Last week I sent my son to his room for being unkind to his brother. I heard wailing for a long time. Well, at least he feels bad about what he did, I thought.
When I went in to talk to him about it, it was clear that his tears were self-centered. He was sad about his circumstances, but he wasn’t sad about his sin. I asked hopefully, “Are you crying because you hurt your brother?” Yeah, right. His blank stare told me he hadn’t even considered that option.
Nobody likes discipline. Hebrews 12:11 calls all discipline “painful rather than pleasant.” It’s no surprise when our kids respond with sadness. But sadness isn’t always a sign of repentance.
In 2 Corinthians 7:10, Paul puts feelings of guilt into two categories, godly grief and worldly grief: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” One grief produces life, and one produces death.
So, how do we know if our kids are experiencing the right kind of grief, and how can we respond?
Feelings of guilt are a natural, human reaction to sin. We all have God’s law written on our hearts (Rom. 2:15). Everyone has a conscience. But guilty feelings aren’t sufficient to save us.
Instead of crying out to God for mercy, worldly grief runs from guilt. It stifles it through self-pity, anger, and pride. Worldly grief makes excuses: “I couldn’t help it.” It blames others: “It’s her fault.” It compares: “I’m not as bad as he is.” It negotiates: “I’ve done some bad things, but I’m usually good.”
When worldly grief isn’t running, it’s often wallowing. Wallowing in guilt might look like repentance, but it’s really a sort of penance. We fool ourselves into thinking that if we experience enough sadness over our sin, it somehow diminishes it. Or at least it distracts from it: “How could I be a bad person if I’m this sad?”
But sadness isn’t enough. We know from Hebrews 12 that Esau was sad about his sin, but his sadness didn’t produce repentance. After he sold his birthright, “when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Heb. 12:17). Esau wanted to change his consequences, but not his heart. Our tears don’t make us right with God. Pain doesn’t equal purity, and suffering doesn’t equal sainthood. Thankfully, God can turn this dead-end grief into grief that produces life.
We can tell grief by its fruit. Whereas worldly grief produces a hard heart, godly grief produces the chain reaction outlined in the Heidelberg Catechism: We respond to our sin with guilt, receive God’s free gift of grace, and then live with thankful obedience. Godly guilt always leads to thankfulness, because we recognize the beauty of God’s grace in contrast to the punishment we deserve.
In Romans 7:24, Paul was so overcome with godly grief he cried out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And we see his guilt immediately turn to gratitude in the very next verse: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Godly grief destroys self-pity. It trades introspection for joy in Christ. It doesn’t run, hide, or wallow. It freely acknowledges the ugliness of sin, because it freely accepts the solution. While worldly grief shakes its fist, godly grief falls on its face before a merciful God.
Which Grief Is This?
If you’re like me, you probably see more worldly grief in your little ones than godly grief. But don’t lose heart. We can use worldly grief to lay a foundation for true repentance. Consider how we can leverage worldly grief to point our kids to the gospel.
Regret: Some kids feel guilty easily, sometimes without any consequences from their parents. But regret alone won’t give them the lasting comfort they need. We can tell them, “I know you feel bad about what you did, and you wish you hadn’t done it. There is nothing we can do to undo our sin. But God can. When we trust that Jesus died for our sin, our sin is gone forever (1 John 1:9).”
Self-pity: Self-pity looks like moping and whining. Instead of admitting their sin, kids will comfort themselves by dwelling on personal injustices or unfairness. We can use that bad feeling to help them understand the consequences of sin: “Sin hurts everyone and breaks relationship. The most important relationship it breaks is our relationship with God (Eph. 2:12). That’s why we need forgiveness.”
Anger: Usually anger over sin is anger over the consequences. Perhaps you see no reaction in your child when he or she sins, until you give a consequence—then you get a colossal reaction. Even though this grief isn’t godly grief, it’s a chance to help your kids connect the dots. You can say, “I know these consequences make you angry, but consequences are a means of God’s loving protection (Heb. 12:6). They remind us that we can never be happy apart from God. Sin makes God angry, too. We deserve his anger. But if we trust in Jesus, we will never experience God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9).”
Hiding: Sadly, kids often respond to their sin with deceit. But deceit shows us that our kids know something is wrong, even if they aren’t responding in the right way. This is an opportunity to remind them: “God already knows about our sin. We can’t hide it from him. It doesn’t go away on its own, and we can’t take it away ourselves. But if we confess our sin instead of hiding it, God promises to forgive us (Ps. 32:5).”
Wordly grief and godly grief often look similar on the outside, but godly grief includes two important ingredients: A willingness to accept Christ’s forgiveness and a desire to change. What does this look like in our kids? It might look like them coming to us on their own to admit their sin, or apologizing without being told. We might also see them turning from sinful habits and taking initiative to obey.
Only God can generate true repentance (Ezek. 36:26). Our response to godly grief is the same as our response to worldly grief: Point to Jesus. The hope of the gospel is for the guilty, the self-pitying, the angry, and the deceitful. When our kids cling tightly to their worldly grief, we can gently open their grasp and say, “Jesus is better. Trade self-pity and anger for repentance that leads to life.”