Godly Grief, Worldly Grief
I'm convinced all of us feel grief. Even the most brazen, self-confident hypocrite usually feels bad about something they've done. And most of us assume that feeling sorry for something is morally neutral. But not all grief is the same: some is godly, some is worldly.
I think the Heidelberg Catechism (Answer 89) gives a good definition of godly grief. Godly grief "is to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it."
The Prodigal Son saw that he not only had made a mess of his life, but he had sinned against his father, the one who loved him the most and gave him everything. This is exemplary. Too often we are simply sorry we got caught. Sorry we have to live with the consequences. Sorry we got knocked down a few notches in some people's estimation. Godly grief is different. Godly grief doesn't blame parents or the schools or the government or friends or the church. Godly grief says, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin" (Ps. 51:1-2).
Godly grief sees the vertical dimension of our sin. I have a growing concern that some Christians are describing sin in categories that mask its true nature. Sin is not simply a sad thing because it can wreck our lives. It is not just the ruining of shalom. Sin does more than make God sad that his world is not the way it's supposed to be. Sin makes God angry. It is offensive to God. His wrath is aroused not simply because we're missing out on his best, but because we have violated his law, rejected his Lordship, and made ourselves gods in his place.
Godly grief recognizes the utter sinfulness of sin and hates it more and more. The Corinthians were indignant that they has been implicated in this attack on the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 7:11). They wanted to clear their names and make things right. They were zealously opposed to their own mistakes.
Once we hate sin we are more inclined to run away from it. Grief, you notice, is not the same as repentance. Most people think grief equals repentance. They feel really bad about something; therefore they are repentant. But notice in verse 9 that godly grief leads to repentance.
There is an eternal difference between regret and repentance. Regret feels bad about past sins. Repentance turns away from past sins. Most of us are content with regret. We just want to feel bad for awhile, have a good cry, enjoy the cathartic experience, bewail our sin and how selfish or stupid or sorry we are. But we don't really want to change. We don't really want to live differently than we have been.
Godly grief produces true repentance, which leads to salvation (v. 10). Instead of obsessing over regrets and feeling bad due to the opinions of others, godly grief mourns for sin, turns from sin, and finds forgiveness for sin in Christ.
Here's one way to distinguish between worldly grief and godly grief: one mobilizes you into action, the other immobilizes you. Godly grief is a fruitful and effective emotion. We are not meant to wallow in this grief. It is supposed to spur us to action, to change, to make right our wrongs, to be zealous for good works, to run from sin and start walking in the opposite direction.
But worldly grief makes you idle and stagnant. You don't change. You don't grow. You don't fight against the deeds of the flesh. Instead you ruminate on your mistakes and obsess about what people's opinions and ponder what might have been. If you feel sorry for your sin, you will be moved to action–not to wallow in it week after week, year after year. Do you want to feel bad or do you want to change?
Some of us, truth be told, would rather feel bad. It's easier than being changed.