Godly Sorrow

Are there different kinds of sorrow? The Bible clearly explains there are. In fact, a vital part of repentance is learning to come to the right kind of sorrow.

The Bible tells us it is important that we understand the right kind of sorrow, which leads to heartfelt repentance and change.

Most of us would say, “I’m sorry,” to a person we accidentally bumped into at the store. Most of us would show sorrow when we hear that a close friend has lost a loved one, and we would really feel for that person. In both cases, being sorry can truly be from the heart. But, even so, is this the kind of sorrow God is looking for when it comes to repentance?

King Solomon wrote, “A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken” (Proverbs 15:13). A cheerful countenance is simply an outward expression of being happy. It’s a reaction to an inward physical emotion.

But Solomon also notes that the spirit can be broken by the sorrow of the heart. The heart of a man describes the mind and the thinking of a person. What is meant by the spirit being broken?

Does God require a broken spirit?

King David wrote, “The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

There is a time to be broken down; a time that we should come to God in a proper sorrow. The Hebrew word translated “contrite” can mean “crushed” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible #1793). God is near those whose selfish, prideful mind has been broken down, and He saves those whose spirit is crushed.

David, who was considered a man after God’s heart, also tells us: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:17, emphasis added throughout). Owen’s Analytical Key to the Old Testament translates the Hebrew words in this passage as, “The sacrifice acceptable to God, a spirit of brokenness, a broken heart, and contrite, God thou wilt not despise.”

How does a “broken heart” relate to repentance?

Although Psalm 51 does not include the words repent or repentance, David expresses what it means to have a broken spirit—showing his profound regret and intense desire to be forgiven and made clean.

“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight—that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge” (verses 1-4).

Motivated by his regret, David recognized, confessed and acknowledged his sins. In another of his psalms, he wrote: “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).

What are the qualities of godly sorrow?

The apostle Paul was comforted by the repentant attitude of the members of the congregation in Corinth after he had reprimanded them. We see here another dimension of godly sorrow—the intense desire and commitment to change.

“For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it. For I perceive that the same epistle made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing.

“For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (2 Corinthians 7:8-11).

Paul’s description here is pretty clear. Godly sorrow will produce something in us that will change us and motivate us to be sorrowful enough to repent.

Look at the words that Paul used to describe godly sorrow:

  • Diligence.
  • Clearing of yourselves.
  • Indignation (anger at what we have done).
  • Fear.
  • Vehement desire.
  • Zeal.
  • Vindication.

He stated, “In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” This isn’t just a temporary sadness because of a condition one is in, but is true repentance leading to change.

It’s important to note that while regret is an aspect of true repentance, the emotion of sorrow in and of itself is not repentance. Godly sorrow leads to a change in our thinking, our actions and our lives. It puts us in the right attitude so we can repent.It’s important to note that while regret is an aspect of true repentance, the emotion of sorrow in and of itself is not repentance. Godly sorrow leads to a change in our thinking, our actions and our lives. It puts us in the right attitude so we can repent.

Worldly sorrow is concerned more with the punishment or consequences. Godly sorrow is concerned more with the willingness to change.

Clarke’s Bible Commentary states this about godly sorrow: “It was not a sorrow because ye were found out, and thus solemnly reprehended, but a sorrow because ye had sinned against God, and which consideration caused you to grieve more than the apprehension of any punishment” (comment on 2 Corinthians 7:9).

If a child is doing something wrong and a parent corrects him, the child may experience regret because of hurt feelings or because he could not do what he wanted to do. It’s not until we have the right kind of sorrow that we can begin to see that what we are doing is truly wrong.

Having a right kind of sorrow will lead a person to a changed heart. God can then grant that person repentance.

Why does worldly sorrow produce death?

When a person has sinned and is suffering the consequences of his decisions, he may experience a natural, worldly sorrow. For instance, if a person drinks too much alcohol and is arrested for driving under the influence, and then wakes up in jail, he may be distressed or embarrassed. He may wish he wasn’t dealing with the discomfort of a hangover or be troubled that he endangered the lives of others. But then he may turn around and do the same thing again the next weekend. Once he is out of jail, no longer experiencing physical discomfort, he may give little thought to what he did. This kind of regret is temporary—it doesn’t lead to a change in thinking or behavior!

In a spiritual sense, if a person does not repent of sin, then he is still living in sin, and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The penalty of sin—death—is still over him; and his worldly, temporary sorrow will not lead him to lasting change.

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Godly sorrow will lead to a new heart

God warned Israel in Ezekiel 18:30-31: “‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways,’ says the Lord GOD. ‘Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel?’”

God wanted a “new heart” in the people of Israel. He wanted to see them change and follow Him. He desires the same for you and me today.

However, humanity is not prone to have godly sorrow. Jesus said, “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mark 7:20-23).

These are the natural tendencies of man. In other places in Scripture they are called “the works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21). But when a person experiences godly sorrow, leading him to repentance and change, then God can give His Holy Spirit to the person. This creates a new heart that can begin to produce the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

Godly sorrow, as Paul described it, will lead us to repentance, which is the first step in answering the calling of God, and it will direct us to the path of conversion. 

The result of godly sorrow is a changed heart, and it will lead us to a new life—and eventually eternal life. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

For related material that can help you in this essential process, see the other articles in this section on “Repentance.”

About the Author

Paul Carter

Paul Carter is pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, congregations in Los Angeles and Bakersfield, California. He is a contributing writer for Life, Hope & Truth, as well as the director of two summer camps for teens and preteens in the Southwest. He is married with three wonderful children, and enjoys the outdoors including hunting, fishing, hiking and volleyball.

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