Sorrow for Sin
We may define sorrow as the emotional experience resulting from an unhappy
comparison between one’s perceived present condition—with its likely prospects for the
future—and a more favorable and preferred condition which might have existed but for
certain intervening volitional factors. In other words, when one finds oneself in a
situation which might have been significantly better were it not for one’s own unwise
behaviors, one feels a painful regret and a yearning for that better situation. This painful
longing is sorrow. John Greenleaf Whittier’s familiar refrain is profoundly true: “. . . of
all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’” Words
that share similar meanings with sorrow include grief, mourning, distress, sadness,
bereavement, unhappiness, regret, and trouble.
Guilt is a related painful emotion. It emphasizes an awareness that the source of
those factors standing in the way of a more favorable condition are one’s own
misdeeds, especially one’s sins.
The type of sorrow pertinent to our present discussion is sorrow for sin. We may
divide this type of sorrow into two sub-types, worldly sorrow and godly sorrow. The
former is often a self-serving, unproductive, and unbecoming emotion. The latter
implies a divine perspective and usually provides an impetus for change (repentance).
Paul distinguishes between the two: “I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry [worldly
sorrow], but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly
manner [godly sorrow]. . . . For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation” (2
Corinthians 7:9-11). Paul also described “the sorrow of the world [which] worketh
[spiritual] death” and a “godly sorrow [which] worketh repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Worldly sorrow begins with the intellectual acknowledgement of error. It may be
the sorrow of the sincere individual who desires to make amends for his mistakes.
More often it is the unbecoming emotion resulting from contemplating the
disadvantages or discredit to oneself that might result from one’s misdeeds. Examples
include the distress of the criminal because he is caught; the frustration of the immoral
youth who learns she is pregnant; or the anger and displeasure of the wrongdoer who
learns his evil designs have been thwarted. It is often associated with various degrees
of regret, resentment, annoyance, exasperation, chagrin, fear of social ostracism, and
embarrassment. It is the fear of having to suffer the practical and often humiliating
consequences of one’s actions.
Worldly sorrow often begs the question and misses the most pertinent truth.
Consider, for example, the widespread anguish over the disease AIDS in the gay
communities of the world. This regret and sorrow includes no thought of repenting of
the sexual misconduct that lies at the base of the disease. That would surely interfere
with the victims’ individual “freedoms” and is therefore not “on the table.”
The prophet Mormon was a witness of an extreme type of worldly sorrow he
called the “sorrowing of the damned.” Due to the wickedness of the Nephite armies of
his day, many of their number had been slaughtered in battle. His heart momentarily
rejoiced when he saw their lamentation and mourning before the Lord. “But behold this
my joy was vain, for their sorrowing was not unto repentance . . . but it was rather the
sorrowing of the damned, [they were sorry and disillusioned] because the Lord would
not always suffer them to take happiness in sin” (Mormon 2:13). These Nephites were
not sorrowing over their dismal prospects for future salvation. They were “past feeling”
(Ephesians 4:19; 1 Nephi 17:45; Moroni 9:20). They were immersed in purely worldly
concerns such as their lack of happiness and opportunities for pleasure. They had
developed a perverted and depraved desire to kill their brother Lamanites. They
“delighted in the shedding of blood continually” (Mormon 4:11). They likely sorrowed
over their lack of success in battle with its attendant lack of opportunities to take more
lives. Their central concerns were their physical comfort and survival, the thrill of killing,
the ignominy of defeat, and the fear of death. These habitual sinners had lost all touch
with the Spirit, had no interest in spiritual things, and were fixated upon things of the
world.1 They felt no inkling or desire to change. They had no thought to repent. The
sorrow of the damned comes from hopelessness, despair, anxiety, and fear which
“cometh because of iniquity” (Moroni 10:22).
True repentance from major sins requires more than “worldly sorrow.” It also
requires “godly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:9-11). Godly sorrow is viewing sin from a
divine perspective—in a true eternal setting.
One cannot experience true godly sorrow lest it be personally revealed by the
Holy Spirit. It is a precious gift of the Spirit. It does not come easily. It must be
sincerely sought before can be obtained.
