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Considering Categories of Sorrow

Truth In Love 343

Understanding the different categories of sorrow is helpful when working with counselees to identify the best course of action to serve them.

Dec 27, 2021

Dale Johnson: As always, I’m glad to have with me Dr. Nicolas Ellen. So many of you know Dr. Ellen and his wonderful teaching through ACBC and many other venues as well. He’s actually a two-time doctor. He has a Doctor of Ministry from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and he has a PhD from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. That’s where I got to know Dr. Ellen and what a great thing that was. I’m thankful for the providence of the Lord and getting to know him a little bit. I’ve just really enjoyed the relationship with him. I’ll tell you a little bit more about him. He is a professor at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston and also at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, helping them with their MABC, which is fully accredited as well, up in Plymouth, Minnesota. He’s a pastor of the Community of Faith Bible Church down in the Houston metro area. This is a faithful brother. I’m so grateful for him and his work and the times that we get to spend together.

Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about sorrow. What a misunderstood topic, especially in our culture in the way the culture thinks about it. But let’s not like pass off all the difficulties to the culture, right? I mean, we struggle to understand this aspect even in the church. So Nic, I’m so grateful that you’re here to help us to consider all these ideas about sorrow, and maybe to give us some good healthy biblical category. So let’s start here. Is there only one category of sorrow? Some people get confused about that, so help us to understand that. 

Nic Ellen: Well Dale, thank you again, brother, for allowing me to be able to be here with you. When I was studying the Scripture, I discovered that the Bible unfolds for us six basic categories of sorrow. So, there’s more dimensions to sorrow than we have paid attention to and in doing that research and finding out and studying the Scriptures and then understanding it, it’s been helpful for me as I’m working with people in counseling as a pastor, or in any situation, just to be able to distinguish the types of sorrow the person’s experiencing to identify the best course of action to serve them. 

Dale Johnson: That’s great. So when think about different categories, sometimes we have a misunderstanding, I think, of just trying to lump all those things into one. It’s good to know that the Bible speaks about these things in much more depth, right? In more of 3D than sort of what we think about as being one dimensional. I think that speaks a wonderful testimony about the Scriptures in the way in which God understands the depth of the human heart and those different dimensions, and the specificity even with which he deals with the depth and breadth of our sorrows. So, how should we deal with those different categories of sorrow? 

Nic Ellen: Well let’s let’s break them down. I think once we break them down, from what I’ve discovered just in looking at it, it is so, I don’t want to call it simplistic, but simple to where once we understand it, practically as Christians, we can begin to see how to appropriate it with people.

The first category of sorrow, we call this common sorrow. That’s basically one having a sadness of soul due to experiencing disappointments in life, difficulties in life, the death of a loved one, but there’s no corresponding sin with it. So in other words, this is the sorrow where this person is not walking in sin. They’re experiencing this deep deep hurt as a result of these things. But here’s the thing, if that person doesn’t embrace the sovereignty of God or the wisdom of God or the love of God, and if they don’t accept what God allows, then they move into the second category of sorrow which is what we call chosen sorrow.

Chosen sorrow is where we start to grumble and complain. So with the common sorrow, I’m sad about these things that have happened, but I haven’t embraced God’s will. I haven’t accepted what He’s allowed. I haven’t identified how I can grow through and not just go through, so I grumble. Grumbling and complaining is a sin because then my sadness of soul is because of my grumbling and complaining. I don’t like what God has allowed. I don’t like what people are doing. I’m not accepting the difficulties.

So if I don’t repent of that grumbling and complaining, well, that leads to a third category of sorrow we call conscience sorrow. This is where our conscience bears witness with the sin and begins to produce a sorrow from guilt as a result of the grumbling complaining. So, you know, if you think about it Dale, you’ve got common sorrow, if I don’t embrace God well I have chosen sorrow, which then leads to a conscience sorrow. So sorrow on top of sorrow on top of sorrow where in the first one, we just need to come alongside an individual, but where in the other two, we need to help them acknowledge that it’s not what’s happened to you that’s causing you to have this grief. It’s how you’re choosing to respond and how we need to come along side. But from those three, we move into the others and the other two are fairly interesting because once you move into conscience sorrow, you can go one of two ways.

You can go into what we call casualty sorrow and this is what 2 Corinthians 7:10 is talking about, which is worldly sorrow leading to death. Casualty sorrow is, I’m sad because I have regrets over what’s happened. You know, I know I’m wrong, but I’m not really focused on how I’ve sinned against God, dishonored him and others, I’m just consumed with what can happen to me. With casualty sorrow, we call it that because the person, if they don’t deal with their sin, sin leads to death. Or the person can move into what we call, the fifth category, contrite sorrow. 2 Corinthians 7 talks about Godly sorrow producing this thing of repentance. So, if you noticed the progression, we start with the common, then there’s chosen, then there’s conscience. We either move into casualty sorrow, where we have regret and feel sorry, or contrite where we are broken and want to make things right.

Then the sixth category is mutually exclusive—this is what we see in the Bible—chastisement sorrow. Listen to Hebrews 12 where no discipline for the moment seems joyful, but afterwards, it produces a peaceable fruit of righteousness. Basically, it’s a sorrow that is happening as a result of the chastening of God, but making you, if you will, perfect in righteousness, or being perfected in righteousness, according to his will. So Dale, as I’ve looked at the Scripture, you’ve got those six. You’ve got the common. Then there’s the chosen. Then there’s the conscience. Then there’s either casualty or contrite sorrow and then chastisement sorrow. 

