Godly Sorrow vs. Worldly Sorrow

Failure is something that we’re all too familiar with in our lives.  We often look back with regret and say, “I wish I could go back in time and change what I did because I really, really messed up.”

            To make matters worse, we don’t always deal with failure the way we ought to.  Some of us are so afraid of failure that we don’t even want to try any more, because we might fail again.  But, it’s not so much a fear of failure as it is a fear of shame.  We have such a deep sense of shame about what we did.

            So, let’s just start with this.  You blew it!  You failed!  You messed up and you’re busted!  You’ve sinned and your sin has been exposed.  Now what do you do?  We can all look back over our lives and identify certain defining moments when we had a choice to make.  And I would like to suggest that what makes those moments defining is not that you failed, it’s not that you sinned.  What makes those moments defining is how you respond whenever your sin is exposed.  And that’s what we want to talk about this morning in 2 Corinthians chapter 7.

            For much of this letter, Paul has been talking about the tension that existed between him and the Corinthians.  We saw last week that Paul begged the Corinthians to love him as much as he loved them.  We come now to chapter 7, verse 2, where Paul says,

            “Please open your hearts to us. We have not done wrong to anyone, nor led anyone astray, nor taken advantage of anyone.  I’m not saying this to condemn you. I said before that you are in our hearts, and we live or die together with you.” (2 Corinthians 7:2-3, NLT)

            Paul is still doing everything he can to reconcile himself with the Corinthians.  We know that there were some false teachers in Corinth; we know that there were some critics of Paul.  And I think Paul is trying to make sure that these critics haven’t turned the congregation against him.  He didn’t want them to resent him or to reject him.  He wanted to have a close relationship with them.

            So, Paul tried to dispel any misgivings they may have had that would have hindered their love for him.  He reminded them that while he was with them in Corinth, he and his companions never wronged anyone, they never led anyone astray, and they never took advantage of anyone.  It’s likely that these were some of the things that some people were accusing Paul of in order to discredit his ministry, and Paul was afraid that people were believing these lies.

            I’ve made this point before but I think it’s important to make again.  Every time that Paul has been criticized, his response has been the same – “Hey, I lived with you for 18 months, you know who I am, my life is an open book, you know that I have always operated with integrity.  Take a look at what you have seen in my life and see if it matches with what other people are accusing me of.”

            The reason I think that’s important is because it’s so different from what most people do today.  When people are accused of doing something wrong, they try to spin it.  They deflect the accusation, they point fingers at somebody else, they make excuses, they change the subject.  But very few people and especially very few leaders are willing to say, “Hey take a look at my life.  Check me out.  I’ve lived with integrity.  My life speaks for itself.”  Every time Paul was accused, that was his response.

            In verse 3, Paul wants the Corinthians to know that his intent was not to condemn them.  He didn’t know whether the Corinthians had bought into his critics’ accusations or not, he’s just trying to set the record straight and then he gives them what was an ancient vow formula – he said that he will live or die together with them.

            That phrase was similar to a wedding vow that we use today.  Almost every wedding includes the words, “till death do us part”.  It’s our way of saying, “I am committed to you and I will stay with you until the day I die.”  That’s a familiar formula that we often use. Well, in the ancient world, the way they said it was, “I will die with you, I will live with you.”  Just like our wedding vows, this was a vow of commitment.  It was their way of saying, “I am committed to you and I will stay with you until the day I die.” 

            One of the things that impresses me so much about the apostle Paul is his commitment to those crazy Corinthians.  I think Paul would have been fully justified if he decided to just walk away and say, “Hey, if that’s the way you people want to be, if that’s how you want to treat me, I’m done with you.”

            But Paul has relentlessly pursued these people. Trying to restore the relationship, trying to work through all the tension.  The reason is because he genuinely loves them.  He cares about them, he doesn’t want this tension between them, and what he’s saying here is, “I will live with you, I will die with you; I am willing to do whatever it takes to work through this and to reconcile this relationship.” 

            And then in verse 4, he says, “I have the highest confidence in you, and I take great pride in you. You have greatly encouraged me and made me happy despite all our troubles.” (2 Corinthians 7:4)

            We’ve seen this before.  Paul says to the Corinthians, “I believe in you, I’m proud of you!”  And I think whether we’re talking about parents and their children, or whether we’re talking about us as a church family, everybody needs someone who will say to them, “I believe in you!  I think God’s doing a great work in your life, I’m proud of you, I’ve got your back!”  And that’s what Paul is saying here to the Corinthians.  

