Godly and Worldly Sorrow

In Sweet Relationships, I mentioned godly sorrow versus worldly sorrow. Recently, I had a mom request that I write a Mom’s Corner with more information on the difference between the two. Here are the verses from which I get the terms “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow”:

“For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).

Difference Between Godly and Worldly Sorrow

In context, I think that godly sorrow here is talking about sorrow for our sin and the state of our lives before salvation. That sorrow leads to the repentance that is necessary for a relationship with Jesus Christ. However, as I would read this section of Scripture during my years of depression, I could see that those terms related to the sorrow that I was dealing with in my life.

When I failed—perhaps I was angry with the children, for instance—I would feel sorry, intensely sorry. My sorrow, though, wasn’t godly sorrow but rather worldly sorrow. My sorrow focused on myself, my inability to be patient, and my continual failures. I had a pity party for myself through my sorrowing—“poor me” was at the center of my thoughts. Sometimes I would cry and cry over my failure. That type of sorrow was certainly leading me further into depression.

As I cried out to the Lord for help, He began showing me the difference between my worldly sorrow and what godly sorrow would be. The focus of godly sorrow is those who have been hurt or offended by the action—the Lord and the other person—not the offender. My thoughts needed to turn from “poor me” to the actual sin and the ones I was wronging through that sin. My emotion should have been for them rather than for myself.

Through those insights, the Lord showed me how to move from worldly sorrow to godly sorrow. He also gave me a specific verse to facilitate this change. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). For me, godly sorrow meant that I would confess my sin not only to God but also to the one I had sinned against, usually my husband or children. I would ask for their forgiveness.

I am not perfect in having godly sorrow instead of worldly sorrow, but that change was instrumental in pulling me from depression and in keeping me from it. Godly sorrow is my desire now, and when I realize that I am wallowing in worldly sorrow, I know the path out of it.

Distinct Markers Between Godly and Worldly Sorrow

In the years since the Lord showed me the difference between worldly sorrow and godly sorrow for my own life, I have observed some additional contrasts. Often, worldly sorrow uses the words, “I am sorry.” There is no real response to that statement. On the other hand, godly sorrow uses the words, “Please forgive me.” That statement gives the other person the opportunity to forgive, which would be a biblically-correct emotional release for both parties.

Worldly sorrow generally makes excuses for the action, such as: “I was tired. I didn’t feel good. I wasn’t thinking straight. I can’t handle so much going on at once.” That seems to indicate it wasn’t really the fault of the person who did wrong. Sometimes those excuses can almost put the blame on the one who was wronged, implying that in some way they actually caused the other person’s negative words or actions. Godly sorrow takes the blame. When I have godly sorrow, I say I was wrong and ask for forgiveness without justification.

Worldly sorrow seems to exist in a realm of pride, whereas godly sorrow appears to be wrapped in humility. Because of the excuses and focus on self, my worldly sorrow was the epitome of pride. It was there because I couldn’t handle or face my failures. The repentance involved in godly sorrow is a key factor in humility. 1 Peter 5:5-6 tells us to “ . . . be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God . . .”

Another difference between godly sorrow that is rooted in humility and worldly sorrow that is likely rooted in pride is that worldly sorrow does not want the offense brought up once it has passed and been worked through. The humility of godly sorrow allows it to be spoken of in the future, and the offender once again expresses his sadness to the offended over the situation.

An extreme example of this is marital unfaithfulness, but it can apply to lesser offenses as well. The situations that have been shared with us have involved a husband being unfaithful. In the aftermath of that, as the couple tries to rebuild their lives together, worldly sorrow reacts to any boundaries that a wife may desire. For example, the husband will be unhappy if his wife wants to know where he is going alone or asks to have protection on the Internet. The man who lives in godly sorrow welcomes accountability and uses it to affirm his commitment to the marriage and love for his wife.

I have walked in both worldly and godly sorrow. Worldly sorrow only brought greater despair to my life, whereas godly sorrow led me to peace and freedom. I pray that each of you may experience the victory of godly sorrow rather than the condemnation of worldly sorrow.