Dale Johnson: These are really helpful for us to have a backdrop, biblically speaking, on how to understand people in what they’re experiencing. This is what biblical counseling is really all about. We have the backdrop of Scripture. We’re not denying a person’s experience, but we can see then in these multi-dimensions the beauty of the Scripture in the way that it speaks to this person’s experiences. I tell people all the time, Nic, that the Bible explains our experiences better than any other system that exists and I think this is a great demonstration of that, the depth of sorrow and the different ways in which we experience that type of sorrow. Now, you mentioned something that I’m not going to let us get away with here. You said we fear simplicity. I want to talk about that just for just a second because I think in our world right now, we have this elevation of science. We fear simplicity, but I think what’s happening is, thinking ourselves wise, we have become absolutely foolish. In so many ways, we fear the simplicity and the beauty of what God has given us in His Word and we have a tendency to run headlong after so much that’s out in the world to make ourselves feel like we’re intelligent or intellectual, to make ourselves feel like we have to make the Bible and the teaching of Scripture more palatable to those who are outside, and that sort of leads me to this next question. We shouldn’t fear simplicity. I think we should embrace the beauty of Scripture and not be afraid or feel like we have to make this sound appropriate to anyone outside. We have to be faithful to what God says and ministering appropriately. So, part of this draw comes with us feeling, how do we deal with those who are not Christians? Sometimes we have this tendency to say, well I’ve got to make it sound intellectual for them. So the question is, how in the world do we help apply these categories of sorrow? Do we just apply them to Christians, or do we apply these to all people? 

Nic Ellen: Well, I know I’ve been able to practically apply to all people and basically use this as an instrument to guide people to the gospel of Jesus Christ through helping them see these categories and, with those who are believers, to show how this is part of their progressive sanctification. The beauty of this too, Dale, is that I’ve noticed, for someone who’s been raped, who’s been molested, who’s been abused or misused, part of this for me is to sit down and say, you know, a terrible thing has happened to you. We don’t want to rush past that. We want to weep with you because this is terrible, but I want you to think about—in the depths of all of this depravity that you have experienced, let’s categorize the sorrow you’re going through right now so I can help you grow through it. This becomes a process and I walk through this and then I show them the different passages for each category. Then the goal becomes, now given this, tell me what you see. In many cases, people can see where they’ve gone from the common sorrow, where there’s no sin tied to it, to the other categories. Then we say, well then how do we work this through? How do we deal with the fact that you’ve been victimized and lead you to be victorious so that we deal with what you can and cannot control in this and have the appropriate sorrow, but where the sorrow has gone beyond appropriate, to move you towards peace by the true confession and repentance and replacement with the power of God? So, it’s been a wonderful tool to use in that context. 

Dale Johnson: I love it because, so much so, we try to feel like we need to improve upon the things that God has given us. I love how you’re very cautious of doing that and you’re just trusting that what God has revealed is going to be helpful to somebody. It’s fun when you see a person understand what you’re saying, they find themselves directly in the pages of Scripture. It helps them to make sense of their life, no matter how desperate and difficult. So, this topic often makes us think of things even beyond sorrow, or what creates this sorrow in us, and we have a tendency certainly to think about what our culture describes as depression or depressive feeling. So, connect this, if you can, to this phenomena of depression.

Nic Ellen: I want to really encourage any individual to get my good brother’s book, Rethinking Depression by Daniel Berger II. I think he’s done a great job. One of the things that these categories of sorrow show us is that when a person is depressed, the three top categories of depression are guilt, deep sorrow, and hopelessness. When you look at these categories of sorrow, there will not be hopelessness or deep guilt where there’s common sorrow. There may be some sadness, but when you start to see guilt and hopelessness, they’ve gone from common sorrow to chosen sorrow and conscience sorrow, which means now theres sin involved and the conscience has kicked in. So at that point, I believe we can see this in an individual, depression starts when the person moves from common sorrow to chosen sorrow. At that point, they’ve made a decision to not take this situation and look at it in light of the sovereignty and the sufficiency and the wisdom and love of God, and they’ve decided to interpret it according to their pain, not according to the power and the picture of our great Savior and our King. At that point, I believe that’s when depression begins. That’s when we’ll see chosen and conscience sorrow. 

Dale Johnson: That’s right. I would also recommend that book by Daniel Berger, Rethinking Depression. That brings me to another question. Are there other resources? Certainly theres that one that I think helps to reframe depression in a more biblical sense so that we’re not swept away by all of the cultural explanations of these types of feelings and experiences of sorrow and deep despair. They’re real things. He helps us to right size that. Are there other resources that you’ve thought about? 

Nic Ellen: I think that Randy Alcorn’s book, If God is Good—Now it’s very big, comprehensive, but his insight on moral evil and suffering and how we can process that—I just think that’s a great tool. Another book is by my mentor, Rich Thompson, The Heart of Man and the Mental Disorders. He does a great job in articulating sorrow and how that goes back to the heart of man and the choices that we make. So I think that’s an excellent tool as well. 

Dale Johnson: Well, thank you, Nick. This has been really great. I want us to pay attention to these categories. I think this will enhance our eye in the way in which we see people through the lens of Scripture with a healthy biblical backdrop and framework.