            Now, I don’t think he felt this way about all of the Corinthians, because a few of them were troublemakers, but Paul had confidence that most of these Christians were faithful believers who truly wanted to do God’s will.  Like a parent who is proud of their children and their accomplishments, Paul was proud of the Corinthians and their spiritual progress.

            But that raises the question, “What exactly was Paul proud of?  What had the Corinthians done to make him proud?  That’s what the rest of this chapter is about. But before we go on to verse 5, we need to review a bit.

            We know that Paul established the church in Corinth and spent about 18 months with them.  Then he left Corinth and went to Ephesus where he wrote I Corinthians to deal with some of the problems back in Corinth – the division in the church, the sexual immorality, their denial of the resurrection, and a whole bunch of other problems.

            After that, Paul made a trip to Corinth to try to fix things.  He planned to make another visit, but there was so much tension on that first visit, everything just sorta blew up, and there was so much conflict that Paul decided it would be better to not stop by again because it would only make matters worse.  So, Paul didn’t go back to Corinth, and that why we saw earlier that some of Paul’s critics used that as an opportunity to say, “This guy doesn’t keep his word.”

            So, Paul had to write another letter, one that we don’t have, but it’s referred to as a “severe letter”.  It was a letter where Paul rebuked the Corinthians for their sins, he confronted them for whatever the issue was and we really don’t know what exactly what it was.  But Paul wrote this letter with a lot of tears, he handed it to Titus and he had him personally carry it to Corinth.  And then, Paul anxiously waited to hear back to know what the response was. 

            You have to remember, in those days, they didn’t have communication technology.  Paul couldn’t get on the phone and say, “So, Titus, how did it go in Corinth?”  Right?  He couldn’t shoot him a text.  The communication between them took months.  So, they made a plan to rendezvous, and Paul just had to wait anxiously until Titus could show up and tell him how things went.

            Verse 5, “When we arrived in Macedonia, there was no rest for us. We faced conflict from every direction, with battles on the outside and fear on the inside.” (2 Corinthians 7:5, NLT)

            Paul said he had to deal with conflict from every direction.  We don’t know exactly what was going on, but we do know from the book of Acts that there was a group of Jewish legalists that followed Paul around and made his life miserable, maybe that’s who was there.

            But Paul also says there were some fear on the inside.  I mentioned when we started our study of 2 Corinthians that of all the letters that Paul wrote, this letter more than any other is the one where Paul exposes himself as a person with real feelings and real emotions.  We tend to think of Paul as a super missionary, a ministry machine, the guy who’s got it all together.  But, at this moment, Paul was struggling.

            You say, wait a minute, this is the apostle Paul, how could he have fear within?  This is the guy who wrote, “be anxious for nothing!”  This is the guy who wrote, “God has not given us a spirit of fear.”  This is the guy who keeps saying our lives need to be lived out in faith, not fear.  But Paul was a human being, he was a real person who struggled! 

            And I think it’s important for us to understand that being faithful doesn’t mean I’ve always got it all together, that my faith is so rock solid that nothing ever bothers me.  If you’re going to live out your ministry in the trenches, sometimes there are wonderful victories and sometimes there are very discouraging defeats and sometimes it just feels like it’s all coming unraveled and you wonder if it’s even worth the effort.  And that’s where Paul was as he sat there waiting for Titus.

            Verse 6, “But God, who encourages those who are discouraged, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus.” (2 Corinthians 7:6, NLT)

            I don’t know about you, but it helps me to realize that there were some times when the apostle Paul was discouraged.  The New American Standard uses the word “depressed”.  We like to think that never happens to spiritual people, but it does.  Paul was discouraged, he was depressed.  He was emotionally worn out. But he tells us that he found his comfort in God.  There are times that we are all going to be discouraged and depressed.  The question is, where do we go to find help in those moments, who do we turn to when our world is coming unraveled?  There’s only place to find help and Paul understood that in his hour of need.  He found his refuge in God.

