Sorrow and Fasting

monk feeding pigeonsThe biblical authors were no strangers to sorrow, and most of us in this life carry or have carried some form of sorrow in our hearts. Speaking of sorrow, the Apostle Paul writes, “For godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly sorrow produces death.” (2 Cor 7:10).

There are two types of sorrow: worldly and godly. But what is the difference?

Worldly sorrows have a multitude of sources including: situations do not go the way we think they should, unkind words are spoken to us, we do not get what we want or what we think we deserve, we make a mistake and beat ourselves up in guilt, we suffer some sort of pain or loss [1], etc.  All of these, as the Apostle writes, lead to death: spiritual and sometimes even physical.

Godly sorrow, on the other hand, comes from an awareness of one’s sinful state and the desire for repentance. There is a conviction of sin that leads to repentance. The conviction of sin without hope in Christ leads the soul to a state of despondency or depression, which is ungodly sorrow.

Godly sorrow, combined with hope in God’s love and forgiveness, causes one to cry out with the psalmist, “According to the multitude of sorrows in my heart have Thy comforts refreshed my soul.” [2] According to the depths in which we enter into the darkness of our hearts so that we can repent of the sinful passions that have taken root in our souls, according to that depth, will we receive godly comfort. The deeper the godly sorrow, the greater the comfort we receive.


This week is the final week of the Nativity Fast (New Calendar) and is the strictest portion of the fast, which indicates it is a time of greater repentance and reflection. As with every major fast of the Orthodox Church, it ends with a celebration of God’s love. In the spring, Great Lent ends with the explosive power of Pascha; in the summer, the Dormition Fast ends with the Theotokos being received into heaven as the perpetual intercessor of all who call upon her; this Nativity Fast ends with the hope of God wrapping Himself in flesh to save humanity, restore creation, and unite us to Him.

In these fasts, the strictness before the great feast always increases in order to help us enter more deeply into the “darkness” of soul-searching repentance. The Church in her wisdom does not leave us in darkness, but rather shows us the way of godly sorrow: the celebration of love, light, beauty, and hope that follows. The deeper one enters into the spirit of the fast before hand, the more joyous the celebration will be when the great light of the feast arrives.

“O come, let us worship and fall down before Him, and weep before the Lord that made us,” [2] so that He might raise us up, fall upon our neck with kisses of love, clothe us with the robe of a virtuous life, place a ring on our hand to symbolize the regaining of the divine image, and place shoes on our feet that we might trample the head of the ancient serpent. [3]

God is with us.


[1] This does not mean that normal grief at the death of a loved one is ungodly. Even Christ wept at the death of Lazarus. But excessive grief shows a lack of trust in God’s love, in His divine providence, and a lack of hope in the future resurrection and is therefore ungodly sorrow.

[2] Psalms 93:19 and 94:6. All quotes from the Psalms come from the LXX (Septuagint), A Psalter for Prayer published by Holy Trinity Publications, Jordanville.

[3] The meaning of the symbols in the parable of the Prodigal Son comes from various fathers including St. Gregory of Nyssa in his Homilies on the Lord’s Prayer.

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