As a school principal, I often heard the words, “I’m sorry.” Not surprising since evidence would have mounted pretty high in order for the situation to have reached the principal’s office. Since I was a Lutheran school principal, my desire to openly share God’s love was so great that I was often tempted to jump in with words of forgiveness and a look at what kinds of steps to take to restore damages that had been done (broken relationships, broken property).
But I learned over the years that people can have different kinds of sorrow and that only one kind has true value. Paul put it this way in his letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 7, verse 10): “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” You see, I was often faced with those wanting to hang on to their worldly sorrow. What might that look like?
It’s a sorrow that is more concerned with one’s self than the pain inflicted on others. It looks like this: I’m sorry… because I got caught. And because I got caught, I’ll have to explain this situation to my friends, and worse yet, to my parents. I’m sorry that there will be consequences to pay.
I’m sure you can see the problems with this kind of sorrow, but does it really bring death? Some students leaving my office with worldly sorrow would be determined to never get caught again. There were those who took comfort in believing they weren’t as bad as others involved in the situation. Still others defended their wrongdoings to the end, feeling justified by their excuses. In any case, each was unrepentant, choosing to reject the forgiveness which comes through a repentant heart.
Godly sorrow is that which sees the wrongs (sins) committed and owns them, seeking to understand the pain caused by one’s selfish words and deeds. As that understanding becomes clearer, confession to the one wronged follows. But how can that lead to salvation? The Apostle John put it this way (1 John 1:8-9): “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” While we hope that those we’ve wronged will forgive, we need not doubt that God will.
It was usually pretty obvious which students left my office hanging on to their worldly sorrow and which ones left with the assurance of God’s forgiveness in Christ. When we receive forgiveness and the promise of eternal life, there is little (actually… nothing) left to regret. We seek to restore relationships through efforts of “undoing” the wrong we’ve done (restitution), but it is with a new start, the healing of forgiveness under way.
As a footnote I must add that I am thankful to God for the numerous opportunities he gave to students regarding worldly sorrow. You see, if you’re really not sorry (with Godly sorrow), you’re more likely to fall into the same trap. So I never looked at students leaving my office with worldly sorrow as if it was the last chance. I am certain of this and am so grateful to God for the many, many opportunities He has given me!
With your promise to take away my sin and cleanse me from my unrighteousness, why would I ever hold anything back from you, Lord Jesus. And yet I do. May your Holy Spirit continue to work in my heart through your Word to see my sinfulness, to confess it all before you, my Lord and Redeemer, and to rejoice in the forgiveness that is mine in your shed blood and the eternal home that you are preparing for me. Help me to also forgive those who have wronged me, even as you have so freely forgiven me. Amen.