my Lord in this way again”.

Gordon MacDonald writes,

You must come to a moment when you realize that deep in the innermost depths of your person is a foul, stinking mess called evil that defies rational description and is waiting to ambush the mind and twist the truth. . .you do not repent of just an act, but a condition.[1]

This doesn’t mean the person will not slip into old patterns on occasion, but . . . it means they are sincerely working to change those patterns. Repentance without a change in direction is superficial rather than genuine. John Ortberg gives a good example of what we mean.

Imagine an alcoholic going into an AA meeting and hearing, “We’re so glad you’re here! We want you to know that you are loved and forgiven through nothing you have done. Of course, don’t expect to change. Don’t expect to stop drinking. We don’t like it when people suggest sobriety is possible. We believe it breeds arrogance and self-sufficiency when people think in terms of actually not drinking. We have a little bumper sticker: ‘Twelve-steppers are not sober, just forgiven.’”[2]

If an AA group said something like this we would conclude that it was a complete waste of time! We all know that the goal of these groups is not to make excuses but to help someone gain victory over their alcohol addiction. A person who is truly sorry for their behavior looks for ways to change that behavior. That change is called repentance.

The Bible tells us “if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” (1 John 1:9)  When we truly “confess” our sin we agree with God’s evaluation of our choices and behavior. We recognize the offensive nature of that behavior to God, to us, and to those around us. True confession should contain a genuine desire to change. That is what God wants to help us do. He not only wants to expunge our record; He wants to cleanse us from all wickedness.

It is the difference between recognizing that you are sick and understanding what is making you ill and taking action to cure the illness. Merely making a diagnosis may help us understand what is happening to us, but becoming healthy again means taking action to address the problem.

Paul tells us that true repentance “leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow.” This kind of genuine repentance (or godly sorrow) is something positive.

True repentance involves not only a genuine confession and repentance to the Lord but also to those we have hurt by our actions. In other words there is a vertical and a horizontal direction to repentance. There should be a desire to “make things right” with all we have hurt.

This horizontal repentance might involve restitution (giving back what we took from someone else). Even though it does not erase the offense, it is a start toward opening the door to a restored relationship.

Let’s be honest, humbling ourselves and admitting our wrongdoing is humiliating. But humility is what is needed.

When admitting our wrong it is important to be very specific about what you did and the hurt you caused. (In other words, saying, “I’m sorry if I hurt you” doesn’t cut it! When you say something like this you are actually blaming the other person for being so ‘touchy’). Forgiveness is facilitated when the wronged person knows that the offender understands what they have done. We cannot control whether or not another person forgives us. However, we can open the door to the possibility.

In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was about the way all of you welcomed him and set his mind at ease. 14 I had told him how proud I was of you—and you didn’t disappoint me. I have always told you the truth, and now my boasting to Titus has also proved true! 15 Now he cares for you more than ever when he remembers the way all of you obeyed him and welcomed him with such fear and deep respect. 16 I am very happy now because I have complete confidence in you.

The Fruit of Reconciliation

Paul knew the repentance of the Corinthians was genuine by their actions. Titus was welcomed by the church. Paul says they obeyed Titus (they did what he suggested to them) and they welcomed him with fear and deep respect. Since Titus was Paul’s representative, the church was basically welcoming Paul himself.

Feelings of apprehension or depression gave way to joy. Paul now talks more like a new Grandparent! He bragged about how he had boasted to Titus about the church at Corinth and their response to him showed Titus how right Paul was.

These words of Paul teach something significant: relationships can be restored. The first relationship that can be restored is your relationship with God. The Lord asks that we admit our weakness and our sin. He asks us to turn to Him humbly and seek His forgiveness. When we do so, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we will be forgiven. Jesus has borne the punishment for our sin. He extends to us a grace that is deep and profound.

Have you ever done this? Is your sorrow for sin a godly sorrow or a superficial sorrow? Are you trying to escape consequences or are do you want a new relationship with God that changes the direction of your life? If you come to Him with godly sorrow and repentance the Holy Spirit will take up residence in your life and lead you in a new direction.

Our relationships with others can also be restored. God heals and changes hearts. When we are willing to truly confess our sin in sorrow, and show a genuine desire to turn from that behavior (by God’s grace and strength) reconciliation is possible. It is true that the hurt person must extend grace. The hurt cannot be erased, but it can be used as a foundation on which to build a stronger relationship.

I have had the privilege of seeing people who have come through horrible things in their relationships (marriage, parental, family and even community) who confess their sin and discover a restoration that actually made the relationship stronger and deeper. Most of us can forgive if we believe the other person understands and is sorry for the hurt they caused. We can forgive in this way because we know we need this kind of forgiveness; we depend on this kind of forgiveness from others.

There are many people here today carrying the baggage from hurts you have caused or received. You are weighted down. Some have been carrying this baggage for a very long time. God wants us to understand that we can stop running. We can stop struggling with the baggage. He longs to take it from us. We can stop hiding. We can stop making excuses. It is time to “come to our senses” and head home.

If you are being asked to forgive you may be uncertain of the sincerity of the one who is doing the asking. Such a response is understandable. It is OK to need time. However, my plea is this: leave room for God to show grace and mercy through you. As you have been forgiven by God, you can be used by Him to likewise forgive others.

God has called us to seek reconciliation. He invites us to experience and also to extend His grace. Those who simply walk away, short-circuit their growth. Those who do the hard work of listening, confessing, and repenting, will discover the joy of God’s transforming grace.

[1] H.B. London and Neil Wiseman Pastors at Risk (Victor Book: Scripture Press 1993) p. 81

[2] John Ortberg The Me I Want to Be (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2010) p. 165

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