Sometimes, it feels like we can't do anything right. Don't read that book. Don't watch that movie. Talk to these people and not those people. I shouldn't have dated that person. Be sure your social, fun time doesn't cut into your ministry time. So many expectations. So many things to feel guilty about doing or not doing.
Sometimes these feelings become so overpowering that we can't tell what's actually right and wrong anymore. We just start to feel guilty over everything, and it's hard to tell whether or not that guilt is genuine or not. Is it the Holy Spirit convicting or just our way of beating ourselves up? Sometimes, it's hard to tell whether we're experiencing true guilt or false guilt.
"The fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law; culpability." (Dictionary.com)
There are many places in the Bible that affirm our innate guilt against God's holiness. Romans 3:10 says, "As it is written, there is none righteous, not even one," and Romans 3:23 goes on to say, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." When Adam and Eve sinned, mankind fell into rebellion against a holy and just God. Guilt isn't automatically a good or bad thing. Instead, it's a sign of our corrupted and spiritually lost state of existence.
Although we are born into a state of guilt against God, feelings of guilt can be a bit more confusing to figure out where they're coming from. As children of God, saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, Jesus has covered our guilt before God. After becoming Christians, our sense of guilt when we sin gets stronger because we are now new creatures (1 Corinthians 5:17) living wrapped in the Holy Spirit instead of living in our sinful flesh (Ephesians 4:20-24).
If we do something wrong and feel guilt, that's good and normal. It means our conscience has not been seared—this is true guilt (1 Timothy 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:19; Ephesians 4:30). However, sometimes we feel guilt even though we haven't done anything wrong—this is false guilt.
False guilt can originate from a variety of different places, which is one of the reasons why it can be so hard to identify.
One of those origins is from Satan himself. Revelation 12:10 calls the devil "the accuser," and it's an apt description. While the Holy Spirit who dwells in us is stronger than the devil (1 John 4:4), Satan still looks for ways to trip us up in our spiritual walk (1 Peter 5:8). Satan will remind us of our worst failings and sins and try to keep us distracted by them so that we begin to forget about the grace and forgiveness we've been given by God.
A second origin for false guilt could come from what 1 Corinthians 8:7-13 refers to as a "weak conscience." A weak conscience indwells a believer who doesn't realize his or her true freedom in Christ, thus leading him or her to believe that something harmless or morally neutral is, in fact, sinful.
A weak conscience is basically a conscience that hasn't gathered all the facts as to how we're supposed to live as Christians, and as such remains uninformed, sending contradictory signals that are difficult to decipher. This confusion leads to an abrupt, false sense of guilt over some of the smallest things. It might be guilt over choosing to call one friend over another. Or guilt about seeing a violent movie poster.
True guilt, however, comes from the Holy Spirit. Romans 6:17-18 says, "But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness." As Christians, we're no longer controlled by a heart of sin, but instead we are being indwelt by the Spirit who convicts us when we go against God's Word.
This guilt is not a result of God's hatred for us, but instead a sign of His love. Just as an earthly father disciplines his children when they are doing wrong, so much more our Heavenly Father desires to turn us in the direction of spiritual growth.
Hebrews 12:9-11 says, "Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness."
For true guilt, the cure isn't to just "do better next time." The cure for true guilt is sorrow that leads to genuinely asking God forgiveness for our sin. 2 Corinthians 7:10 says, "For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death."
True, godly sorrow isn't regret over "getting caught"; true, godly sorrow comes from when we realize we've offended the God who loves us unconditionally, and we regret the pain we've caused Him. The cure for true guilt is when we are able to bask in the all-encompassing forgiveness and pure grace of a Holy God. ☺
The cure for false guilt can be found in God's grace. If we've already searched our hearts and confessed any sin we've found, and yet we're still being tortured by some sense of guilt, we need to remember two things: First, even if you do not understand your heart, you have a God who does. He searches your heart and tests your mind (Jeremiah 17:8-9). Second, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness," (1 John 1:9) and "as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:12).
Once we have confessed our sins, God has promised to wash them away. They're gone. Wiped from record.
For believers, the cure for false guilt is the source material of our hope: the gospel. As believers, there is nothing we can do to make God stop loving us (Romans 8:38-39), and once we are saved, there is nothing we can do to lose our salvation (Ephesians 1:13).
The best way to avoid and cure false guilt is to learn to recognize it in the first place. How do we do that? By studying the character and Words of God. The better we know God, and the more intimate our relationship with Him becomes, the easier it will be to recognize if a feeling or thought is coming from God, from ourselves, or from the Devil.
False guilt comes from Satan (1 Peter 5:8). He wants to remind you of your worst failings and sins and keep you distracted from following God. Ignore this guilt! True, godly sorrow isn't regret over "getting caught"; true, godly sorrow comes from when we realize we've offended the God who loves us unconditionally, and we regret the pain we've caused Him. The cure for true guilt is acceptance of the all-encompassing forgiveness and grace of God.
September is an avid film nerd from growing up on weekend trips to Universal Studios Hollywood. She is passionate about the intersections of Christian spirituality, faith, and storytelling in popular culture. Outside of 412teens and digging up obscure horror flicks from the 2000s, she works as a freelance developmental editor and acquisitions consultant while comforting her clingy feline floof, Faust, from the anxiety of existence.