Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th-century French monk, once said, “Sorrow for sin is indeed necessary, but it should not be an endless preoccupation. You must dwell also on the glad remembrance of God’s loving-kindness; otherwise, sadness will harden the heart and lead it more deeply into despair.” The necessary sorrow that Bernard was speaking of is godly sorrow. He contrasted that sorrow with sadness, a worldly sorrow which leads to a hardened heart and deep despair. But, what is the difference between the two? How does godly sorrow differ from worldly sorrow?
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul spoke of the difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10). He pointed out that godly sorrow leads to repentance, turning from sin and turning to living a life in accordance with God’s commands and His will. This kind of sorrow is a sorrow without regret. It is a life-giving sorrow that looks to the love and mercy of God, to the forgiveness that we receive through Jesus Christ when we are truly sorry and turn from sin. Godly sorrow leads to true repentance and true repentance leads to joy in the Lord as a result of our salvation.
On the other hand, Paul says, worldly sorrow leads to death. Rather than ending in repentance, worldly sorrow ends with remorse. Deep regrets over our sin, with no repentance and no change of heart, prevents us from moving beyond that remorse. And that remorse leads not to salvation, but to death. As a result, as Bernard of Clairvaux pointed out, the heart becomes hardened and sinks deeper into despair.
The difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow can be seen in the gospels in the examples of Peter and Judas. On the night that Jesus was arrested, Peter denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus had said he would. What was Peter’s reaction when the cock crowed following his third denial? He broke down and wept (Mark 14:72). Peter had a godly sorrow which eventually led to him being restored (John 21:15-17). Judas betrayed Jesus, accepting payment in return for leading those who wished to arrest Jesus right to Him. When he saw what was done to Jesus, worldly sorrow brought Judas to despair. What was the result of that despair? He took his own life (Matthew 27:3-5).
We should always show sorrow for our sins. But we must not dwell on that sorrow. It should be a godly sorrow that leads us to repentance and allows us to experience the joy that comes from knowing that our repentance and belief in Jesus Christ are what lead us to salvation and the joy that comes along with it.