Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 51


The Power of Sorrow

Preached June 30, 1850

  Frederick W. Robertson

“Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” - II Corinthians 7:9-10


That which is chiefly insisted on in this verse is the distinction between sorrow amid repentance. To grieve over sin is one thing, to repent of it is another.

The apostle rejoiced, not that the Corinthians sorrowed, but that they sorrowed unto repentance. Sorrow has two results; it may end in spiritual life, or in spiritual death; and in themselves, one of these is as natural as the other. Sorrow may produce two kinds of reformation-a transient, or a permanent one-alteration in habits, which, originating in emotion, will last so long as that emotion continues, and then after a few fruitless efforts be given up-a repentance which will be repented of or again, a permanent change, which will be reversed by no afterthought-a repentance not to be repented of. Sorrow is in itself, therefore, a thing neither good nor bad: its value depends on the spirit of the person on whom it falls. Fire will inflame straw, soften iron, or harden clay; its effects are determined by the object with which it comes in contact. Warmth develops the energies of life, or helps the progress of decay. It is a great power in the hothouse, a great power also in the coffin: it expands the leaf, matures the fruit, adds precocious vigor to vegetable life: and warmth too develops with tenfold rapidity the weltering process of dissolution. So too with sorrow. There are spirits in which it develops the seminal principle of life; there are others in which it prematurely hastens the consummation of irreparable decay. Our subject therefore is the twofold power of sorrow.


I. The fatal power of the sorrow of the world.

II. The life-giving power of the sorrow that is after God.


The simplest way in which the sorrow of the world works death, is seen in the effect of mere regret for worldly loss. There are certain advantages with which we come into the world. Youth, health, friends, and sometimes property. So long as these are continued we are happy; and because happy, fancy ourselves very grateful to God. We bask in the sunshine of His gifts, and thus pleasant sensation of sunning ourselves in life we call religion; that state in which we all are before sorrow comes, to test the temper of the metal of which our souls are made, when the spirits are unbroken and the heart buoyant, when a fresh morning is to a young heart what it is to the skylark. The exuberant burst of joy seems a spontaneous hymn to the Father of all blessing, like the matin carol of the bird; but this is not religion. it is the instinctive utterance of happy feeling, having as little of moral character in it, in the happy human being as in the happy bird.

Nay more:. the religion which is only sunned into being by happiness is a suspicious thing-having been warmed by joy, it will become cold when joy is over; and then when these blessings are removed we count ourselves hardly treated, as if we had been defrauded of a right; rebellious hard feelings come; then it is you see people become bitter, spiteful, discontented. At every step in the solemn path of life something must be mourned which will come back no more; the temper that was so smooth becomes rugged and uneven; the benevolence that expanded upon all narrows into an ever, dwindling selfishness-we are alone; and then that death like loneliness deepens as life goes on. The course of man is downward, and he moves with slow and ever more solitary steps, down to the dark silence-the silence of the grave. This is the death of heart; the sorrow of the world has worked death.

Again, there is a sorrow of the world, when sin is grieved for in a worldly spirit. There are two views of sin: in one it is looked upon as wrong-in the other, as producing loss-loss, for example, of character. In such cases, if character could be preserved before the world grief would not come; but the paroxysms of misery fall upon our proud spirit when our guilt is made public. The most distinct instance we have of this is in the life of Saul. In the midst of his apparent grief, the thing still uppermost was that he had forfeited his kingly character: almost the only longing was, that Samuel should honor him before his people. And hence it comes to pass, that often remorse and anguish only begin with exposure. Suicide takes place, not when the act of wrong is done but when the guilt is known, and hence, too, many a one becomes hardened who would otherwise have remained tolerably happy; in consequence of which we blame the exposure, not the guilt; we say if it had been hushed up all would have been well; that the servant who robbed his master was ruined by taking away his character; and that if the sin had been passed over repentance might have taken place, and he might have remained a respectable member of society. Do not think so. It is quite true that remorse was produced by exposure, and that the remorse was fatal; the sorrow which worked death arose from that exposure, and so far exposure may be called the cause: had it never taken place, respectability, and comparative peace, might have continued; but outward respectability is not change of heart.

It is well known that the corpse has been preserved for centuries in the iceberg, or in antiseptic peat; and that when atmospheric air was introduced to the exposed surface it crumbled into dust. Exposure worked dissolution, but it only manifested the death which was already there; so with sorrow, it is not, the living heart which drops to pieces or crumbles into dust, when it is revealed. Exposure did not work death in the Corinthian sinner, but life.

There is another form of grief for sin, which the apostle would not have rejoiced to see; it is when the hot tears come from pride. No two tones of feeling, apparently similar, are more unlike than that in which Paul exclaimed, “I have played the fool exceedingly,” and that in which the publican cried out, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” The charge of folly brought against one’s self only proves that we feel bitterly for having lost our own self-respect. It is a humiliation to have forfeited the idea which a man had formed of his own character-to find that the very excellence on which be prided himself is the one in which he has failed. If there were a virtue for which Saul was conspicuous it was generosity; yet it was exactly in this point of generosity in which he discovered himself to have failed, when he was overtaken on the mountain, and his life spared by the very man whom he was hunting to the death with feelings of the meanest jealousy. Yet there was no real repentance there; there was none of that in which a man is sick of state and pomp. Saul could still rejoice in regal splendor, go about complaining of himself to the Ziphites, as if he was the most ill-treated and friendless of mankind; lie was still jealous of his reputation, and anxious to be well thought of. Quite different is the tone in which the publican, who felt himself a sinner, asked for mercy. He heard the contumelious expression of the Pharisee, “this publican.” With no resentment, he meekly bore it as a matter naturally to be taken for granted-“he did not so much as lift up his eyes to heaven;” he was as a worm which turns in agony, but not revenge, upon the foot which treads it into the dust.