How does one acquire this gift of the Spirit? The formula for acquiring any gift of
the Spirit is always the same. First, one must summon from within a genuine desire to
obtain the gift, in this case a yearning to repent. One must then evidence this desire by
“experimenting upon the words [of Christ]” (Alma 32:27-29). That is, one must strive
with one’s conscious and purposeful thoughts and behavior to recognize one’s errors
and feel remorse for them. One must plead, in humble prayer, for forgiveness from the
Lord. One must make amends where possible by asking the forgiveness of any who
might have been offended. One must contemplate the excruciating atoning suffering
the Lord willingly agreed to withstand in order to rescue or redeem you. One must
express the gratitude due the Lord for his utter selflessness.
President Spencer W. Kimball wrote of the difficulty in acquiring the gift of godly
sorrow using repentance of sexual sin as an example. It requires confessing the sin to
one’s bishop. It also requires a permanent forsaking of the sin. Even then the process
of repentance is not complete. “There must be a washing, a purging, a changing of
attitudes, a correcting of appraisals, a strengthening toward self-mastery. And these
cleansing processes cannot be accomplished as easily as taking a bath or shampooing
the hair, or sending a suit of clothes to the cleaner. There must be many prayers and
volumes of tears” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, 155).
Once sufficient deliberate effort has been expended and suffering experienced,
the Spirit will judge and see fit to begin to bestow the gift of godly sorrow. The gift
instills a heartfelt desire and determination to repent, to change one’s life. Only when
he possesses true godly sorrow does the individual have the strength and ability to
complete the process of true repentance of major sins. Any attempt to categorize
certain sins as “major” ones must inevitably contain an element of arbitrariness, but
certainly they would include flagrant sexual sins, murder, other egregious form of
dishonesty or criminal activity, and open apostasy.
What Are the Characteristics of this Supernal Gift?
An element of suffering. Apparently, only the distressed soul can truly repent
of major sin. The prophet Alma said to his sinful son Corianton, “I would not dwell upon
your crimes, to harrow up your soul, if it were not for your good” (Alma 39:7). To
“harrow up” is to vex or cause mental distress. The soul must be harrowed up in order
to truly repent of serious sin. Only the truly distressed soul can experience the type of
sorrow essential for true repentance.
In the previous chapter, we discussed the painful conversion experiences of
Paul, the younger Alma, and the four sons of Mosiah.2 We might well view these as
examples of the Lord’s bestowing the gift of godly sorrow, though obviously they were
especially intense and unusually dramatic.
It brings the sufferer consciously to the brink of spiritual catastrophe. The
gift of godly sorrow is a heart-felt realization that one has tampered with and placed in
serious jeopardy one’s eternal welfare. It is the genuine conviction that one’s behavior
has tragically betrayed one’s eternal potential. One understands that he has been a
devastating disappointment to his Father in heaven. It is the agonizing realization that
one’s eternal life hangs dangerously and precariously in the balance.
In describing his experience with godly sorrow during his miraculous conversion
Alma noted: “I was struck with such great fear and amazement lest perhaps I should be
destroyed. . . . I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the
greatest degree and racked with all my sins. . . . I was tormented with the pains of hell;
yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy
commandments” (Alma 36:11-13). Undoubtedly, Alma was blessed to know that his
spending eternity in hell was a genuine and imminent reality.
A “broken heart and contrite spirit” or divine indebtedness. In order to
achieve the state of godly sorrow, it is necessary to sink into the depths of humility and
recognize deep within one’s soul that without the Savior and his atonement one is lost.
One must recognize that without Christ it is impossible to repent. One’s heart is broken
due to a realization of the suffering Christ had to endure. One must “turn to the Lord
with all [one’s] mind, might, and strength” (see Alma 29:13). A broken heart and contrite
spirit can be fully achieved only through personal revelation. It is itself a separate gift of
A personal interview with the Lord. Figuratively, godly sorrow may be
understood to be like a personal interview with the Savior himself. In such an interview,
the Lord would address himself to the individual’s particular sin and the consequences
of remaining unrepentant. But, the love and concern of the Savior for the sinner would
emerge as the predominant theme. The individual would literally feel the warm and
loving embrace of the Lord.
The overall effect of this figurative personal interview would be to engender in the
individual a compelling deep remorse that he has offended the Lord by breaking his
laws. He would have an urge to do whatever it takes to be forgiven and start anew—be
it apology, confession, disciplinary action, or any other divinely dictated requirement.
