8 Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— 9 yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. 10 Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. 11 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. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. 12 So even though I wrote to you, it was neither on account of the one who did the wrong nor on account of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are.

1. The Universal Problem of Regret

I recently came across an article [1] on Today’s website (an American news and talk morning TV show) where a professor of human development conducted a survey asking hundreds of elderly people, nearing the end of their lives, this one question:

What do you regret when you look back on your life?” [2]

One of the main common responses Professor Karl Pillemer and his research team received through his conversations with older Americans were, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much of my life worrying.” Other responses that competed for first place were:

I wished I was more careful in choosing a life partner.”

I wished I resolved a relational conflict with one of my family members.”

I wished I got to explore the world more.”

I wish I was more honest.”

I wished I expressed how I felt more frequently.”

I wished I took better care of my body.”

If there was one pressing truth that can be said from reading all these unfulfilled desires and wishes shared by the collective wisdom and thought of many of these elderly Americans, it would be this: that we want to make the most of everything in our lives. Now you can try pull the tough act and fool yourself into believing that all that has happened is meant to be and that you have absolutely no regrets, and never will have regrets. But hearts that are etched in eternity, and implanted into bodies that contain the divine imprint of God will always ponder: Am I making the most out of my life? Carefree and seemingly-untroubled individuals who abide by the idealistic proverbial “Live without regrets” are either profoundly living in denial under the veneer of consummated self-satisfaction or have detached themselves from the plethora of passions of this world.

Pillemer also shares these sentiments and shreds this rather fanciful maxim, “If you get to the end of your life with no regrets at all, you probably haven’t lived that interesting a life.” As beings of love and desire, regrets will inevitably come our way as we reflect deeply into the crevices of our lives. The subjective feelings of remorse and sorrow have become naturally embedded within the fabric of depraved mankind who live and reside in a sin-bound and broken world. We abhor these dreaded feelings, thinking it is unhealthy and harmful for our bodies.

Regrets are often seen as the marks of an unfulfilled, irredeemable and dejected life.

But are these feelings inherently sinful in themselves? Can these feelings of remorse lead us to grasp the weight of certain regrets we should truly fathom? And are these fathomable regrets redeemable? Can we make proper amends for these regrets? Or does only utter despair and hopelessness await those who have made atrocious life decisions and choices, slandered their family and friends to the breaking point of irredeemability, and most importantly, transgressed severely against a most holy and righteous God?

2. The Context of 2 Corinthians 7 (verses 8, 12-13)

The passage we read today is riddled with sentiments of regret and contrition.  The apostle Paul wrote a letter of rebuke to the church at Corinth in response to the recent arrival of heretical teachers (whom Paul refers to as ‘super-apostles’ in 2 Cor 11:5), who endeavoured to dissuade the Corinthian church of the apostle’s Christ-centred theology, and swayed them into false teaching (2 Cor 11:1-4). In seeing how the Corinthian church was hurt by the letter, Paul expresses initial regret for his severity toward them (verse 8). However, those feelings of remorse subsided and Paul no longer felt regret when it became apparent that the Corinthians weren’t just “made sorry” for their mistreatment of him, but had instead further come to genuine repentance through their sorrow. (verse 9).

Paul was greatly pleased and encouraged by the indwelt feelings of guilt, regret and sorrow that stirred within these Corinthians at the reading of his letter (verse 13). But how? How can someone’s remorse and regret become another’s joy and encouragement? On what planet would you have to live in to witness others being encouraged by the instilled remorse and grief exhibited by the meek and the contrite?

3. Worldly Regret Produces Relational Dissonance and Leads to Death (verse 10)

Our scepticism to this might stem from the fact that many of us have seen, both in ourselves and in others, a sort of sorrow that expresses itself in merely being ‘made sorry.’ We are sorrowful because we failed to hide our sins from others properly. We feel grieved because the punishment for our wrongdoing is too much to bear and we demand relief. We are regretful because our comfort and safety is compromised. These are concrete manifestations of a type of grief that is worldly. You can say and feel sorry without actually saying and feeling sorry.

Any transgressed victim who has been on the receiving end of physical abuse, with full knowledge of the impenitence in the remorseless hearts of their assailants, would find no peace and rest in their own hearts at their assailants’ insincere petitions for mercy. We are utterly fed up with these kinds of people who plea for forgiveness on repeat, but show no indication of behavioural reformation in their lives. The fruits of this worldly grief, produced by such people, only reaps perpetual conflict among their peers, affliction through the ramifications of their own fraudulent actions, and it ultimately leads to their own destruction.

4. Godly Regret Produces Repentance and Leads to Salvation (verse 10)

So is Paul completely misguided for finding peace and rest in the sorrows of his own brethren? Or is there something else to the nature of this grief that has gotten Paul overwhelmed with encouragement?

