Godly grief leads to repentance

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
September 10, 2023
2 Corinthians 7:5-16

At the Beginning of Worship

There’s a quote I remember from a book I read forty years ago. “It’s not stress that kills us, it’s the adaption to stress that allows us to live.”[1] I don’t remember all that much about the book, but that quote has struck with me for well over half of my lifetime. At times, we get worked up about the stress we experience. If we are under too much stress, physicians will tell us it may have a negative effect on our health. Stress causes issues with our hearts. 

But what would we be like if we had no stress? Stress is often what causes us to make positive changes, to grow and mature, and learn new things. Stress (along with worry and shame) can bring us to repentance, as we’ll see in today’s sermon. Paul calls this “godly grief.”

Before Reading of the Scriptures

Last week we completed a long section in Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, where he defends his ministry. Paul is now ready to begin preparing the church in Corinth for him to visit once again. 

There is an abrupt shift in chapter seven, verse five. Paul returns to the anxiety he expressed in chapter two; about a letter he wrote to the Corinthians. After he mailed it, it began to brother him. Ever do that? You mail a letter and then you wonder if you might have made matters worse? This letter, probably one that was lost to history, Paul harshly condemned the Corinthians. It then appears Paul sent Titus to Corinth to check things out and, if necessary, smooth things over. He had hoped Titus would have returned before now, but he didn’t find him in either Troas or Macedonia.[2]

Paul, bothered by what might have been the reaction of the Corinthians to us letter, went off on a tangent in Second Corinthians, defending his ministry. Now in the seventh chapter, he returns to his original discussion because Titus has shown up. 

It seems obvious that 2 Corinthians wasn’t written in one setting. Paul wrote a bit, then put it away, and now he continues writing. The situation has now changed. In today’s passage, he speaks of the joy the news Titus brought back caused Paul. 

Read 2 Corinthians 7:5-16

Do you remember the Beatles 1963 song on their second album, “Please, Mr. Postman”? It had already been a hit by the Marvelettes in 1961, and later would be recorded by The Carpenters. The lead singer in the song repeatedly asks “Mister Postman” to wait and to see if there is letter in his bag, as he hasn’t heard from his girl in a long, long time. 

The song harkens back to the age before instant email, to a day when long distant relationships were strained by the slowness of the postal service. And if it was bad in the 1960s, think about how much worse the wait was 1900 years earlier, with Paul wandering around in Macedonia, worrying, as he longed to hear from Corinth. Such wait creates anxiety. Paul experienced such as he hoped he had not burned his bridges with Corinth.  

Our section begins with Paul describing his situation (which he’s already mention several times so far in the letter). “Our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted in every way—disputes without and fears within.” His internal anxiety must have been causing arguments with others, which is something I’m sure we can identity. 

Often, at least with me, when I am torn up over on the something inside, I can unintendedly express it in hurtful ways to others…  I know I’m not the only one. When I discuss marriage with a couple planning a wedding, I’ll bring this up. Often couples have fights over things that have nothing to do with the other. You have a bad day at work, you take it out on your spouse. You feel bad, you take it out on your spouse. I wonder if this is what Paul means when he speaks of his disputes with others while having internal fears? After all, Paul is mortal and human. And, like us, he can make mistakes and sin.

But Paul found relief, to which he credits to God who consoles the downcast, for seeing to it that Titus has reappeared. Even better than reconnecting, Paul’s heart rejoices in the good news Titus brings. He feared the worst, that the Corinthians were upset with him, but learns otherwise. The church in Corinth longs to see Paul; they mourned and burn with zeal for him.

Again, isn’t that the way it often is? Have you ever been afraid of something, fearful of going forward, and then discover things are okay. Our fears of the unknown, if we let them, will cause us grief. They’ll haunt us. But as followers of Jesus, we are called to move forward in faith. No one knows what the future holds, but as Paul will later confess to the Corinthians, the Lord’s grace is sufficient.[3]

After expressing the joyful the news Titus brought, Paul admits how he has grieved because he felt he had damaged his relationship with the Corinthians. But his joy is even greater, for now he knows that the harsh words he had with the Corinthians led them to repent, which is the first step in salvation. Paul calls this godly grief and separates it from worldly grief. Godly grief leads us toward repentance. Worldly grief can only bring death, for there is no escape or way out. But with godly grief, we can experience forgiveness and salvation. 

Paul then begins to praise the members of the Corinthian Church, a church that has found consolation in Paul’s instruction. Solace is everywhere in the last half our of passage. Joy abounds. Paul is happy, the Corinthians are happy, Titus is happy.  

You know, sometimes we must hear some harsh words to get our lives back on track. Without them, we’d continue down the wrong path. Think about hiking. You think you’re on the right path, but someone comes along and suggests otherwise. If you don’t listen to them and at least check your map, you might find out the path you’re on comes to a dead end. But if you listen, you can have even more joy and be indebted to the one who came to your aid. 

Or think of navigation aids. When you enter a channel, especially a narrow one like you often have along the Carolina Coast, you pass the sea buoy. From there, out, you can assume there is deep water. Beyond the sea buoy, you can maneuver at will. But when you come inside that buoy, you must keep a close eye on path. Red, right, returning: a saying every sailor knows. As you enter the channel, the red buoys are on your right while the green ones are on your left. And you need to stay in the center. If you’re at the helm and start to stray, it’s best for someone to speak up and point out your error, otherwise you may run aground and wreck the boat. 

Paul is like the deckhand who speaks up and informs the skipper of the boat of their dangerous course. When the Corinthians repent and return to their main course, all are happy. No one is put to shame, they rejoice. 

This is why Paul can be so joyous at the end of our reading this morning. Titus brought good news and Paul is relieved and hopeful. 

What about you? Have you ever found yourself in need of being corrected? How open were you to listening to the criticism and changing your ways? We often go off on tangents. We need people like Paul to point us in the right direction, down the path Jesus trod. And when we experience such change, whether in ourselves or others, like Paul, we should rejoice. May we all experience such joy. Amen. 

[1] Melvin Konner, The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit (1982).

[2] 2 Corinthians 2:13.  See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2023/07/02/willingness-to-forgive/

[3] 2 Corinthians 12:9.

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