8 Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it– I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while– 9 yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. 10 Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. 11 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. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. (2 Corinthians 7:8-11 NIV)
The background of this passage is a situation in the Corinthian congregation that Paul had been working to resolve for some time. A man is sleeping with his father’s wife (see 1 Corinthians 5:1) and both he and the congregation are proud of this situation. It seems that Paul has written to them twice about this situation and finally has sent Titus to attempt to clean up this mess. Paul’s goal is repentance and reconciliation, but those things cannot be achieved without pain.
I want to think it would be wonderful for change and growth to happen without pain, but it is hard to find examples where this happens. How often have you heard the expression, “no pain, no gain” to encourage you in your exercise program? Pain takes many different forms, and it does seem that there is always a cost involved in getting a good return. In this passage Paul is comparing two forms of sorrow. One form of sorrow results in positive change. The other form results in negative change.
Paul only briefly mentions worldly sorrow and tells us that it leads to death. Worldly sorrow is the guilt and shame that result from our sinful actions or attitudes being exposed. We have been caught. We do not regret the sin that we have committed. We may not even consciously agree that it is sin. What we do regret is that something we wanted to keep secret is not secret any longer. Worldly sorrow drives us to find new and creative ways to hide the sin. This pattern when repeated leads us deeper and deeper into sin as the actual sin is compounded with increasing deception. The only change that occurs is an increased skill in hiding which will eventually lead to death, both spiritual and physical.
Godly sorrow is the opposite. Godly sorrow starts with agreement with God that the action or attitude that has been exposed is sin. While the exposure is often painful, Godly sorrow often produces gratitude that we have been caught. What had been secret is no longer secret and it is easier to partner with others to work on removing the sin. Agreeing with God about our sin we call confession. Confession promises us forgiveness. The loving response to forgiveness is to change direction and move toward the forgiver and away from the sin. We call this change repentance.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 NIV)
For Godly sorrow to be complete our acknowledgment of our sin must be expressed to other people. I am convinced of this based on personal experience. My recovery from pornography addiction did not begin until I made public what I had been working so hard to hide. I am convinced that my public confession was a gift from God that opened the door to genuine repentance. I am still a work in progress and the temptation to hide is sometimes great, but the life that comes living out in the open makes it easier to resist every day.