This past Wednesday during my course on spiritual discernment we had a very interesting conversation about the difference between true and false guilt. When it come to discerning God’s voice we often talk about listening to our conscience. Indeed in scripture we see that one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of sin. Jesus says in John 16:8 that the Advocate will “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”
However, when we attend to our conscience it is important to discern whether the guilt we experience is from truly from God. It is very possible for us to experience an oppressive guilt that is not rooted in God.
Gordon Smith points out in his book, The Voice of Jesus, that the true conviction from the Holy Spirit has two major criteria. First, he argues that true guilt rests on the foundation that we are loved. Jesus does not convict us of sin just to make us feel bad about ourselves. He convicts us because he recognizes the destructive nature of sin and seeks to protect us from it. Smith writes that this feeling of guilt “is a gift much as is the pain we experience when we touch a hot stove. It is certainly painful, but it keeps us from self-destruction.” Jesus convicts us of sin because he cares about us. He recognizes that sin enslaves us (Romans 6:16) and leads to death (Romans 6:23).
A second sign that the conviction we experience is from the Holy Spirit is that it is not burdensome but liberating. Paul makes a distinction in 1 Corinthians 7:9-10 between a godly grief, which leads to repentance and spiritual growth, and a worldly grief, which leads to death. A true sorrow for sin does not leave us feeling oppressed and burdened but it calls us to experience the life of fullness that is offered in Christ. Paul emphasizes this to the church in Galatia when he writes, “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
Smith points out three sources of false guilt. The first form of false guilt is from the evil one. The evil one in scripture is literally called the “accuser.” The devil draws us in to sin and then is right there to point an accusative finger. So if we are beating ourselves up over our mistakes or if we are experience an oppressive feeling of condemnation, this is not rooted in the conviction of the Spirit. In response to this we ought to proclaim the wonderful truth that “there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1
The second source of false guilt is the unrealistic expectations and emotional manipulation of others. The could take place in the family context when there is an implied message that if you do not live up to expectations you are not good enough or lovable. It could take place in the workplace where you are asked to do bear an unrealistic load in order to be a “team player.” It also takes place in religious settings where people add to the law and impose an unscriptural legalism on others. This is what the Pharisees got into trouble for in Jesus’ time. For example, sometimes people are shunned by the church for not going to church one week or for having a glass of wine. These sources of false guilt must be countered by looking at what is truly expected of us in scripture versus what people are trying to put on our shoulders.
Lastly, false guilt can be caused by not living up to our personal expectations and aspirations. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. In fact researchers suggest that up to 77% of our self-talk is negative (Parrot, Love Talk, 148). Sometimes we are so hard on ourselves that we drown out the voice of God. Smith reminds us that “this is not true sorrow for sin, but rather another expression of pride.” To counter this we need to humble ourselves enough to receive the grace of God!
This distinction between true and false guilt came as very good news to me. Therefore, I thought it was worth repeating and sharing to a broader audience this morning. May you receive that good news that “there is now no condemnation in Christ Jesus!”