"Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry—but that you sorrowed to repentance: for you were made sorry after a godly manner. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death." 2 Corinthians 7:9-10
We have already considered the nature of "godly sorrow" and by what it is evidenced, namely—by a saving "repentance" or a forsaking of sin and turning unto God. It now remains for us to enquire wherein it differs from the "sorrow of the world." This brings us to a vitally-important distinction, for all sorrow over sin is not a "godly" one, neither does it lead to evangelical repentance. Evangelical repentance we say, for there is sometimes a repentance or remorse—as was displayed in the tragic case of Judas—which does not terminate in "salvation." Such is "the sorrow of the world," that is, the sorrow of the unregenerate, of those who are strangers unto the Lord. So far from their sorrow leading to life, it ends in death.
The sorrow of the world is the grief and sorrow of disappointed worldlings, of those who know not God but whose trust is in themselves or in some arm of flesh. They have relied for happiness from the world—and the world has sadly failed them. They have sought satisfaction from its broken cisterns—only to have their hopes dashed. The bitter springs from which their ambitions have proceeded, are pride and carnal self-seeking, and their motives and occasions for indulging the same, are as manifold as the deceitful lusts of the flesh. But frustrated plans and defeated expectations, sour and enrage them, and nature's greenness is turned into the drought of unrepentant grief. So far from leading the soul to God—it fills with wrath and enmity against Him. Its miserable subjects seek consolation from the world, endeavoring to drive away serious reflections by drowning themselves in its pleasures.
The sorrow of the world does not arise from just views of sin, nor does it proceed from any concern that God has been offended. It does not lead the soul to God in true penitence, nor turn to Him for consolation. The sorrow of the unregenerate is occasioned by temporal losses, which fill them with chagrin and dismay; by crimes which incur public disgrace for their perpetrators and their families; from the squandering of a goodly heritage which terminates in poverty and despair; from wandering from the path of chastity, and in consequence losing their good name among men; from intemperance and reckless living, which ends in ruined health and vain regrets for having played the fool. In all such cases there is no contrition of heart for having violated a righteous Law, offended a kind Creator—or been an occasion of stumbling to their fellows. It is only that they are incensed at the harvest which follows their evil sowing. They are often fretful because lack of money or health, prevents them from continuing such excesses.
There are some worldly men who experience religious convictions, and they are grieved because they cannot obtain Heaven in their own way. This is seen in the case of the rich young ruler who came to Christ—but who, when he learned that denying of self was required of him, "went away sorrowful" (Matthew 19:22). There are those who have a sense of eternal realities—and yet are wedded to their lusts. They desire happiness hereafter—but they will not forsake their idols now, and so they are troubled. They cannot have Christ and the world—Christ for their consciences—and the world for their affections. They are unwilling to break away from the love of this world so that they might be saved in the world to come, and therefore are they grieved that they cannot have both. A pertinent case in point is that of Balaam.
Such "sorrow" as we have referred to in the above paragraph, is but a superficial and transient emotion which has no lasting and spiritual effects. Alas, of its possessors it has to be said, "your goodness is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears" (Hosea 6:4). Their weeping eyes soon dry up, as we see in the cases of Esau and Ahab.
Again—such sorrow is not occasioned by mourning over sin as sin—but over the retribution which it brings. A solemn example of this appears in the life of Pharaoh when the Divine judgments were upon his kingdom: "Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron and said, Entreat the Lord, that He may take away the frogs from me and from my people" (Exo. 8:8). Note well it was not, "Entreat the Lord to remove my pride, my obstinacy, my hatred of His people; but only let the plague be stayed." Contrast the prayer of David under similar circumstances: "take away the iniquity of Your servant" (2 Samuel 24:10)—not take away the pestilence from my land!
"The sorrow of the world works death" because that is the appointed and inevitable fruit of the impenitent workings of an unregenerate will. It is a great mistake to suppose that the natural tendency of trial and trouble, loss and pain, is unto good. Not so—their trend is rather to excite rebellion against God. It is only when our sufferings are Divinely sanctified to us—that they are made to bring forth the peaceable fruits of righteousness.
Just as surely as happiness is the attendant of holiness—so misery is the certain result of sin. When the worldling's dream of earthly happiness has been dispelled by misfortune—he feeds only on the sour bread of self-reproach and unblessed woe. He often willfully accelerates the desire for relief, which he vainly hopes to find in death—which so far from ending his sorrow—only conducts him into the blackness of darkness forever!
"The sorrow of the world works death"—temporal and eternal. "Death" is to be taken here in its widest latitude, including all the disastrous consequences of sin. The results of godly sorrow are beneficial, the effects of worldly sorrow are abortive and evil. They produce only ill health and distress, and are attended with no consolation or compensation. The sorrow of the world debilitates the body, disturbs peace, impairs the mind, and breaks the spirit. There is no contrite seeking unto God on the part of the suffering one—but only a fretting and murmuring against Him. The more miserable a man becomes—the harder his heart becomes: "Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores—but they refused to repent of what they had done!" (Revelation 16:10, 11). Worldly sorrow is the certain prelude to desperation, unless God prevents, as witness the horrible cases of Saul, and Ahithophel.
How important it is, then, that we should seek grace to turn all our mourning unto a spiritual channel, that we may sorrow "after a godly manner"—with grief for having dishonored God with a dependence on His mercy, with a purpose to henceforth obey Him. Sorrow over sin, and exercise about our eternal interests, will avail us nothing—unless it works repentance, and even repentance may be counterfeited and so not be "unto salvation." Unless sin is mourned over as the cause of all our suffering, and God be viewed as the righteous yet merciful Author of the same—grief under afflictions produces only increasing enmity unto despair. If after prayerfully pondering these articles, any of our readers are brought to grieve over the hardness of their hearts and are concerned because of of their lack of godly sorrow, that is sure proof they are not devoid of this spiritual grace.