Worldly Sorrow

WORLDLYWe’ve heard this one before, right? Famous athlete or politician gets caught in some kind of scandal. For athletes it’s usually cheating, for politicians it’s usually some kind of sexual affair. When faced with the allegations, famous cheater denies, denies, denies. Anger and outrage ensue. Lawsuits are being thrown around. Accusations. Libel. Slander. How dare they??!!??!

Then more evidence comes out. The famous person does the same act but louder and with bigger lawsuits. They continue this gambit, sometimes for years, until the evidence is so overwhelming, and the public is utterly convinced of their guilt, that they are the only one remaining on the planet who insists on their innocence.

At that point, they finally come out—at the urging of their public relations team, with careful guidance from their lawyer—looking their best, tears and all, for a carefully worded public apology. If you’re really important, you get Oprah to do it. Because if you can get Oprah to forgive you, everyone will. Then what follows is an expression of remorse for hurting others, as they try to rebuild their image. They usually blame some kind of lapse in judgment that was completely out of character. They’re a good person, who by some weird succession of events accidentally did something that may have hurt someone, allegedly.[1]

This is not repentance. This is not true sorrow. This is what Paul calls “worldly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7). This is grieving without repentance. This is grief over being caught. This is sorrow at the mess they find themselves in. This is sorrow at the loss of sponsorship. This is sorrow at a ruined reputation A carefully calculated lawyered-up apology does not repentance make.

This is altogether different from the soul laid bare repentance of the Bible. The desire of repentance is not to get out the mess, but for a clean and new heart (Psalm 51:10). Repentance is an act of turning. It’s a change of stance, a u-turn, a reversal of direction. It’s both a turning away from sin and a turning towards Jesus Christ. It’s not true repentance to feel sorrow, name your sin, and then cling to it as tight as ever. Repentance forsakes our own behaviour and turns to Christ instead.

J.I. Packer writes, “Repentance is more than just sorrow for the past; repentance is a change of mind and heart, a new life of denying self and serving the Savior as king in self’s place.”[2]


[1] For an excellent analysis of self-justification see Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Behaviours, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2007).

[2] J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1991), 71.