“Godly sorrow brings repentance that
Have you ever felt true regret for something because you saw the full picture—not simply because of its impact on you? As humans, we tend to see the world largely in its relation to us. Many times, we can be self-centered, self-absorbed, and self-directed.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to turn our perspective outward, to focus less on the self and instead on God and on other people. Indeed, as Jesus taught, the greatest commandments are to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). We are to put self last, not first, in all areas of our lives. This applies to basic human needs, such as food, shelter, and medicine, but also to the bigger, eternal needs, such as compassion, mercy, empathy, sorrow, and grace.
But knowing this and doing this are sometimes at odds. In his writings to the early church in Corinth, the apostle Paul delivered harsh truths and important wisdom about what it truly meant to live as a Christ-follower, and he acknowledged later that these truths might have hurt some people’s feelings. But, Paul said, he ultimately was glad they felt distress, for it brought them to a place of spiritual healing and health—a place of repentance.
Godly sorrow is a good thing, Paul indicated, something to be desired and cultivated, not something to avoid. What is godly sorrow? What does it mean to have the godly sorrow mentioned by Paul in 2 Corinthians 7:10?
What Does Paul Mean by ‘Godly Sorrow’ in 2 Corinthians?
Paul said he did not regret causing the Corinthians sorrow. While at first, he felt bad about the pain they felt, later he became happy, “Because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us” (2 Corinthians 7:9).
The original Greek here for godly sorrow is theon lypē, according to Strong’s Greek Concordance, which means “God’s grief” or the grief, pain, sorrow, or affliction of God—that is, the sorrow belonging to, exhibited by, and felt by God Himself. We know God is good, faultless, holy, and right. Therefore, the sort of sorrow God feels is perfect sorrow, a sorrow that encompasses all elements and aspects of the situation. It is a sorrow fully in line with His plan and His way. Indeed, Paul went on to say, the godly sorrow these people experienced brought repentance and, therefore, salvation.
“See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done,” Paul wrote. “At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. So even though I wrote to you, it was neither on account of the one who did the wrong nor on account of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are. By all this we are encouraged” (2 Corinthians 7:11-13).
The Message Bible interprets this godly sorrow as “distress that drives us to God,” steering us back on the right track so we can stay in alignment with God’s will and glory.
What’s the Difference between Godly Sorrow and Worldly Sorrow?
But Paul notes there is another kind of sorrow, one that does not bring about repentance and salvation but, instead, brings death. That sorrow is called worldly sorrow. If godly sorrow is perfect sorrow, the kind of righteous and holy sorrow God feels, then worldly sorrow is imperfect, fleeting—of the world. The Greek word translated as “worldly” is kosmou, or its root, kosmos, which Strong’s Greek Concordance defines as order, the world, or having to do with worldly affairs.
Paul and other apostles make a distinction between this world and God’s Kingdom. While Genesis tells us God created this world and loves all its inhabitants, He allows the world itself to run on its own accord, and we receive free will to choose how we wish to live and who we wish to follow. The world is what we leave behind when we become Christians.
As it says in Isaiah 55:6-9, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”
And 1 John 2:15-16 urges followers of Christ, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.”
The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible (2019 Zondervan) notes there are two ways to react to pain or sorrow—with godly sorrow or with worldly sorrow: “Sorrow borne God’s way (‘godly sorrow’…) always produces a change of heart, and this repentance ‘leads to salvation’ (both present spiritual vitality and future eternal life) and therefore gives no cause for regret,” the study Bible indicates. But worldly sorrow “does not lead to repentance but has the deadly effect of producing resentment or bitterness.”
The experiencing of the sorrow is not as important here as how we react—do we react in a way that brings spiritual benefit or causes serious harm? In essence, the sorrow of God is pure and true, while worldly sorrow is more about the impact on us—for instance: I’m sorry I did that because I’ll now get caught, be punished, lose privileges, etc., or I’m sorry this happened because this will hurt me, cause me embarrassment or loss, etc. It is self-centered sorrow, not God-aligned.
What Does Godly Sorrow Produce in Christians?
Paul tells us exactly what godly sorrow produces in Christians: repentance. Repentance is the turning away from the world and toward God—it’s the leaving or dying of the old and the birth of the new. It is full surrender to God. The summation of Jesus’s earthly ministry comes in Mark 1:15 when Jesus spreads the Good News of God telling all to “repent and believe.” And in Acts 3:19-20, Peter urges all, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus.”
Repentance is a personal, private act between oneself and God, but when one truly has godly sorrow, Paul says we exhibit earnestness, indignation, alarm, longing, concern, readiness to see justice done. This is likely the sort of reaction Jesus is speaking of in Luke 3:8 when He tells people to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” That fruit is genuinely feeling sadness when wrong is done because we know the wrong has ultimately wounded God. Sin isn’t just a “wrong thing,” after all. Sin is an attack on God. It’s also committing ourselves to do good from now on, to love others, to set things right, and to live in a way that points to God, not matters of the flesh.
No one is perfect, but following Jesus means striving to like our lives like Him, who pointed always to the Father. Godly sorrow means truly desiring within us to change our hearts and lives, to repent and live anew. It’s sharing in God’s pain as we seek the Kingdom and reject the world. Think about it: Have you experienced godly sorrow? What might this look like in your life?