            This morning, perhaps some of you are depressed or discouraged.  Know that God wants to comfort you.  He may do it through this sermon.  He may do it in a conversation you have with someone right after church.  He may do it through some experience you have this week.  Or perhaps he may do it like he did it with Paul by sending just the right person, at the right time, with the right message.

            Verse 6, “But God, who encourages those who are discouraged, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus.  His presence was a joy, but so was the news he brought of the encouragement he received from you.  When he told us how much you long to see me, and how sorry you are for what happened, and how loyal you are to me, I was filled with joy!” (2 Corinthians 7:6-7, NLT)

            God comforted Paul by having Titus show up.  Now, having his friend around brought Paul great joy, but there was even more reason for joy.  Titus brought back a report to Paul that said, “The Corinthians are doing well.  They responded wonderfully to your letter.  And Paul, these people in Corinth, they love you!  They want to see you, they feel bad that there’s been some tension between you.”  So, Titus brought back this great report and now Paul finally knows that the false teachers and the critics have not persuaded all the other Christians, but they’re still committed to Paul and they love them.  And so, Paul was greatly encouraged by this.

            In verse 8, “I am not sorry that I sent that severe letter to you, though I was sorry at first, for I know it was painful to you for a little while.  Now I am glad I sent it, not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways.  It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way.  For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation.  There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow.  But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.” (2 Corinthians 7:8-10, NLT)

            I find this interesting.  When Paul sent that severe letter to Corinth by way of Titus confronting them over whatever this issue of sin was, Paul said that for a while he regretted sending that letter.  He thought maybe it was just going to make matters worse.  But now that Titus has brought back a good report, he says, “Now I don’t regret it.  I did, but I don’t now because I understand how God has used it.”  Yes, it was painful because Paul told them they were doing something wrong, that they were in sin, but it had a good result because and it broke their heart like it should have.

            Thei sorrow was a godly sorrow and godly sorrow leads to repentance.  Repentance means a change of mind, it means a mid-course correction.  It means to turn around and go the other way.  In other words, the Corinthians were off track.  They were on the wrong road.  But when Paul rebuked them for their sin, they came to their senses, “Hey, we’re off track, we’re going the wrong way, and we need to get turned around.”

            Paul said their godly sorrow led them to repentance which in turn led to salvation. Repentance allows us to get on the right path that ultimately leads to life.  The alternative, the other way to respond to the sin in my life is to have what Paul calls “worldly sorrow”. Worldly sorrow means when I’m exposed, when I’m busted, when it becomes evident that I’ve sinned, I’ve failed, I’ve messed up!  I may feel bad about what I’ve done and so I feel a sense of shame, but instead of repenting, I turn instead to getting defensive, pointing the finger at somebody else, blaming somebody else, making excuses, anything but admit that I did something wrong.

            That’s the way the world responds to sin.  And the reason for that is because the world is a performance-based culture, which means your value is determined by how much you accomplish.  If you always succeed, if you never make any mistakes, then you are worth a lot.  But, in a performance-based culture, if you don’t perform well, the world has no answer for that other than to say that you’re a loser. 

            And, of course, you don’t want that, so, rather than admit that you made a mistake, rather than admit that you messed up, you’re forced to get defensive and try to cover things up, which usually leads to another bad choice which usually leads to another bad choice and pretty soon you’ve got this snowball running out of control that ultimately destroys your life.  Looking back, you can see that the defining moment of your life wasn’t the sin itself; it was your unwillingness to confess your sin, to deal with it, get corrected and get back on the right path.

            Verse 11, “Just see what this godly sorrow produced in you!  Such earnestness, such concern to clear yourselves, such indignation, such alarm, such longing to see me, such zeal, and such a readiness to punish wrong.  You showed that you have done everything necessary to make things right.” (2 Corinthians 7:11, NLT)

            Paul is so proud of these Corinthians.  He says, “You guys are great.  I rebuked you for your sin and you were hurt by what I said, but your sorrow that led to repentance, and now you’ve corrected your behavior, you’re back on track and now you’re zealously trying to do the right thing.  This has become an opportunity for you to show the presence of God in your life.  So, Paul applauds them.

            Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “Correction does much, but encouragement does more.  Encouragement after a rebuke is like the sunshine after a rain.”  And that’s what Paul does here.  Earlier, he rebuked the Corinthians, but now he encourages them.”