This strange, countercultural phenomenon can only happen within the confines of God’s economy of grace – there is a type of sorrow, a type of grief, a type of regret that is like no other. This type of grief recognises itself to be a symptom of humanity’s most malignant heart disease – that is, sin. This grief is consumed with remorse not because it failed to hide its sins, or desires relief from affliction, but rather because it has sinned against God. This grief acknowledges that it has transgressed first and foremostly against God before all others. This grief overwhelms the individual, not because He has broken God’s law, thus incurring its consequences, but because He has broken God’s heart.

But this grief does not bury itself in the pits of depression, crippling themselves from seeking help for its heart condition, as Paul mentions here in verse 8b: “I see that the letter grieved you, though only for a while.” But this type of grief seeks to find a cure to save themselves outside of themselves, and to be renewed into a life that seeks to reform its behaviour from a deeper measure of that saving power.

This is the sort of sorrow that the apostle was so thrilled about, so much so that he no longer dwelt on his regrets over the tone of severity in his letter (verse 8a). Godly sorrow, grief and regret leads to true repentance, which paves the way to salvation (verse 10). Paul was overjoyed that the Corinthians had shown, through their godly sorrow, their active pursuit of repentance and submitting themselves to the cross of Christ, displaying evidence to him that they possessed true saving faith in Christ.

Godly sorrow produced in the Corinthians: (a) an earnestness, to turn around from their wicked ways; (b) an eagerness to clear themselves of the guilt and shame only made possible by faith in Christ; (c) indignation at their own sin; (d) an alarm, a kind of fear of lapsing back into their fallen ways; (e) a longing for godliness and purity; (f) a concern for the ways of God; and (g) a readiness to see justice done. Only when these marks of repentance are seen in an individual who does not simply profess confession but possesses it, will they have proved themselves to possess the assurance of salvation, and be in union with Christ, the source of everlasting joy and satisfaction (verse 11b).

If new life with God is attained through the instrument of authentic repentance and faith, brewed from the subjective feelings of guilt stemming from our spiritual failure, then would it not be right to express immense joy?

5. The Author of Godly Regret (verse 9)

But how can my regret be a godly one? How can I be sure that my heart is crying real tears for repentance? Will I ever be able to make things right?

These doubts that often surface into our minds whenever we contemplate the legitimacy of our actions, reflect a much darker reality inherent in wretched mankind – that all of us have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23) and are unable to bring sincere change to our wicked ways, for our fleshy selves would never desire to submit to the good and holy ways of God (Rom 8:7-8). Our very own conscience testifies to the depravity of our hearts – we won’t always feel genuinely sorry when we say sorry, and we won’t always want to change our ways when our old ways always seem so much more gratifying.

But our total inability to cultivate true desire for repentance within ourselves points to a Saviour that can, and that is what we see in the case of the Corinthians: “For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.” (verse 9). How radical is this! The Corinthians did not intend to become sorrowful for their rejection of the gospel and for their mistreatment of Paul, but it was God who intended it – God brewed within their hearts this godly sorrow, so that they would come to seek true repentance, leading to grace-abounding new life in relationship with the Father!

God is the author of our godly regret, and thereby is also the author of our repentance (2 Tim 2:25) and of the new life we have received through the atoning work of His Son (Eph 2:8-9; Heb 5:9), applied into our hearts by the work of the Spirit (John 3:3-5).

The atrocities we committed in our lives often seem irreparable at times. Even if we wished to make amends for our mistakes, the complexities of the fallen world oftentimes prevent us from ever being able to make reconciliation for our actions. We may never be given opportunities to right our wrongs. And this inevitability brings dissonance and distress to the destitute – we might ask, ‘Will I ever find true peace and joy in my life?’

God has condescended to our broken world to deal with humanity’s greatest regret. He has dealt with the regret that truly mattered: one that, if left untouched, would bring all who are under sin to be subjected to the divine punishment of eternal separation from the source of all life-giving. But if we prayerfully ask God to instill in us the recognition of our transgressions before Him, He is merciful and kind to restore us into a living hope of renewed life in communion with God, the fountain to everlasting life Himself.

I’ll end with a subtle twist on Pillemer’s statement, “If you get to the end of your life with no regrets at all, you most certainly haven’t found what it means to live life.”

[1] Pawlowski, A 2017, How to live life without major regrets: 8 lessons from older Americans, accessed 25 April 2019, https://www.today.com/health/biggest-regrets-older-people-share-what-they-d-do-differently-t118918

[2] Gillett, R 2016, People over 65 shared their greatest regret in life – the most common one may surprise you, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/people-over-65-shared-their-greatest-regret-in-life-the-most-common-one-may-surprise-you-a6800851.html

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