Can we DISTINGUISH between GODLY & WORLDLY SORROW? “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.” (2 Cor. 7:9-10)
The above scriptural passage is part of the second letter that Apostle Paul has written to the believers in Corinth, and the context appears to be in relation to an earlier letter in which he had rebuked the Corinthians for their conduct during his earlier visit (see 2:3, 4). Bible scholars have inferred that the problem was probably the failure of the Corinthian church to defend Paul against some unknown person who had wronged him. Now Paul felt that the pain he went through in causing sorrow to the believers in Corinth was worthwhile since his previous stern words had resulted in their repentance with all its lasting benefits. In fact, Paul’s letter had not hurt them but had actually helped them!
So, even though Paul regretted that he had to write a severe letter to the Corinthian believers, but since his letter had causes the Corinthian believers to repent and turn to God, his sorrow was transformed into joy. Even though most of the Bible scholars have agreed to Paul’s previous letter as being the first epistle to the Corinthians, but some scholars have lately suggested that it was another letter that Paul had written after he had written his first epistle to the Corinthians, but that has not been preserved! In any case, the Corinthian believers had responded properly (7:11), and they would now strictly adhere to Paul’s teaching in the future.
In fact, Paul's severe letter had led the entire church of Corinth to be sorrowful that had led them to the place of genuine repentance! In other words, their sorrow had led them to a change of mind resulting in a change of life. In his book Second Corinthians, Hodge writes that “repentance is not merely a change of purpose, but includes a change of heart which leads to a turning from sin with grief and hatred thereof unto God.” The sorrow and repentance of the Corinthian believers was according to the will of God, and it was that kind of a genuine godly sorrow and repentance that God likes to see in all His children when they do wrong!
So, the question is: Can we distinguish between godly and worldly sorrow? Godly sorrow means the grief which comes into a person’s life after he has committed a sin and which leads to his repentance. He realizes that God is speaking to him, and so he takes sides with God against himself and against his sin. Godly sorrow produces repentance that leads to salvation, which may or may not be the salvation ‘of the soul’. In the case of the Corinthian believers, note that they were already saved. So, salvation is used here to describe deliverance from any type of sin, bondage, or affliction in a person’s life.
A good Biblical example of a person who experienced godly sorrow is Apostle Peter, and his experienced is described in this manner: "And the Lord (Jesus) turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, 'before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.' So Peter went out and wept bitterly" (Luke 22:61-62). Godly sorrow for sins leads to a change of mind and a turning to God that is called repentance (Matt. 3:8; Luke 5:32; Acts 5:31; Heb. 12:17), and this results in spiritual deliverance or salvation (see 6:2). Repentance should be a constant companion of the Christian believer from his conversion to his glorification.
On the other hand, worldly sorrow is not true repentance but mere remorse. It produces bitterness, hardness, despair, and eventually death. It is illustrated in the life of Judas Iscariot who was only remorseful because he felt sorry about having betrayed innocent blood: “Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that He had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ And they said, ‘What is that to us? You see to it!’ Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself.” (Matt. 27:3-5)