Worldly Sorrow (or Why It Is Necessary to Forgive)


“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.” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10)

Martin Luther famously stated that the Christian life is a life of repentance. Whenever I am reminded of this, I am faced with a dilemma. When I look at myself and at the lives of my fellow Christians, I wonder: “Why do we have lives of conviction, followed by confession, but no repentance?” The answer from the bible is that only true conviction and confession leads to repentance. Repentance is a change of mind, then a change of actions; this is what Romans 12:2 is on about: being transformed to bring the life of Jesus wherever we go.

The word repentance is bandied around an awful lot by both Christians and non-Christians alike, so some definitions may be helpful.

RESTITUTION = paying back what you owe, something that has been lost...whatever sin that is. RECONCILIATION = seeing eye to eye on the problem.

The correct process of repentance should always be conviction, leading to confession, which brings repentance, restitution of the debt owed, and finally reconciliation. This is what is modelled by the relationship between Christ and the church in the plan of salvation.

However, we’ve all seen another kind of repentance; religious repentance. By that I mean repenting for someone else, not for yourself. Of course that is a bad thing to do, but we all fall into it. I can think of at least 20 people whose sins I can confess to God; but that isn't the point of the whole deal. Its personal.

An Illness That Leaves A Bitter Taste

Not forgiving a person is the path to bitterness. Bitterness almost invariably has good reasons for its existence and the intensity of the bitterness is proportional to the closeness of the relationship with that person.

In a nutshell, this is what bitterness looks like:

remembering a specific hurt

avoiding someone

no tolerance for that person

verbally maligning the person

The cause of bitterness may be Very real, but it is still a sin. It is also terminally destructive, and without fail, it will wreak havoc in your life and the lives of those around you if you hold onto it. Therefore, as Christians, we need to deal with it sooner rather than later, because later might result in actions that we will live to regret. Even though it may not be obvious, bitterness is the biggest unseen problem in a church, and when dealt with, can be the difference between night and day in terms of real community and effectiveness for the gospel.

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)


There is a really obvious progression of thoughts to actions here, and it is worth noting that the end result is often a long way from how something began. This is testament to the power of sin in a person’s life, that something can start as small as bitterness and result in a person who is capable of anything. That is the reality of sin. A bitter thought is eternally equal to murder. That is how serious God takes all of this.

As followers of God, we have one basis for morality, one point of truth and good. It is God. If we are actually followers of God, He is our first port of call in discovering exactly how to forgive. Forgiveness is defined by what God did for you. It’s not contingent on another person’s repentance, its contingent on God's character.

Forgiveness Regains Our Self Control

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age,” (Titus 2:11-12)

It is not popular to talk about in today’s society, but one of the things the word of God encourages us to do is to be self-controlled. Proverbs 25:28 likens a man with no control over his emotions to be “like a city broken into and left without walls”. This man is weak and unable to be protected from his enemies attacks, and also unable to protect others within his boundaries. One of the freeing things forgiveness does is that it allow us to control our emotions. We see how a lack of self-control plays out with the first brothers in Genesis 4:1-8, where Cain is angry with Abel and God describes sin as a beast crouching at Cains door, ready to devour him. Ultimately Cain gives in to his emotions and is ruled by them resulting in his brother’s murder. We must be serious and be aware that we are just as capable of such an action, if we do not forgive and we let bitterness run its course.

What Forgiveness Is Not

There are a lot of weird and wonderful ideas about what forgiveness looks like, and some of these make people believe that forgiveness is not something a strong person does, or not something a right thinking person should be involved with. Just to be crystal clear, here are the things that forgiveness is definitely Not:

is not approving of the sin...because after all, God died for it

is not not excusing the sin

is not denying the wrong

is not overlooking the sin

is not forgetting the sin, but choosing not to hold it against someone

What Forgiveness Is

Taking our cues of what forgiveness involves from God (Who forgives us for the sake of Christ, in a completely unconditional way, if we repent of our sin) here are the things that forgiveness most definitely is. Beware, they are all very difficult to do on your own:

is loving a person, in spite of what they have said and done

is choosing not to punish a person...after all, Jesus has died for that sin

is choosing not to keep a record of wrongs

is choosing to give mercy (not giving someone what they deserve)

is an ongoing daily practice, not a one-time event

is separate to, and not necessarily reconciliation

It should also be made very clear that forgiveness is not a restoration of full trust. This is especially important if there is a situation like abuse where danger is likely to be present.

So How on Earth Do I Forgive?

“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;” (Hebrews 12:15)

The only way to fail to obtain the grace of God is to fail to repent, to have faith in the finished work of Jesus. Jesus died in our place, for our sins, even the sin of the person towards whom you are bitter. So the only way to beginning removing the root of bitterness seems counter-intuitive; it is saying sorry to God and to the person in question for holding those things against them. Only then can God begin to heal you by his Spirit.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

Forgiveness is a work of the Holy Spirit. Of course, the word isn’t in the Galatians verse, but without all those fruit present in your life, you simply cannot forgive a personas Christ has forgiven us sinners. We need the Holy Spirit to love the undeserving person, to enjoy them, the be at peace with them and be patient with them all the time. We need the Holy Spirit to be able to be kind and do good deeds for that person, to be a faithful friend to that person, to be gentle and to keep your emotions in check with that person. This is something we must be praying for, asking God to give us a forgiving heart for the person who has wronged us, and not simply sitting around waiting to somehow be more forgiving. This also means we need to start acting in this way towards the person, so that the Holy Spirit will empower us to do what He has commanded us to do.

“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matthew 6:14-15)

These are the words of Jesus, and they are possibly the strongest reason to forgive. If you never forgive a person for what they have done, it shows that you did not have the Holy Spirit enabling you to do so at some point in your life. Of course, these things take time in some circumstances, and we should never expect to be able to forgive others at the drop of a hat. However, one who is forgiven by God has the ability to forgive in the same way.