I remember years ago when I tuned into a message by a Christian speaker who was addressing guilt…
He asked the audience a simple question: “How many of you have trouble dealing with your past?” There was a pause. He continued. “You know why? It’s because you don’t believe it’s been dealt with already.” He was referring to the sacrifice that Jesus made to remove all of our guilt and shame.
Sometimes our guilt can run so deep, that this simple truth just doesn’t seem possible. We don’t feel any better. In fact, maybe statements like that make you feel even more guilty because it’s supposed to work. I have nothing against these simple statements of truth, but in most cases it takes time to heal and to see yourself with a healthy self-image and identity. We must keep this in mind as we feed on a healthy diet of the Gospel message.
It helps to identify that there is a distinction between guilt and shame.
Maybe you have heard this before: Guilt is a feeling that you have done wrong and deserve punishment. Shame is feeling that you are wrong because of the things you have done. These feelings often mix together, though shame tends to be the bigger issue. Josh McDowell Ministry speaker Ben Bennett has written some helpful articles on shame here and here.
Three helpful tips specific to guilt:
1. You don’t need to feel not guilty in order to be not guilty.
The Bible tells us that guilt is a condition objectively true or false for a person, and is directly connected to sin. Those who sin are guilty of death (Romans 6:23). Guilt is not a feeling; it is a verdict. The judge is the one who decides, not you. We may experience feelings, but the reality is based on an objective standard, not our feelings.
The Bible is clear that those who have confessed their sins to Jesus are forgiven of their sins.
This forgiveness is not accomplished by our feelings, emotions, or the degree of our faith. It is because Jesus is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Our judge has decided. Still, some people think that they have to feel not guilty in order to be right with God. That’s simply not true.
If you have confessed your sins to God and trust in the saving power of Jesus to remove your sins, you are washed, justified, sanctified, and set free from all of your sin and guilt (1 Corinthians 6:11). It is a bonafide fact of your reality in Christ, despite your feelings. This truth is the first step in finding freedom from feeling guilty.
2. Guilt is an invitation to abide with God who heals us.
Earlier I used a “judge” metaphor. God is the judge who has declared us innocent. This metaphor can be helpful, but it also creates a mental conflict: Nobody hears this and thinks, “Thank heavens! Now I can spend time in a wonderful and intimate relationship with my judge!”
Several months ago, a woman told me that she felt guilty for something she did in the past. She was desperate to get rid of her feelings of guilt. I appreciated her willingness to make things right, but I wondered if her sole motive was her desire to “get God off my back.”
We often think: As long as I don’t have a guilty conscience, I don’t have to worry about God and I can get on with my life.
This is wrong thinking on so many levels, but the idea can easily find life in the subconscious of many Christians. Instead of running to God — the only one who can heal us from guilt — we hide like Adam and Eve. The reality is that our feelings of guilt is a reason to press harder into our relationship with God. He is prepared to receive us in love and to help us along the way. He isn’t afraid of our mess.
3. Forgiveness with God is not the same as forgiveness with another person.
Sometimes we really do need to take steps to make things right. We are already right with God when we confess our sins, but what about our standing with others?
Our feelings of guilt may actually be conviction from the Holy Spirit to make things right. If you feel guilty because of something you did against another person, have you done your part to humble yourself and ask for forgiveness? Even if this person was 97 percent wrong, and you were only 3 percent wrong, God says you are still responsible to seek forgiveness for your part.
God calls us to live at peace with others as much as we are able (Romans 12:18). To seek forgiveness from another person is one of the hardest things you may ever do. But it can also be completely liberating. Even if the relationship is not fixed, you will know that you have done your part, and you can take joy in knowing that your actions have pleased God.