Start with the Holy Spirit

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.

2 Corinthians 7:8-11

One of the main jobs of the Holy Spirit is to bring conviction to our hearts that leads to repentance. Paul calls this “Godly sorrow.” The Holy Spirit has a way of bringing both conviction and comfort. Our sin is exposed, but we are never shamed. We see how far short we’ve fallen, and yet the Spirit shows us how God sees us with eyes of love and compassion. This is the inner work that the Holy Spirit does from the inside out.

Paul contrasts this with “worldly sorry” which brings death. Worldly sorrow often comes in the form of guilt and shame. These are counterfeits of true conviction and repentance. Worldly sorrow exposes sin but it does so in a way that keeps the focus on us. Rather than leading to repentance it leads either to a folding in (despair, hopelessness, shame,) or an exploding out (rage, hatred, violence, revenge). Worldly sorrow is not an inner work of the Spirit but an external work trying to use external pressures to bring inner change. It never works.

As followers of Jesus we must allow Godly sorrow to lead us to repentance. This is the beginning of change. We must allow the conviction of the Spirit to do its work. But if we find ourselves slipping either into despair or violence, shame or revenge, then we’ve entered the realm of worldly sorrow. And worldly sorrow always leads to the death of things rather than new life.

Godly sorrow will always start with repentance. And true repentance will lead to “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). Paul lists some of the fruit of real repentance: “earnestness“, “indignation“, “alarm“, “longing, concern, and readiness to see justice done.”

Our culture, which promotes worldly sorrow and its toxic fruit, so often wants to skip past the inner work of the Spirit and get straight to “doing something.” This approach so often produces self-righteousness. I saw this when I was helping to start a nonprofit that addresses human trafficking. When we don’t begin with personal conviction of our own sin and repentance, we will so often approach justice issues with an air of self-righteousness and a messiah complex. Without the Spirit, we will forget that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

If we want change in our society, we need to ask the Spirit to clean out our own heart first (Psalm 51:10; 139:23-24) . Then we repent for the sin that gets revealed. Start there. We all need to start there.

It was Jesus, through the unity of the Holy Spirit, who managed to bind together two groups that hated each other and then call it the Body of Christ. Jews and Gentiles couldn’t have been more different and their distain for each other couldn’t have been greater. Yet the Spirit managed to bring them together and create the Church out of the two groups. Jesus brought peace and the Spirit gave both groups access to the Father.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Ephesians 2:14-18

It all begins with the work of the Spirit. It all begins with Godly sorrow that leads to repentance. When that comes first, the fruit will be exactly what our culture needs–one new humanity out of the two.