By Timothy S. Lane
Do you ever feel guilty? Guilt feels terrible. What you did keeps playing and replaying in your mind, and you are filled with regret and “if onlys.” And if what you did is public knowledge, your shame and regret increase exponentially. The wider the circle of people who know what happened, the more you suffer.
No one likes to feel guilty. But what exactly is guilt? The Encarta dictionary says that guilt is “an awareness of having done wrong or committed a crime, accompanied by feelings of shame and regret.” Since all of us have either done wrong things or failed to do right things, we have all experienced guilt.
You can devise all kinds of ways to try to get rid of your guilty feelings. But your guilt is not just a feeling or a personal problem—it really has to do with your relationship with God. How you deal with your guilt depends on how you view God and what place He has in your life.
There are many wrong ways to deal with your guilt, but only one right way. Here are three wrong ways:
One popular way of dealing with guilt is to simply deny you have done anything wrong! The reasoning goes like this, “I only feel guilty because I am living under standards passed down by an older generation who told me that certain things were right and wrong. To stop feeling guilty, I need to throw off those antiquated standards and live by my own standards.” According to this way of thinking, if you feel guilty for sleeping with your boyfriend, it’s because your mother taught you that premarital sex was wrong. So if you can convince yourself that premarital sex is not really wrong, your guilty feelings will disappear.
This approach to guilt denies the existence of God (or at least the God of the Bible). And that gets rid of a lot of those pesky guilt-producing rules in the Bible. But does this really work? What happens when you decide to live by your own standards and you fail to keep even them? You are right back where you started—feeling those terrible guilt feelings and not knowing how to deal with them.
And if you think your guilt is only a byproduct of the rules your family and culture made up, why do you try so hard to escape your guilty feelings? Think about what you do when you feel guilty. Some people overeat, some exercise, some shop, some drink or do drugs, some sleep too much, some can’t sleep at all—the list is endless. Why go to all this trouble for something you think doesn’t exist?
2. Trying to be a better person
If denying your guilt feelings doesn’t work, then you can try another often used method for dealing with guilt: moral self-improvement. You could call this “the New Year’s resolution approach to guilt.” When you notice you are feeling guilty, you resolve to stop doing the behavior that is bothering your conscience. Overeaters resolve to diet; couch potatoes resolve to exercise; the disorganized resolve to clean their closets; liars resolve to tell the truth; addicts resolve to stop doing their addiction; and the list goes on and on. What happens to all those resolutions? Most of us are not able to keep them—and our guilty feelings return.
3. Comparing yourself to others
Sometimes we make it easy for ourselves and decide we don’t need to feel guilty as long as we can find someone who is acting worse than we are. We say things like, “I may get angry with my wife and kids, but at least I don’t hit them,” or “I may cheat on my taxes but at least I haven’t murdered anyone!” We deal with our guilt by being self-righteous and critical of others. And we try to build ourselves up by endlessly discussing the failings of those around us.
But does this really help? Putting someone else down might give you momentary pleasure, but it doesn’t get rid of the nagging feeling that you haven’t measured up.
4. Becoming obsessed with your guilt
Many Christians go down this path. “I feel so guilty, I get depressed.” or “I failed again—how can I approach God?” Have you ever thought these thoughts? Anyone who is concerned about growing as a Christian has said things like this.
This struggle is a sign that God is working in your life. Guilt can be a good thing if it gets you looking for the right cure. If you don’t find the right cure, guilt can crush you. David describes the crushing experience of guilt in Psalm 32:3-4 (ESV): “…my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”
God says in the Bible that the guilt we feel is real. There is a God who made us and the rest of the world, and He does require us to be perfect (Leviticus 19:2). Sadly, none of us are (Romans 3:23). We have all broken God’s two greatest commands: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
But there is an answer to guilt. It is found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The apostle Paul in Romans 8:1 says that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” What does this mean? He gives us the answer in Romans 5:8, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The word “for” in this verse means “in our place.” Jesus came and died in your place. He was your substitute. He paid the penalty of your sin so you could be free from guilt and be reconciled to God. This is the only answer to your guilt.
You can devise all kinds of ways to try to get rid of your guilty feelings. But your guilt is not just a feeling or a personal problem.
If you are struggling with guilt, you are in good company—this is the human condition. Once you become a Christian, you don’t stop sinning, so you need to know how to deal with guilt that comes from our sins. Take heart and find the liberating cure for guilt in the gospel. The gospel cure begins with remembering what Christ has done for you on the cross. Here is a passage in the Bible that gives a clear picture of how Jesus has freed us from our guilt.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:12-16)
These verses are both sobering and encouraging. You will give an account one day because you are accountable, and there is a standard. God is the one before whom you are accountable, and your life will be compared against his perfect character.
