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Recognizing Godly Sorrow vs Worldly Sorrow

When King Saul had conquered the Amalekites, but disobeyed the Lord’s instructions in sparing their king and the choicest of their flocks and herds, he was confronted by the prophet Samuel. Saul made excuses. He insisted that he had obeyed the Lord. He shifted the blame. He claimed that saving the flocks for sacrifice to the Lord was the people’s idea. It was then that Samuel uttered these memorable words, “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice.” (1 Samuel 15:22) Saul admitted to the prophet, “I have sinned,” yet he asked to be honored in the sight of his elders. He wanted to avoid public reproach, to save face. He wanted his reputation to remain intact. He confessed his sin, yet remained selfish to the end.

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When King David was confronted by the prophet Nathan over his sin, his reaction was decidedly different. Surely his sin was grievous, for he had committed adultery with a married woman and then arranged the death of her husband as a cover up. At the moment his crimes were revealed, David became undone. He confessed, “I have sinned against the Lord!” He then cried out to the Lord, fasted, and lay upon the ground day and night for seven days, pleading for the life of his infant son. David was not concerned about himself. He cared nothing of what others thought. He grieved before God about the effect his sin had on others.

Here in stark contrast we see the difference between the worldly sorrow of Saul and the godly sorrow of David. One is completely selfish, and cares only about the personal cost of sin. The other is sorrow towards God, and cares about the offense to His holiness, and the impact of the sin upon others.

David’s confession and repentance before God are vividly displayed in both Psalm 32 and Psalm 51. Here we see his heart, as he cries out “Against You, You only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight.” (51:4) And again, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” (51:17) There is no trace of selfishness in David’s words. He was a broken man.

The Focus of Real Repentance

The Apostle Paul contrasts worldly and godly sorrow in his second letter to the Corinthian church. He writes: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10) In other words, if one’s sorrow is sorrow towards God, in recognition that all sin is first against His holiness, and is utterly unselfish in its focus, it will lead to real repentance. Real repentance is a change of heart that allows a person to turn completely from their sin and turn back to God. Repentance leads to salvation and life. But if one’s remorse and regret remain selfish and self-centered, such sorrow only brings death.

Here is an example that is anchored in real life. We see this many times over in the lives of men who come to Pure Life Ministries. Two men come before God because they have been exposed in their sexual sin. Both have hurt their families. Both have lost their jobs. Both have suffered financial loss. Both have incurred damage to their reputations. In so many ways, their stories are identical and all too common. Yet their reaction to their situation is so different.  

The first man cries out to God, begging for mercy, for his sins are an affront to God Himself. He pleads, not for himself, but for his wife and children. He knows that the losses he has incurred have hurt others, but are the just due for his sins. He begs for forgiveness because he misses fellowship with God. He comes to understand that Jesus has paid for his sins with His blood. He has a true change of heart, and hates the sin that he once cherished. By faith he receives God’s forgiveness, and is cleansed and restored.

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The second man cries out to God also. He confesses his sins. He admits his wrongdoing. But he remains completely self-focused. He grieves over his losses. He bemoans the unfair treatment he has received. He demands justice. He has great remorse and regret, but for his own pain, and not for the pain of others. There is no brokenness. Finally, he plunges into self-pity and despair.

Two very different reactions. One is godly sorrow, and one is worldly. One leads to salvation and life. The other leads only to death.

Selfishness? Or Salvation?

On the night before the Cross, one of Jesus’ disciples betrayed Him, and one denied Him. All sins are acts of selfishness and are grievous offenses to a holy God. Both of these sins were against the person of Jesus Himself. The Bible records how Judas and Peter responded later. The Scriptures tell us that Judas “repented himself” (Matthew 27:3 KJV), and the very word that Matthew used (metamelomai) to describe Judas indicates that his regret and remorse were completely self-centered. He was sorrowful, but not even for the plight of Jesus. He was only sorry for himself. Matthew did not choose the more common word for repentance (metanoeo) used throughout the New Testament that means to change one’s mind and behavior for the better because of hatred for one’s sins.

The Gospels tell us that Peter went out and wept bitterly. The word means to wail in great agony and grief. Was his sorrow godly or worldly? We can only tell from the results. Judas immediately went out and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:5) He was selfish to the end. When next we see Peter, he has returned to his brothers. When he heard word of the Resurrection, he ran in search of the Lord against whom he had sinned. Later that same day, Peter was completely restored.

One man’s sorrow led to death. The other’s led to salvation and life. That is the difference between worldly and godly sorrow.

Jim Lewis is a Biblical Counselor for Pure Life Ministries. He received a B.A. in Religion from Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, FL and both the M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Dr. Lewis served as a pastor for 30 years.

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