If humility before God is so important, how then do we maintain it? We maintain it, or rather, return to a state of humility through godly sorrow. Here the ESV uses the word grief instead of sorrow, but most of the time within the Church we use the phrase “godly sorrow.”
For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God.
– 2 Corinthians 7:8-12, ESV
Paul, in writing back to the believers in Corinth, made a point of saying he didn’t regret any grief he may have caused them for a previous letter. His rationale was simple: if there was grief it was short-lived and it led to repentance. In other words, it led to a turning back to God, a confession of sins, and a desire to be in right relationship with the Father again. Godly sorrow isn’t something to be avoided. Sin is to be avoided. However, since we have such a hard time avoiding sin, then we must deal with our sin. It should trouble us. We’ve let God down. We’ve disobeyed Him. We have broken fellowship with Him. We’ve committed grievous wrongs to the One who loves us beyond our understanding and sacrificed so greatly on our behalf. This is godly sorrow. And this should drive us to our knees to beseech our Lord to forgive us and to restore us.
That’s why Paul said it led to salvation without regret. Worldly grief can’t do that. Longing after the things of the world won’t help us. It doesn’t matter if we have it, we’ve lost it, or we’ll never get it, wanting the things of the world so much that it grieves us draws us away from God and causes us to walk the wrong path. If this is all the sorrow we have have in life, if our sins don’t trouble us, if we don’t yearn to turn back to God at some point, we are on the path to destruction. Paul wanted the believers in Corinth to understand this. He wanted them to see the necessity of godly sorrow. He also wanted them to understand that such a sorrow wasn’t on behalf and benefit of the person or persons wronged. It was for the benefit of he or she who had stumbled in sin. Stop and think about that for a minute.
God isn’t primarily concerned with restoring to us the things of this world. He may do so, sure, but His primary focus is to restore us to Himself and then to sanctify us so that we are like Him. As a result, godly sorrow is designed to work on us when we sin. It is designed to break us down so that He might build us up even stronger. He is removing the weak parts of our foundations, of our lives, and putting into place His strength and His might.
Godly sorrow is crucial to our growth and development as His people. When it comes upon us we must remember that its presence means God hasn’t given up on us. He is still working in us. He is restoring us to a position of humility so that our relationship with Him might be restored. He is changing our hearts, cleaning up our lives, and developing in us the characteristics and passions of His Son. He is blooming within us an abhorrence for sin and a burning desire for righteousness and holiness. We should not go looking for sin, but we should not flee from the godly sorrow that should come when we have mucked around in disobedience. Let us remember the importance of godly sorrow. Let us seek to allow it to have full effect on us, so that God might restore us and benefit us. Let us not flee from it, but humbly accept His discipline. After all, the Lord disciplines those whom He loves (Proverbs 3:12, quoted again in Hebrews 12:6).