The Power of Sorrow*

Guest Writer Frederick W Robertson

“For godly sorrow works repentance to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

Preached at Trinity Chapel, Brighton, England, 30 June 1850

Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that you sorrowed to repentance: for you were made sorry after a godly manner, that you might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow works repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world works death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). Paul distinguishes here between godly sorrow, which leads to repentance, and worldly sorrow, which leads to despair. To grieve over sin is one thing, to repent of it is another.

The apostle rejoiced, not that the Corinthians sorrowed, but that they sorrowed to repentance. Sorrow has two results: it may end in spiritual life or in spiritual death. One is as natural as the other. Sorrow may produce two kinds of reformation—a transient one or a permanent one—alteration in habits, which, originating in emotion, will last so long as that emotion continues, and then after a few fruitless efforts be given up—a repentance that will be repented of or a permanent change that will be reversed by no afterthought—a repentance not to be repented of. Sorrow is in itself, therefore, a thing neither good nor bad: its value depends on the spirit of the person who experiences it.

Fire will inflame straw, soften iron, or harden clay; its effects are determined by the object with which it comes in contact. Warmth develops the energies of life, or helps the progress of decay. It is a great power in the hothouse, a great power also in the coffin: it expands the leaf, matures the fruit, adds precocious vigor to vegetable life: and warmth too develops with tenfold rapidity the weltering process of dissolution. So too with sorrow. There are spirits in which it develops the seminal principle of life; there are others in which it prematurely hastens the consummation of irreparable decay. Our subject, therefore, is the twofold power of sorrow: (1) the fatal power of the sorrow of the world and (2) the life-giving power of godly sorrow.


The simplest way in which the sorrow of the world works death is seen in the effect of mere regret for worldly loss. There are certain advantages with which we come into the world. Youth, health, friends, and sometimes property. So long as these continue, we are happy; and because happy, fancy ourselves grateful to God. We bask in the sunshine of His gifts, and this pleasant sensation of sunning ourselves in life we call religion; that state in which we all are before sorrow comes, to test the temper of the metal of which our souls are made, when the spirits are unbroken and the heart buoyant, when a fresh morning is to a young heart what it is to the skylark. The exuberant burst of joy seems a spontaneous hymn to the Father of all blessing, like the matin carol of the bird; but this is not religion. It is the instinctive utterance of happy feeling, having as little of moral character in it in the happy human being as in the happy bird.

Nay more, the religion that is only sunned into being by happiness is a suspicious thing—having been warmed by joy, it will become cold when joy is over; and then when these blessings are removed, we count ourselves hardly treated, as if we had been defrauded of a right. Rebellious hard feelings come. People become bitter, spiteful, discontented. At every step in the solemn path of life some loss, that will come back no more, must be mourned. The temper that was so smooth becomes rugged and uneven. The benevolence that expanded on all narrows develops into an ever, dwindling selfishness—we are alone; and then that deathlike loneliness deepens as life goes on. The course of man is downward, and he moves with slow and ever more solitary steps, down to the dark silence—the silence of the grave. This is the death of heart; the sorrow of the world has worked death.

Again, there is a sorrow of the world, when sin is grieved for in a worldly spirit. There are two views of sin: in one it is looked on as wrong—in the other, as producing loss—loss, for example, of character. In such cases, if character could be preserved before the world, grief would not come; but the paroxysms of misery fall on our proud spirit when our guilt is made public.

The most distinct instance we have of this is the life of King Saul, Israel’s first king. In his apparent grief, the thing still uppermost was that he had forfeited his kingly character: almost the only longing was that Samuel should honor him before his people. And so it comes to pass that often remorse and anguish begin only with exposure. Suicide takes place not when the act of wrong is done, but when the guilt is known. Thus, too, many a one becomes hardened who would otherwise have remained tolerably happy, in consequence of which we blame the exposure, not the guilt. We say that if it had been hushed, all would have been well; that the servant who robbed his master was ruined by taking away his character; that if the sin had been passed over, repentance might have taken place and he might have remained a respectable member of society.

Do not think so. It is quite true that remorse was produced by exposure, and that the remorse was fatal. The sorrow that worked death arose from that exposure. And so far exposure may be called the cause. If it had never taken place, respectability, and comparative peace, might have continued; but outward respectability is not change of heart.

It is well known that if a corpse has been preserved for centuries in an iceberg, or in antiseptic peat, when atmospheric air is introduced to the exposed surface, it crumbles into dust. Exposure only manifests the death that was already there. So with sorrow. It is not a living heart that drops to pieces or crumbles into dust when sin is revealed, but a dead one. Exposure did not work death in the Corinthian sinner (cf 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 2 Corinthians 7:9-12), but life.

There is another form of grief for sin that the apostle would not have rejoiced to see: the hot tears of pride. No two tones of feeling, apparently similar, are more unlike than that in which Paul exclaimed, “I have played the fool exceedingly” (cf 2 Corinthians 12:11), and that in which the publican cried out, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). The charge of folly brought against oneself only proves that we feel bitterly for having lost our own self-respect. It is a humiliation to have forfeited the idea that a man had formed of his own character—to find that the very excellence on which be prided himself is the one in which he has failed.

If there were a virtue for which King Saul was conspicuous, it was generosity. Yet it was exactly in this point of generosity in which he discovered himself to have failed, when he was overtaken on the mountain, and his life spared by the very man whom he was hunting to the death with feelings of the meanest jealousy. Yet there was no real repentance there; there was none of that in which a man is sick of state and pomp. Saul could still rejoice in regal splendor, go about complaining of himself to the Ziphites, as if he was the most ill-treated and friendless of mankind. He was still jealous of his reputation, and anxious to be well thought of.

