Learning to Love The Gospel

Godly Sorrow By Michael J. Preece

Godly Sorrow

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

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).

Godly Sorrow

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 the Spirit.

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 2:12-13).

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