The Right Kind of Regret

“I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God…For the sor­row that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).

When asked to define repentance, many people answer, “Being sorry for having done wrong.” Actually, the Bible word includes both the acknowledgment of wrongdoing and a change of heart and con­duct. Paul tells us that, instead of being mere sorrow over sin, repent­ance results from sorrow over sin — and only the right kind of sor­row, at that. Let’s explore what that means.

Paul speaks of two kinds of sorrow: sorrow according to the will of God and sorrow “of the world.” Godly sorrow produces repent­ance; worldly sorrow doesn’t, and thus leads to death.

But what is worldly sorrow? It’s when “I’m sorry” really means…

• “I’m sorry I got caught.” When our sin is discovered and we have to pay a price for it, it’s only natural to feel bad. But by itself, what does that profit? We wish we had made a different choice, not because it was wrong, but because it got us into trouble.

• “I’m sorry someone got hurt.” Unless we’re totally self-cen­tered, we feel regret when our sin inflicts pain on someone else. But if that’s the only reason for our regret, what use is it? We wish we had acted differently, not because it was wrong, but because someone else suffered from it.

• “I’m sorry you don’t like what I did.” We regularly hear this in the conditional apologies of politicians or celebrities (“If what I said/did was offensive to anyone, I’m sorry”). Such an apology often comes from someone who sees nothing wrong with what he did and just wants people to quit bothering him about it. Even when it’s sin­cere, this kind of apology focuses not on the act it­self, but on others’ reaction to it. What good is that?

I don’t mean to say that these are not useful feelings. Sometimes it takes one or more of these to wake us up. But alone, they all fall short, be­cause they involve regret over the effects of the sin, not the sin itself. Instead of “That was wrong; I’ll never do it again,” the pre­vailing thought is, “That was foolish; I’ll be more careful next time.” The sor­row of the world is inadequate because it doesn’t confront sin as a vi­olation of the will of God. It basically says that, if the cir­cumstances were different — if we knew we wouldn’t get caught, no one would get hurt, and no one would get upset — we would do the same thing again. God is left out of the equation.

2 Samuel 11 describes the occasion when King David committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. What happened as a result of David’s sin? (1) He got caught: despite his efforts to conceal his sin, the prophet Nathan confronted David about it face-to-face (2 Samuel 12). (2) Someone got hurt: David’s sin caused the death of an innocent man (Uriah) and of the child conceived through his adultery. It also resulted in years of tragedy in David’s own family. (3) There was a public scandal: Nathan was appalled and said that David had “given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme.”

Was David sorry that his sin was discovered? that others were made to suffer? that it was a public disgrace? No doubt he was. But in the face of all this, what was David’s reply? “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). In a psalm written in the wake of this disas­ter, he declared to God, “Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight” (Psalm 51:4). The effects of David’s sin were awful, but his chief concern was its effect on his own soul.

And because of that, David’s sorrow produced repentance: “Cre­ate in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me…Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and sustain me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:10,13).

In the same way, godly sorrow produced repentance among the saints at Corinth. “For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter” (2 Corinthians 7:11).

The sorrow of the world may produce regret, but it doesn’t pro­duce repentance. It may move us to go through the motions of asking forgiveness from others, even from God, but is that repentance? I have to wonder: When a public confession of sin sounds like a condi­tional apology or even an accusation (“If anyone was offended…”), has there been real repentance? When a brother or sister confesses wrongdoing, then immediately falls (or jumps?) back into that pattern of sin, has there been real repentance?

More to the point: When we ask God’s forgiveness from day to day, are we more concerned about how sin will affect us in this life or in eternity?

As in all things, when we confess sin and ask forgiveness our motive must be pure. Genuine repentance begins with the right kind of regret.