            Verse 12, “My purpose, then, was not to write about who did the wrong or who was wronged. I wrote to you so that in the sight of God you could see for yourselves how loyal you are to us.  We have been greatly encouraged by this.” (2 Corinthians 7:12-13, NLT)

            Paul says, “When I wrote that letter, it wasn’t so much to blame anybody or to defend anybody.  My goal was for you Corinthians to see how devoted you were to following Christ.”  He wanted them to experience the joy of seeing God at work in their lives.  And what an encouragement it was to Paul, but not just to him:

            Verse 13, “In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was about the way all of you welcomed him and set his mind at ease.  I had told him how proud I was of you — and you didn’t disappoint me.  I have always told you the truth, and now my boasting to Titus has also proved true!  Now he cares for you more than ever when he remembers the way all of you obeyed him and welcomed him with such fear and deep respect.” (2 Corinthians 7:13-15, NLT)

            Paul says, “Over the months, I’ve boasted about you, I’ve told Titus what a great bunch of people you are and I was afraid when I sent that letter that maybe you would prove me wrong and I would be put to shame.”  Maybe Titus would come back and say, “Paul, you were wrong.  These guys are terrible!” 

            But when Titus got to Corinth, the result was even better than he anticipated. Titus probably went to Corinth thinking, “Oh boy, I don’t know how this is going to go. I’ve heard a lot about these Corinthians, and how divisive they are, and all the different problems they had.  Paul had to write a couple of letters to them already.”

            But, no, Titus came back, he said, “Paul, you were right.  This is a great bunch of people.  Their lives were off track, and when they read your letter, it hurt them but it led them to repentance, they corrected their behavior, they’re back on track.  What an impressive group of people!”

            Paul reminds us that what’s critically important in those moments when we blow it, when we fail, when we sin and our sin is exposed, what’s critically important is what happens next.  If we respond with a worldly sorrow that’s full of defensiveness, excuses, cover-up, and deflection, then we’re going to stay on a pathway of destruction.

            But if we can experience a godly sorrow, it will lead us to repentance which is will get us back on track.  And later, we can look back on our lives and see that that was a defining moment in my life.  But what matters most is how you responded when your sin was exposed.

            At the core of this issue is whether you truly understand God’s grace or whether you want to continue to embrace the kind of performance-based value system that defines our world.  If you embrace a system where your value is based on your ability to perform, then your life will always be defined by competition and comparison and your value is attached to your performance.  And if that’s the case, then you don’t have any margin for failure, you don’t have any margin for sin, there’s no way for you to say, “I blew it!”  Because that’s a bad performance review. Our self-esteem can’t deal with that.

            And so, when that moment of truth comes, I’m too embarrassed to be honest.  I can’t come clean, I can’t be truthful, I can’t face my sin.  Instead, I have to make excuses, I have to get defensive, I have to blame somebody else, I have to protect myself.  I’ve got to figure out some way to show this wasn’t a failure on my part or my self-esteem is going to take a nosedive. 

            The only alternative is to understand God’s grace and to recognize that because of what Jesus Christ has done for me on the cross, my sense of value doesn’t come from being perfect, it comes from my connection with God.  And even though my performance was poor, even though I failed, I understand that doesn’t affect my value because my value isn’t connected to my performance.

            And so, in that moment, I now have the ability to say, “Yes, I sinned, I blew it, I didn’t perform well”, but it’s a sorrow that leads to repentance.  Now I’ve got the ability to make some corrections, to get back on the right path, to find forgiveness and to learn from my mistakes, so that I can serve God even better in the future.

            The truth is, we all blow it, we all mess up, we all sin.  The important question in that moment when our sin is exposed is, what happens now?  Worldly sorrow will only lead to destruction.  But godly sorrow leads to repentance which will get back on the road to life. 

What makes a great disciple of Jesus Christ is not the fact that we never fail.  Yes, I know, that’s the goal.  As John writes in I John 2:1, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”  But then he goes on to say, “But if anyone does sin”, or more accurately, “When you sin”, here’s what you need to do about it.  Because, as John pointed out just a few verses earlier, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (I John 1:8)

            What God expects of us is not perfection.  What he expects is a willingness on our part to recognize our failure, to repent of it, and get on with the work of the kingdom.  That’s what makes someone a faithful follower of Jesus. 

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