Quite different is the tone in which the publican, who felt himself a sinner, asked for mercy. He heard the contumelious expression of the Pharisee, “this publican” (Luke 18:11). With no resentment, he meekly bore it—“he did not so much as lift up his eyes to heaven” (18:13). He was as a worm that turns in agony, but not revenge, on the foot that grounds it in the dust.

Now this sorrow of Saul’s, too, works death: no merit can restore self-respect. When a man has found himself out, he cannot be deceived again. The heart is as a stone: a speck of canker corrodes and spreads within. What on this earth remains, but endless sorrow, for him who has ceased to respect himself, and has no God to turn to?


• The life-giving power of godly sorrow works repentance: change of life, alteration of habits, and renewal of heart. This is the aim of godly sorrow. The consequences of sin are meant to wean from sin. The penalty annexed to it is, in the first instance, corrective, not penal. Fire burns the child, to teach it one of the truths of this universe—the property of fire to burn. The first time the child cuts his hand with a sharp knife, he has gained a lesson that he never will forget. Now, in the case of pain this experience is seldom, if ever, in vain. There is little chance of a child forgetting that fire will burn, and that sharp steel will cut; but the moral lessons contained in the penalties annexed to wrongdoing are as truly intended, though they are, by no means, so unerring in enforcing their application. The fever in the veins and the subsequent headache of intoxication are meant to warn against excess. On the first occasion they are simply corrective; in every succeeding occasion they assume more and more a penal character.

Sorrow, then, has done its work when it deters from evil: when it works repentance. In the sorrow of the world, the obliquity of the heart toward evil is not cured. Heartache and trials come in vain. The history of life at the last is what it was at the first. The man is found erring where he erred before. “Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God” (Psalm 55:19).

They have “reaped the whirlwind,” but they will again sow “the wind” (Hosea 8:7). Thus, I believe, life-giving sorrow is less remorse for that which is irreparable than anxiety for that which is to come. The sorrow that ends in death hangs in funeral weeds over the sepulchres of the past. Yet the present does not become more wise. Not one resolution is made more firm, nor one habit more holy. Grief is all. Whereas sorrow avails only when the past is converted into experience, and from failure, lessons are learned that never are to be forgotten.

• A steady reformation is a better test of the value of mourning than depth of grief. The emotional nature varies from one individual to another. Some men feel intensely, others suffer less keenly; but outward symptoms are constitutional, determined by nervous temperament not moral character. The characteristic of divine sorrow is a repentance “not repented of” (2 Corinthians 12:21); no transient, short-lived resolutions, but sustained resolve.

And the beautiful law is that in proportion as the repentance increases, the grief diminishes. “I rejoice,” says Paul, that “I made you sorry, though it were but for a time” (7:9). Grief for a time, repentance forever. And few things more signally prove the wisdom of this apostle than his way of dealing with this grief of the Corinthian. He tried no artificial means of intensifying it—did not urge the duty of dwelling on it, magnifying it, nor even of gauging and examining it. So soon as grief had done its work the apostle was anxious to dry useless tears—he even feared lest haply such an one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.

“A true penitent,” says John Henry Newman, “never forgives himself.”

Oh, false estimate of the gospel of Christ and of the heart of man! A proud remorse does not forgive itself the forfeiture of its own dignity; but the beauty of godly sorrow is that the sinner, realizing God’s forgiveness, forgives himself. For what other purpose did Paul command the Church of Corinth to give ecclesiastical absolution, but as assurance of divine pardon? so that the guilty man’s grief should not be overwhelming, but that he should be reconciled to himself? What is meant by the publican’s going down to his house justified, but that he felt at peace with himself and God?

• It is sorrow with God, here called “godly sorrow”; marginal reading, “sorrowing according to God.” God sees sin not in its consequences but in itself: a thing infinitely evil, even if the consequences were happiness instead of misery. So “sorrowing according to God” is seeing sin as God sees it. The grief of Peter was as bitter as that of Judas. Peter went out and wept bitterly—how bitterly none can tell but they who have learned to look on sin as God does. But in Peter’s grief there was an element of hope—he saw God in it. Despair of self did not lead to despair of God.

This is the great, peculiar feature of this sorrow: God is there, thus self is less prominent. It is not a microscopic self-examination, nor a mourning in which self is ever uppermost: my character, gone; the greatness of my sin; the forfeiture of my salvation. The thought of God absorbs all that. True penitence expresses itself in such words as these: There is a righteousness, though I have not attained it. There is a purity, and a love, and a beauty, though my life exhibits little of it. In that I can rejoice. Of that I can feel the surpassing loveliness. My doings? They are worthless, I cannot endure to think of them. I am not thinking of them. I have something else to think of: God. There, there; in that life I see it.

And so the Christian—gazing not on what he is, but on what he desires to be—dares in penitence to say, “That righteousness is mine.” Thinking less of himself than of God, and sorrowing as it were with God, he dares, even when the recollection of his sin is most vivid and most poignant, to say with Peter, “Lord, You know all things, You know that I love You” (John 21:17).

“For I will declare my iniquity; I will be sorry for my sin” (Psalm 38:18).

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, Scotland

*Adapted from Frederick W Robertson [1816-1853], Sermons Preached at Brighton / Third Series (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1884), sermon 8. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.


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