In the Christian tradition not all sorrow is equal. So, in his second letter to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul makes the above distinction between “godly sorrow” and “the sorrow of the world.” We can understand this distinction in a couple of ways.
The first way deals with what we are sorrowful for. Worldly sorrow is the anxiety over losing, or not having, material things. We convince ourselves that these things will makes us happy, that they will fill the void we feel inside of us. When we don’t have them, we grieve because we want them. When we have them, we grieve for fear of losing them. Inevitably, we are sorrowful because we discover that, in reality, they were a major disappointment, doing nothing to feed the hunger of our hearts.
Godly sorrow is aimed at the state of our broken world, the pain and injustice in it. This sorrow begins with recognizing my own brokenness, what Jesus calls being “poor in spirit.” Godly sorrow moves us to repentance and fills our hearts with compassion for the struggles of others.
Another way of distinguishing between godly and worldly sorrow is that they have different foundations. Worldly sorrow is founded upon the hopelessness and eventual despair of believing that what’s gone is gone. End of story.
Godly sorrow is founded upon the new life promised to us in Jesus’ Good News of salvation. This sorrow produces repentance because it is undergirded by the hope in something better. The Prodigal Son was sorrowful as he was languishing in the pig pen. Knowing that there was a home for him to go back to, he turned that sorrow into the motivation to put the pig pen behind him and return to his father.
In Christ we discover the holy paradox of gaining everything through our willingness to give it all up. Godly sorrow says that, as difficult as my current situation is, it can be a healing and saving experience. There is always hope, always the promise of turning our tears of sorrow into tears of joy.