This is why you feel guilty—because deep down you know you are guilty. Your guilty feelings and sense of shame come because you have violated God’s good and wise commands. What can keep you from despair?
God himself keeps you from despair. He sent His one and only Son, Jesus, to die a terrible and undeserved death for you. Jesus is your great high priest who does not offer animals as the Old Testament priests did. He offered Himself, and became the sacrifice for your sins.
Look at the last sentence in the Hebrews passage. It says you can approach God with confidence. What an amazing statement! Because Jesus has paid for your sins, you can come to God with confidence; you are forgiven. You don’t have to be afraid to approach God. You can tell Him about every sin and failure without fear because you know He is for us. You can confess anything to Him without fear of condemnation.
When you understand you have real peace with God because of what Jesus did for you, then you are able to experience feeling peaceful instead of feeling guilty. Romans 5:1 tells us, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Notice that your part is only to have faith—to believe in the work that Jesus did on the cross and put all of your hope and trust in Him. Instead of dealing with your real guilt by denial, escapism, resolutions, looking down on others, and obsessing, you can confess your sins to Jesus and believe that His death paid the price for your sins.
What are you feeling guilty about right now? Perhaps you said an unkind word to your spouse, your child, or your friend. Perhaps you are struggling with an addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex, or gambling. Perhaps you have a heart full of bitterness and anger toward someone who has wronged you.
Are you weary of carrying the burden of your guilt? Whatever it is, tell Jesus about it right now and ask Him to forgive you. And now listen to His words to you: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29), Put all your faith in Jesus’ work for you. Only in Him will you find rest for your soul.
Guilt is the objective experience of being guilty, and shame is the subjective experience of feeling guilty. People in our world talk mostly about shame (instead of guilt), because most people do not believe that God made the world and made rules for the people in His world (summed up in the two great commands: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
So guilt is more than a feeling—you are actually guilty because you have broken God’s loving and wise standards. Most of the time when you feel guilty, it’s because you are guilty. You feel guilty (shame) because you have thought, said or did something that goes against what God wants you to do.
Look at how the apostle Paul describes us in Romans 5. It is a comforting passage, but it is also disturbing.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
According to Paul we are weak and ungodly. Then He goes on to call us sinners and enemies! These are not flattering descriptions. But, He is telling us the truth: we are guilty because of our rebellion against God.
The essence of sin is to take God’s place. Some of us do this openly by saying we don’t believe in God. Others of us do it subtly by living a life that does not take the existence of God into account. When we do this, we stand guilty before God, and that is why we experience shame. It is real guilt that is underneath our anxiety, bitterness, and defensiveness. We live with the feeling that we are not quite making the grade. We can’t get rid of our shame until we address the problem of our real guilt.
These verses point us to the same wonderful cure that is in Hebrews 3. Jesus takes your place and endures the punishment that you deserved so that your true guilt could be forgiven, and you can be set free. Daily believe in Jesus, daily confess your sins, and daily believe in the forgiveness of sins and your real guilt will be taken away and your shame will disappear.
Yes, it is possible that you have an over-active conscience. It is sometimes difficult to know if your guilt is the product of real sin or of your over-active conscience. When this happens, you must have your conscience “realigned” by God’s Word. The Bible will give you a clear understanding of what is right and wrong. If you have read your Bible and are still confused about whether something you did is truly a sin, then you should speak to wiser Christians who can help you decide whether an attitude, thought, or action is truly sinful.
By all means, yes! Don’t stop going to God. Distancing yourself from God when you are struggling with sin is the biggest mistake you can make.
All of us have sins we struggle with again and again. If you stop going to God and confessing your sins to Him, you will cut yourself off from the only one who can help you. Remember: when God enters into a relationship with you, His love is not fickle—His love for you doesn’t change because you are a sinner. Keep coming to Jesus with your sins and asking Him for the desire and power to change. He will answer that prayer.
As you pray, meditate on these verses: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2).
The wonderful truth of the gospel is that you are free to struggle honestly before God because you know He loves you and will not let you go. He loves you so much that He may send hardship into your life to get your attention. This is not punishment, but the loving discipline of your heavenly Father. Please also get help from mature Christians who can pray for you, encourage you, and hold you accountable in your daily battle.
© Copyright 2010 by the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For more help on guilt, read Timothy S. Lane’s minibook, Freedom From Guilt: Finding Release From Your Burdens, available from New Growth Press.
Timothy S. Lane, M.Div., D.Min., is Executive Director of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF), a faculty member, and a counselor with twenty-five years of experience, including ten years as a pastor. He is the coauthor of the books How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making; coauthor of the curriculums Change and Your Relationships and How People Change; author of the minibooks Conflict; Family Feuds; Forgiving Others; Freedom from Guilt; and Temptation: Fighting the Urge.