Old habits die hard they say.
One of those is what we understand about guilt. Before we come to know the Lord, unless our conscience is seared we experience what we call guilt and its lingering shadows. Those shadows touch more parts of us than we often recognize.
What we understand about guilt after we invite Jesus into our lives depends on what we are taught to think and feel about guilt. Sadly, sometimes when we are growing up we hear messages suggesting we should feel guilty when we have made a mistake. As a result, even after we are believers we can still label what we feel as guilt when we make a mistake or fall prey to sin.
Sometimes the problem of guilt seems less common today than it once was perhaps. The new independent individualism typical of our current culture tends to result in justification for mistakes or sinful choices. It is commonplace to hear statements like “that’s just the way I am” or “that’s the way God made me”. We easily deflect responsibility and blame. We also tend to shift blame to others.
It is rare to hear someone accept personal responsibility for his or her choices and decisions.
I see that as I look at my own life and how little I understood about this issue of guilt as a result of a lack of discipleship when I first came to know Jesus.
I also saw and heard it for many years in my counseling practice. People were locked up by guilt for things past and present. I still hear it now as I overhear conversations.
The effects of unhealthy guilt in our lives have tentacles that wrap around several areas of our life. The first and easiest to spot is hostility and defensive reactions in which someone else is blamed for the issue or problem.
A second group of effects include self-condemnation reactions such as insecurity, anxiety, an inability to relax, the refusal to receive compliments, a pessimistic outlook, and a feeling of inferiority.
These first two can lead to social reactions that can cause us to isolate and alienate ourselves from others. Ultimately all of these can produce physical symptoms as a result of the stress we experience from the unrelieved habit of guilt.
Guilt leads to death within us.
Here is the good news!
If we learn to differentiate between unhealthy guilt and godly conviction, we can be set free from the confusion these can cause.
What does unhealthy guilt look like?
- It causes confession about how bad we are and usually the confession is compulsive, impulsive and repeated.
- It deals with laws and rules, the should and should not’s.
- It refuses to yield to forgiveness.
- The primary focus is on self and the past.
- The motivation for change is to avoid feeling bad.
- Our attitude toward ourselves is frustration.
By contrast, let me give examples of godly conviction:
- Confession that is concerned with the act itself of sin or mistake rather than how rotten I am.
- Godly conviction deals with relationships (God, self, and others).
- Godly conviction always yields to forgiveness.
- The primary focus is God or others and damage to others and a desire to correct future deeds.
- The motivation for change is to help others, to do God’s will and experience feelings of love.
- Our attitude toward ourselves includes love, respect, and concern.
Godly conviction leads to life!
The good news, the gospel, tells us in Luke 4 in the words of Jesus quoting out of Isaiah 61 that He came to set the captives free, to bring pardon, to bring life.
When you are tempted to get mired in guilt, remember that guilt leads to death. Because Jesus came to bring life and IS life, guilt would not be coming from Him. His enemy who condemns us and brings death still likes to masquerade and confuse us on this topic.
When Jesus sees us caught in a sin or ensnared in a habit that can destroy us, He brings godly conviction (not condemnation). That brings life. It isn’t any wonder, is it?
Jesus is life. He came to bring us life and life more abundantly.