Now this sorrow of Saul’s, too, works death: no merit can restore self-respect; when once a man has found himself out he can not be deceived again. The heart is as a stone: a speck of canker corrodes and spreads within. What on this earth remains, but endless sorrow, for him who has ceased to respect himself, and has no God to turn to?


II. The divine power of sorrow.

1. It works repentance. By repentance is meant, in Scripture, change of life, alteration of habits, renewal of heart. This is the aim and meaning of all sorrow. The consequences of sin are meant to wean from sin. The penalty annexed to it is in the first instance, corrective, not penal. Fire burns the child, to teach it one of the truths of this universe-the property of fire to burn. The first time it cuts its hand with a sharp knife it has gained a lesson which it never will forget. Now, in the case of pain this experience is seldom, if ever, in vain. There is little chance of a child forgetting that fire will burn, and that sharp steel will cut; but the moral lessons contained in the penalties annexed to wrong-doing are just as truly intended, though they are by no means so unerring in enforcing their application. The fever in the veins and the headache which succeed intoxication, are meant to warn against excess. On the first occasion they are simply corrective; in every succeeding one they assume more and more a penal character in proportion as the conscience carries with them this sense of ill desert.

Sorrow, then, has done its work when it deters from evil; in other words, when it works repentance. In the sorrow of the world, the obliquity of the heart towards evil is not cured; it seems as if nothing cured it: heartache and trials come in vain; the history of life at last is what it was at first. The man is found erring where he erred before. The same course, begun with the certainty of the same desperate end which has taken place so often before.

They have reaped the whirlwind, but they will again sow the wind. Hence I believe that life-giving sorrow is less remorse for that which is irreparable, than anxiety to save that which remains. The sorrow that ends in death hangs in funeral weeds over the sepulchres of the past. Yet the present does riot become more wise. Not one resolution is made more firm, nor one habit more holy. Grief is all. Whereas sorrow avails only when the past is converted into experience, and from failure lessons are learned which never are to be forgotten.

2. Permanence of alteration; for after all, a steady reformation is a more decisive test of the value of mourning than depth of grief

The susceptibility of emotion varies with individuals. Some men feel intensely, others suffer less keenly; but this is constitutional, belonging to nervous temperament rather than to moral character. This is the characteristic of the divine sorrow, that it is a repentance “not repented of;” no transient, short-lived resolutions, but sustained resolve.

And the beautiful law is, that in proportion as the repentance increases the grief diminishes. “I rejoice,” says Paul, that “I made you sorry, though it were but for a time.” Grief for a time, repentance forever. And few things more signally prove the wisdom of this apostle than his way of dealing with this grief of the Corinthian. He tried no artificial means of intensifying it-did not urge the duty of dwelling upon it, magnifying it, nor even of gauging and examining it. So soon as grief had done its work the apostle was anxious to dry useless tears-he even feared lest haply such an one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. “A true penitent,” says Mr. Newman, “never forgives himself.” Oh false estimate of the Gospel of Christ and of the heart of man! A proud remorse does not forgive itself the forfeiture of its own dignity; but it is the very beauty of the penitence which is according to God, that at last the sinner, realizing God’s forgiveness, does learn to forgive himself For what other purpose did St. Paul command the Church of Corinth to give ecclesiastical absolution, but in order to afford a symbol and assurance of the Divine pardon, in which the guilty man’s grief should not be overwhelming, but that he should become reconciled to himself? What is meant by the publican’s going down to his house justified, but that he felt at peace with himself and God?

3. It is sorrow with God, here called godly sorrow; in the margin sorrowing according to God.

God sees sin not in its consequences but in itself; a thing infinitely evil, even if the consequences were happiness to the guilty instead of misery. So sorrow according to God is to see sin as God sees it. The grief of Peter was as bitter as that of Judas. He went out and wept bitterly; how bitterly none can tell but they who have learned to look on sin as God does. But in Peter’s grief there was an element of hope; and that sprung precisely from this-that he saw God in it all. Despair of self did not lead to despair of God.

This is the great, peculiar feature of this sorrow: God is there, accordingly self is less prominent. It is not a microscopic self-examination, nor a mourning in which self is ever uppermost: my character, gone; the greatness of my sin; the forfeiture of my salvation. The thought of God absorbs all that. I believe the feeling, of true penitence would express itself in such words as these:-There is a righteousness, though I have not attained it. There is a purity, and a love, and a beauty, though my life exhibits little of it. In that I can rejoice. Of that I can feel the surpassing loveliness. My doings? They are worthless, I can not endure to think of them. I am not thinking of them. I have something else to think of There, there; in that life I see it. And so the Christian-gazing not on what he is, but on what he desires to be-dares in penitence to say, That righteousness is mine: dares, even when the recollection of his sin is most vivid and most poignant, to say with Peter, thinking less of himself than of God, and sorrowing as it were with God-“Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee.”