The Apostle talks about the difference between regret (worldly sorrow) and repentance (godly sorrow) in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10. He doesn’t give a lot of detail there, but thinking of Paul’s words, other Scripture, and life’s experiences, more can be said about regret versus repentance. Alfred Poirier does a nice job explaining the difference:
Regret and repentance differ with respect to God and self. Regret is a result of fearing man, whereas repentance is the fruit of fearing God. Fear of man is a snare, says Solomon (see Prov. 29:25), and one of the ways it snares us is by fostering in us a sense of regret. We regret that others have found out about us and that we have been exposed. In response, we run from God and attempt to cover and protect ourselves from the penetrating gaze of others, just as Adam ran from God and hid himself in the garden. Repentance, on the other hand, runs first to God. It throws itself before God and upon his mercy, even as David casts himself on the Lord (Ps. 51:1).
Regret and repentance also differ with respect to sin and self. Whereas regret sorrows over not being as great as one thought, repentance sees oneself as one really is. For example, regret bemoans, ‘I can’t believe I did that,’ but repentance confesses, ‘I can believe it, and that is only the tip of the iceberg.’ Regret laments the fruit of sin, whereas repentance sorrows over both the fruit and root of sin (Ps. 51:5).
Finally, regret and repentance differ with respect to others and oneself. Regret or worldly sorrow leads either to self-righteousness or self-condemnation. When we beat ourselves up, we also beat others up. We resent others when they wrong us, and we are quick to take offense and point out their faults. Repentance, on the other hand, leads to Christ’s righteousness. We rejoice that we are not condemned. WE glory in Christ’s perfect obedience and love, and soon, like Christ, we too mourn over the sins of others and seek to help them be reconciled to God (Ps. 51:12-13).
I’ve edited Poirer’s helpful explanations of the difference between regret and repentance. You can find the full text in chapter 6 of The Peacemaking Pastor.
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