The seventh chapter of 2 Corinthians is one of the most important passages when it comes to counseling ourselves and others. For in it we are introduced to the distinction between worldly grief and godly grief.
I’m convinced all of us feel grief. Even the most brazen, self-confident hypocrite usually feels bad about something they’ve done. But not all grief is the same.
Some grief is worldly. Most of us assume that feeling sorry for something is morally neutral. There isn’t a right and wrong way to feel bad, you just feel it. In fact, if anything, we consider grief over some action we’ve taken to be an automatic good. “I may have screwed up and made a mistake, but now I feel really rotten about the whole thing. At least I have my grief over the situation to show for myself.”
But according to the Bible, it is possible to feel sorry in a worldly way. Worldly grief is an expression of regret over opportunities lost, painful present circumstances, or personal embarrassment. We regret getting drunk on the weekend and blowing the test on Monday. We are sorry for having gambled away $10,000 at the casino. We feel terrible that our unflattering email get forwarded to the wrong person. Though we feel bad in all three situations, the regret may not have any spiritual dimension to it. We may just regret getting caught, hurting ourselves, or looking bad.
Worldly grief is owing to one of two causes: losing something dear to us (money, opportunity, recognition) or the negative opinion of others. Worldly grief has to do with pride, ego, and humiliation. It cares about man’s opinion instead of God’s. We feel terrible because people around us think we are silly or stupid. We feel sorry for the past because people no longer think highly of us like they once did. We feel deep distress because we love the praise of man, not because we have the fear of God.
Worldly grief is not good grief. It leads to death. Because worldly grief does not allow us to see our offensiveness to God, we don’t deal with our sin in a vertical direction. And therefore, we don’t get forgiveness from God, the lack of which leads to spiritual death. Worldly grief deals with symptoms not with the disease. Worldly grief produces despair, bitterness, and depression because it focuses on regret for the past (which can’t be changed) or the present consequences (which can’t fully avoid) instead of personal sinfulness (which can always be forgiven).
Ironically, if we say “I can’t forgive myself” it’s probably a sign of worldly grief–either unbelief in God’s promises and the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross, or regret that is merely focused on my loss and what other people think of me and not on my sin before a holy God.
We hate to look at our sin, but when we refuse to deal with our sin, we are only hurting ourselves. Sorrow over loss of money does not bring it back. Sorrow over personal failure does not make it all better. Sorrow over negative reactions from others does not make them like us again. But sorrow over sin can lead to repentance and repentance leads to mercy and mercy means a fresh start.
So, yes, God wants us to feel guilty when we are guilty. But he doesn’t want us to feel guilty when we are not. And when we are, he doesn’t want us to wallow in our sin. He wants us to run to the cross, confess it, be cleansed, and enjoy a clean conscience.