There is a sorrow that God wants you to experience, because the sorrow that is according to the will of God “produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation” (2 Cor 7:10). Paul is teaching the Corinthians that an essential component of true repentance is genuine sorrow over having grieved God and belittled His holiness.
I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter.
2 Cor. 7:9-11
The world today wants nothing to do with sorrow. It drowns out its sorrow with busyness, music, therapists, and even medication. If it makes me sad, it must be bad! is a maxim to which we seem to adhere by default. But sorrow can be beneficial; it is not always a bad thing. Paul writes to the Corinthians that, though he did initially, he does not regret having caused them sorrow (2 Cor 7:8) because they were made sorrowful to the point of repentance, according to the will of God (2 Cor 7:9).
This verse makes clear that there is a kind of sorrow that is according to the will of God. There is a sorrow that God wants you to experience, because the sorrow that is according to the will of God “produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation” (2 Cor 7:10). Paul is teaching the Corinthians that an essential component of true repentance is genuine sorrow over having grieved God and belittled His holiness.
One of the most common definitions of repentance is a change of mind. That is the literal, etymological definition of the Greek word for repentance: meta—change; noeo — to think. But some take that to mean that repentance is nothing more than an intellectual alteration, an acknowledgement that you have sinned, and a commitment to think differently about it from now on. But the mind that is changed in repentance refers to the inner consciousness of the whole person. In the Bible, the mind and the heart are often used interchangeably.
So repentance begins with an intellectual recognition and confession of sin, but it does not end there. There is also a “change of heart”—an emotional component in which the genuine believer mourns over having sinned against the God whom he loves. That is why in the classic psalm of repentance, Psalm 51, David says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
The person who is truly repentant is not unmoved by his sin, as if it was just no big deal. “Oh, I broke the law of God again. Sorry God! So glad you’re so gracious!” No! If you are truly repentant, you apprehend the offense your sin is to God—a God so good as to deliver His only begotten Son to death in your place, a God so patient with you despite the fact that, even after He has saved you, you sin against Him still. When you understand that you have sinned against that glorious God, the only proper response is sorrow—to have a broken spirit and a contrite heart.
It is that broken spirit and contrite heart that motivates you to change course and return to God in faithfulness. John Calvin writes, “This is carefully to be observed, for unless the sinner be dissatisfied with himself, detest his manner of life, and be thoroughly grieved from an apprehension of sin, he will never betake himself to the Lord” (274). One Puritan famously said, “’Til sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.”
Genuine repentance is a matter of the heart. This is why Jesus pronounces a blessing upon those who mourn over their sin: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4). Because it is only those who feel the shame of their sin—who feel the offense it is to the holiness of God and mourn over it—that turn from it in genuine repentance, and seek forgiveness by the grace of God, and are comforted by the God who does not despise a broken spirit and a contrite heart.
Sorrow, friends, can be beneficial.
But sorrow is not always beneficial. While those who are genuinely repentant will experience sorrow over their sin, sorrow itself is not repentance. There is a kind of sorrow over sin that does not produce repentance, and therefore does not lead to salvation.
Paul identifies this kind of sorrow as “the sorrow of the world [which] produces death” (2 Cor 7:10b).
The chief characteristic of worldly sorrow is that it is fundamentally self-centered. Worldly sorrow revolves around the pain sin causes to oneself rather than the offense and dishonor it is to God. Listen to the words of Philip Hughes in describing worldly sorrow: “It is not sorrow because of the heinousness of sin as rebellion against God, but sorrow because of the painful and unwelcome consequences of sin. Self is its central point” (273).