“For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10, NASB).
We all know the repeat apologizer. Over and over, he or she disappoints us, breaks promises, or does things to hurt us (accidentally or intentionally). He or she then apologizes and promises to stop doing it. However, before long, they make the same mistake and repeat the same apologies and promises. He or she might be a friend, spouse or other family member, or co-worker. If we are honest, we are probably that person to somebody else, in some area of our lives. I think all believers, at some point, are such repeat apologizers towards God.
The apologies and promises sound sincere, but after a while one loses faith in them. Is that person truly sorry, or just trying to manipulate feelings?
St. Paul contrasted two kinds of sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7. The King James Version refers to one of them as “godly sorrow” (or, as the NASB puts it, “sorrow according to the will of God”), which produces a true repentance leading unto salvation. “The sorrow of the world,” on the other hand, leads to spiritual death.
In many cases, the sorrow of the world is primarily being “sorry that I got caught.” From time to time, a politician or celebrity gets caught in a sex scandal. Initial rumors are usually followed by protests of innocence (the alleged adulterer accuses others of false accusations or blackmail), but once the evidence mounts, he publicly apologizes for his wrongdoing, often praising his wife for being such a wonderful woman whom he never intended to hurt. In far too many cases, the cycle is repeated soon thereafter.
It is not only sex. Many people are never sorry for other misdeeds until they are caught: Think of the person who drives while intoxicated until he is finally pulled over by the police, or the co-worker who steals office supplies until the boss figures out where all those pens and reams of printer paper went.
Others may be sorry for the consequences of their actions. A young woman may be sorry that she got pregnant with that guy she just met. Or, the drunk driver is sorry that he totalled his car in the accident.
It is so easy to get angry or frustrated with those people. Yet, how often are we like that with God? We confess our sins during prayer, and it is the exact same set of sins we confessed yesterday. The time, location, circumstances, and other affected or involved persons have changed, but we did the same thing. We tell God we are sorry, but we will probably do it again tomorrow.
Being sorry for getting caught will not bring repentance. It will just train us to find more elaborate ways to avoid getting caught the next time.
Being sorry for suffering consequences may change us for a little while. A few years ago, after a severe gall-bladder attack, I took drastic action to improve my diet: No more doughnuts; no more candy bars; cut back on coffee; avoided fatty foods. However, not long after I recovered from gall-bladder surgery, I was back to my old eating habits. Painful consequences might deter us, but if we can find our way around them, we will go right back to our old ways.
Jesus tell us that the two greatest laws in Scripture are “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What kind of sorrow will produce true lasting repentance? Only a sorrow that connects with love. If we love God and love our neighbors, we will lay a foundation for godly sorrow which will lead to true repentance.
- Love the Lord your God: Recognize who He is and all He has done for you. Acknowledge that His will for your life, especially as revealed in Scripture, is better than anything you can come up with. Then, seek to do His will and live the kind of life that will leave no obstacles between you and Him.
- Love your neighbor: Biblical love is not just good feelings. It is a sacrificial active pursuit of the other’s best interests. It involves caring enough to seek to improve the other person’s life or situation. (Read 1 Corinthians 13:4–7 for a more detailed explanation.) Do we think about how our choices will affect the person we love?
Repentance is the starting point for pursuing a new way of life, and it usually begins with the right kind of sorrow.
This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.