“Crying over spilled milk” is perhaps the more conventional saying. But when I was younger, I couldn’t imagine a bigger tragedy than spilling ground tomatoes and pepper on my way back from the Iya alata (Yoruba for the woman in charge of the grinding mill).
By the mercies of God, I never suffered that tragedy. But on my way back from one errand or the other, I’d sometimes encounter a miserable child crying over the blended mix that was slowly returning to the dust whence it came.
My heart usually went out to them because I could imagine the railing and life-changing trashing that awaited them whenever they finally got the courage to return home with an empty bowl. But you know children: only sorry for that moment. Once recovered from the pain of rebuke, they go right ahead to engage in some childish mischief akin to what probably put them in trouble in the first place.
I am not sorry that I sent that severe letter to you, though I was sorry at first, for I know it was painful to you for a little while. Now I am glad I sent it, not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.(2 Corinthians 7:8-10, NLT)
The first letter to the Corinthian church was a gloves-off, hell-raising, table-shattering missive from Apostle Paul in response to the untoward practices that were happening in the Corinthian church. His letter touched many a heart, provoking sorrow and repentance. Paul however takes the opportunity to school them (and us) on the difference between godly and worldly sorrow.
As we continue the journey to perfection, there is the possibility that we express some form of imperfection, by going against the demands of God placed on the life of the believer. Whenever this happens, what God requires of us is not dissolving into tears or holding interminable fasts: what He wants is repentance. Any histrionics or self-flagellation that does not result in repentance was never godly sorrow.
Repentance (metanoia in Greek) denotes a change of mind, a change in the way you think. The only agent that is capable of transforming a man’s mind and changing the way a man thinks, is the word of God.
Hiding God’s word in our hearts and our hearts in God’s Word (and thus being able to detect the lies of the flesh and the devil) is a veritable way of staying transgression free. Any post-mistake sorrow that does not lead you back to God’s word is no godly sorrow.
Sorrowing or remorse after you slip into sin is OK, but you can’t afford to remain there, because if you do, you’ll find yourself begging God for forgiveness for the same thing, sooner or later. Let your remorse lead you back to God, and what He has said. Fix your mind again on what He has said: only then is true repentance possible.
Remember that worldly sorrow leads only to spiritual death. For the unbeliever, this means that it is not enough to be sorry for your ways; repentance is what you need. A turning away from sins, and a turning to God through Jesus Christ alone.