"But worldly sorrow brings death…" On Distinguishing a Good and Healthy Guilt From Morbid and Harmful Guilt

On of the trickier terrains to navigate in the moral world is the experience  of guilt. Guilt is understood here as a kind of sorrow for sin.

On the one hand there is an appropriate sorrow for sin we ought to experience. Yet there are also types of guilt that can set up, either from our flesh or from the devil which are self destructive and inauthentic. Some forms of morbid or harmful guilt can cause great harm and actually increase the frequency of sin due to the way they render a person discouraged and self disparaging rather, rather than chastened but confident of mercy, healing and help.   It may be of some value to make some distinctions so that we can discern what sort of guilt is healthy, and what is not.

St. Paul makes an important initial distinction for us to consider in the Second Letter to the Corinthians. Paul had rebuked the Corinthians in an earlier letter (esp. 1 Cor 5) for sinning, and tolerating sin their midst. Evidently his rebuke stung many of them significantly with sorrow. Paul writes:

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— 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. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. 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. (2 Cor 7:8-11)

Notice how Paul distinguishes between “Godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow.” And the way we can distinguish them, according to Paul is by their fruits.

For Godly sorrow has for it fruits:

  1. A repentance
  2. An earnestness to do what is right. The Greek word is σπουδή (spoude) which refers also a kind of swiftness rooted in enthusiasm.
  3. A longing for what is right. The Greek text speaks of how this Godly sorrow gave them ἐπιπόθησις (epipothesis): not just an eager longing but also understood as a strong affection for what is good and just.
  4. It also produced in them a kind of indignation for sin,
  5. And a kind of holy fear of it.

So, not a bad harvest, to be sure. Godly sorrow brings forth good things and will be known by its fruits. Paul goes on to say that Godly sorrow is a sorrow that God intends and that it does not harm us in any way. Further it leaves no regrets.

We might also add that Godly sorrow is rooted in love, our love for God and others, and our experience of God’s love for us. The sorrow is real and often quite sharp, but since it is rooted in love, it makes us run to the beloved we have offended, rather than from Him, as we sulk.

“Godly sorrow” would also seem to be related to the perfect contrition, which we refer to in the traditional Act of Contrition when we say, I detest all my sins, not only because I fear the loss of heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all , because I have offended you, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. Perfect contrition regards love, whereas imperfect contrition regards fear of punishment. Hence Godly sorrow would also seem to assist and increasingly perfect contrition.

I think I once experienced something close to Godly sorrow, approaching perfect contrition, as a child, but somewhat in relation to a human person, my mother. It was my 8th birthday, and Mom knew I loved tall buildings. So she took me to the top of the new John Hancock building in Chicago where we lived and I was thrilled to look out from the 100th floor visitors’ center. Then we had a nice lunch and returned home. I remember going to the cookie jar and reaching for one, but mom said, “Not now, you’ll spoil your birthday dinner.” I must have been tired from the long day for I looked at her and said, “You’re mean and I hate you!” As I ran from the room I realized what I had done, and was deeply sorry. I was not afraid she would punish me, I just knew I had said something terrible to my mother, something I didn’t mean. In my love and sorrow I cried and went back to tell her how sorry I felt. But love, made my sorrow a Godly sorrow and it drew me back to my mother  in a way that increased my love and made me adverse to ever speaking to her like that again. I eagerly helped her set the table and told her I really loved her.

What of “worldly sorrow” as Paul puts it? He says only it “brings death.” Here we must surmise that, whereas Godly sorrow gives live, restores relationship and love, worldly sorrow and guilt sever  these things. When we have this kind of guilt or “worldly sorrow” it is not our sins we hate, so much as our self that we hate.

In worldly sorrow, Satan has us where he wants us. Indeed, worldly sorrow is most often a fraud. For, though it masquerades as humility it often pride wherein a person may think, in effect, “How could I have done such a thing?”

If we can know something by its fruits, then we also do well to observe that worldly sorrow will often make us run from God in avoidance, rather than to him in love. Further it will often provoke anger in us making us resentful of God’s law, and that we should have to seek mercy and humble ourselves to God, or to another person we have offended. Rather than make us eager to repent, we will often delay repentance out of embarrassment or resentment.  Further, these sorts of attitudes can lead us to rationalizing sin and minimizing its significance.

Others go in a very different direction of self-loathing and despair. They may hyper-magnify what they have done or over-correct by descending into an unhealthy scrupulosity, rooted in fear of punishment, more than love of God.

All of these negative fruits, though they often masquerade as something pious, tend only to make sin even more frequent. For if one is self-loathing and despairing of one’s capacity to live in God’s love, and experience his correction, then there is little strength for them to draw on. They see only weakness and guilt, but miss love and the splendor of grace. Perceiving no basis out of which to get better, they descend deeper into sin, run further from God in unholy fear, and the cycle gets deeper and darker. Thus St. Paul describes worldly sorrow as bringing death.

When one starts to see “fruits” of this sort, it is increasingly certain we are dealing with worldly sorrow which produces all these death-directed drives. A confessor or spiritual director will often have to work long and hard to break some of these negative cycles and help a person find and experience Godly sorrow which brings with it real progress. Godly sorrow is a sorrow to be sure, but one rooted in love.

Discernment in regard to guilt, to sorrow for sin, is essential. Thankfully we are given some good principles by St. Paul and encouraged to distinguish these very different sorrows (Godly and worldly) by their fruits. Satan loves cheap imitations. He, wolf that he is,  loves to masquerade in sheep’s clothing. But learn to know his cheap “imitation sorrow” by its fruits, which are death-directed, rather than God-directed.

After a serious topic here is a a humorous and remarkable video depicting “guilt” in a dog. I have to say, I remain fascinated how the dogs and cats I have had all seem to know when they’ve messed up. Their guilt, I am sure is rooted more in fear of punishment than love of me, God or the truth. But one nice thing about animals, they run back pretty fast and make friends again. Enjoy this remarkable video that has over 12 million views.