A turning of the heart outward rather than inward. Godly sorrow is an
enrichment and an enabling of the inner spiritual self. It seeks to subdue the natural
self. The suffer of godly sorrow becomes keenly aware of those whom his sins have
affected. He is drawn to make amends and offer restitution. He becomes less
concerned about himself in the process than he is about others who are involved.
An element of empathy. He who suffers in God’s universe develops empathy
for others who suffer. No suffering will ever take place on this earth, or on any other of
God’s “worlds without number” (Moses 1:33), that the Savior did not personally
experience in Gethsemane and on the cross. Just as Jesus’s empathy was perfected
during his atonement suffering, so might we, on a much smaller scale, acquire empathy
for others as we suffer any form of “sanctification suffering.”
An element of joy. It would be quite unlike our God to require suffering and
then not overcompensate the sufferer in the form of blessings. He blesses the sufferer
of godly sorrow with joy. In relating his conversion experience to his son Helaman,
Alma first graphically recounted his suffering. He noted that he thought he was
“encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.” Then he wrote: “And now, behold,
when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the
memory of my sins no more. And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold;
yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!” (Alma 36:19-20).
Godly sorrow is the recognition that one has offended God, broken the divine
law, strayed from the strait and narrow path, and jeopardized one’s eternal future. Even
though the scripture says the blood of Jesus Christ “was shed for the remission of your
sins” (D&C 27:2), nothing but genuine remorse for having offended God can bring
forgiveness. The Lord has said “My blood shall not cleanse them if they hear me not”
(D&C 29:17). The sufferer of godly sorrow has a ready willingness to acknowledge his
sins and a hungry yearning to make recompense for them. He becomes willing to
receive any punishment required to right himself before the Lord. He is not inclined to
dictate the terms of his own punishment. He also enjoys the tangible blessing of the
Savior’s love and support communicated to him by the Spirit. He realizes that
“wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). True repentance “of the godly sort” (2
Corinthians 7:11) follows. He is devoid of hypocrisy, pretense, and deception. The
prophet Joel described him as one apt to “rend [his] heart and not [his] garments” (Joel
Once godly sorrow is experienced, the tears may freely flow. There will be soulwrenching,
sometimes even exquisite pain. It may take the individual “down to the dust
in humility” (Alma 42:30). There will be newfound reservoirs of compassion for those
who may have been hurt and perhaps sore embarrassment because he hurt them. The
truly repentant also feel profound gratitude and divine indebtedness for being rescued
from Satan’s grasp. There finally follows a complete submission to God’s will, a “broken
heart and contrite spirit” (2 Nephi 2:7; 3 Nephi 9:20). They are once again secure in
the arms of the Lord’s mercy and in his Church.
Vaughn J. Featherstone tells of a young man who came to him for a mission
interview. Elder Featherstone inquired as to the young man’s transgressions. In a
haughty manner the young man replied, “There isn’t anything I haven’t done.” Elder
Featherstone inquired as to specifics, morals, drugs, and so on. Again he replied, “I told
you, I have done everything.” Elder Featherstone asked, “What makes you think you’re
going on a mission?” “Because I have repented,” came the reply. “I haven’t done any
of these things for a year.” Elder Featherstone then looked at the young man across
the table, twenty-one years of age, sarcastic, haughty, with an attitude far removed from
sincere repentance. “My dear young friend,” he said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but you
are not going on a mission. . . . You shouldn’t have been ordained an elder, and you
really should have been tried for your membership in the Church. What you have
committed is a series of monumental transgressions. You haven’t repented; you’ve just
stopped doing something. Someday, after you have been to Gethsemane and back,
you will understand what true repentance is.” At this, the young man started to cry. It
lasted for about five minutes. There was no exchange of words, only silence. Then he
left Elder Featherstone’s office.
About six months later Elder Featherstone was speaking to an institute group in
Arizona. Following the meeting, he saw this same young man walking up the aisle
towards him. The details of their interview flashed through his mind. Elder
Featherstone reached down from the podium to shake his hand. As the young man
looked up, Elder Featherstone could see that something wonderful had taken place in
his life. Tears streamed down the young man’s cheeks. An almost holy glow came
from his countenance. “You’ve been there, haven’t you?” asked Elder Featherstone.
Through the tears he said, “Yes, Bishop Featherstone, I’ve been to Gethsemane and
back.” “I know,” Elder Featherstone replied. “It shows in your face. I believe now that
the Lord has forgiven you” (A Generation of Excellence, 156-59).
- Michael J. Preece