The phrase “godly sorrow” appears only once in Scripture, in 2 Corinthians 7:10–11: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.” Godly sorrow, also translated “godly grief,” is an acute sense of sadness we experience as a result of the sins we have committed.
Paul’s reference to godly sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7 was brought about by the reaction of the Corinthian believers to a previous letter in which Paul rebuked them for the dissentions that were present in the church. Although he was sorry to have to hurt them, he rejoiced that his letter brought them to godly sorrow “as God intended.” Godly sorrow is that which brings the repentance that leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:8–9).
Godly sorrow is a kind of wretchedness that can bring the repentant sinner to tears of grief. A good example of this is Peter at the time of Jesus’ arrest and trials. When accused as being one of Jesus’ followers, Peter disowned Jesus by cursing and swearing to his accusers that he did not know the Man. Upon hearing the rooster crow three times, he remembered the words of Jesus, who had prophesied Peter’s very actions, and he went out and wept bitterly (Matthew 26:74–75).
James wrote, “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:8–9). James is referencing this kind of deep sorrow with his command to “grieve, mourn, and wail.” Such words are reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets’ call for the people to repent, to grieve over their sins, and to sit in sackcloth and ashes.
Another illustration of godly sorrow was shown by David, “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22). David revealed his own godly sorrow for his sins in many of his psalms. In one, he pleads for God’s mercy and cries out: “I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears” (Psalm 6:6). The apostle Paul described his own battles with sin: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Then he gives the answer: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24–25).
Godly sorrow results from a heart-felt conviction that we have offended God by our sin. Such a burning conviction produces in our hearts a godly sorrow. As we look upon Him who was pierced for our sins, we are deeply grieved in spirit. And we resolve within our hearts that we will, with the help of God, “cease to do evil, and learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16).