What is guilt, and what is its purpose? Why does a loving God allow us to experience it? Is there a right and a wrong kind of guilt?
When we fail to live up to a standard of conduct, we naturally feel guilty. Sadly, in today’s world, guilt is a great burden borne by many unnecessarily. Satan has deceived the whole world (Revelation 12:9), and has led people to determine for themselves what code of conduct, if any, they should live by. As a result, people live by wrong standards and embrace a false value system. Vain intellectual reasoning and tradition have all but replaced the true godly standards contained in Scripture, so some of the guilt felt by many is based on a false foundation.
The truth is that Satan and society often use guilt to manipulate people. Guilt is a powerful tool that can deeply affect our emotions and actions, and others may try to afflict us with it for their own selfish purposes. They attempt to use deception and lies to make us feel guilty. It shouldn’t be this way. If we have done nothing wrong in God’s sight, we have no reason to feel guilt. Furthermore, we ourselves must also carefully avoid using false guilt to manipulate others.
Ahab, King of Israel, tried to make the prophet Elijah feel guilty for Israel’s problems, but Elijah wasn’t tricked into feeling guilty. He responded, “I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, in that you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and have followed the Baals” (1 Kings 18:18).
Jesus’ enemies among the priests and Pharisees tried to make Him feel guilty when they confronted Him and accused Him of breaking the Sabbath. He responded by pointing to God’s laws and teachings on the subject (Matthew 12:1–13). The lesson is clear: If the guilt is false, reject it! Don’t let it destroy you with feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. Go to God’s word and Christ’s example for the true code of conduct.
On the other hand, there is a right kind of guilt, which we should experience when we break God’s laws. We should not ignore the prod of our conscience when we feel guilt for violating His clearly defined commandments. Some people lie, steal and cheat, and feel justified in doing so. Others lust and burn with envy and jealousy, and feel no remorse. Some covet what they do not possess, commit fornication or adultery, and feel no guilt. For some, perhaps their conscience has been seared (1 Timothy 4:1–2).
Godly guilt tells us that something is wrong, that something needs to change. When we feel this kind of guilt, it should move us to repent and seek God’s forgiveness. Just like a siren, guilt should serve to warn and motivate us to take action that will bring about positive results.
Christ’s sacrifice can wash us clean of the guilt of our sins when we confess them to Him and repent of them—turn utterly away from them. That is why the Apostle John was inspired to write, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Guilt should trigger repentance. That is its purpose. That’s why the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” And repentance involves not only being sorry for what we have done, but also striving to change and live according to the standard of conduct as established by our Creator. What is the end result of godly sorrow leading to repentance? “For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (v. 11).
This proper kind of guilt produces positive changes in our lives. Are we diligent in striving to avoid repeating a sin? Are we acquiring a vehement, intense desire to overcome it? Do we put forth great effort to clear ourselves? Do we feel righteous indignation, and are we learning to hate sin? Are we developing a proper fear of sinning against God? Are we filled with a zeal to live God’s way of life? If these things are true, if we are completely repentant, then God will forgive us (Jeremiah 36:3). Then, we can be free of guilt and experience spiritual growth. And furthermore, we will be richly blessed! “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity” (Psalm 32:1–2).
We see biblical examples of people—such as King David and the Apostles Peter and Paul—who experienced guilt leading to growth and forgiveness. Others, like Judas Iscariot, allowed guilt to destroy them. Clearly, guilt can have a positive or a negative effect on us. Here are three simple steps we can take to turn guilt into positive growth.
The first thing we must do is admit our guilt. God requires that we confess our sin. We must let Him know that we are sorry for breaking His laws, which are holy and just (Romans 7:12). Conversely, hiding from our guilt, or trying to cover up our sins, only postpones facing their natural consequences. As Israel was warned in Numbers 32:23, “be sure your sin will find you out.” In Luke 12:2, Jesus reaffirms this, saying that “there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known.” Until we are willing to acknowledge our sin and admit our guilt, there is no moving forward, and we are kept from enjoying the blessings that result from obedience and having a right relationship with God. As Proverbs 28:13 states, “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.” Admitting guilt is never easy. It requires humility and the courage to face painful experiences, but it is absolutely necessary.
However, admitting we are wrong is not enough. Action must follow. Change must occur. We must truly repent and strive to eliminate the sin. In the gospel of John, we read about a woman caught in the act of adultery. Notice what Jesus said to her: “‘Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more’” (John 8:10–11). Christ made it plain to her that although her sin had been forgiven, she was not to return to her sinful ways. To do so would have been an abuse of God’s unmerited pardon. When seeking forgiveness, we must put forth real effort to stop sinning.
As humans, we will experience failures in the process of overcoming sin (Romans 7:14–25). If we slip back into sin after truly repenting, we must repeat these steps. We must ask God to forgive us and provide us with the necessary strength to overcome. We must expend effort to grow spiritually on an ongoing basis. Remember, character is developed over a lifetime.
Finally, we must fully realize that after we have acknowledged our sin and repented of it, God’s forgiveness is available to us! Once this happens, it is important that we move beyond the guilt—that we let go of it. Realizing the seriousness of our sin, we learn the lesson guilt teaches us and we move forward. If we follow these three basic steps, we can turn guilt into positive growth!