True Guilt vs. False Guilt
Dealing with Guilt
“I know it in my head, but I don’t feel it in my heart” is an old adage that often rings true when considering the emotion of guilt. There are situations where emotions and logic work together, and there are times when they are in opposition. One emotion where this is often experienced for believers is guilt. Someone can experience the emotion of guilt but not actually be guilty before God. Another person might be guilty before God and yet not feel the emotion of guilt. Knowing if we are experiencing true guilt or false guilt is an important area of discernment. The emotion of guilt is experienced by all people in a similar fashion and a variety of contexts. However, our standing before God, converted or unconverted, determines what guilt means for each of us.
What is true guilt?
The Law given to Moses in the Old Testament was meant to show mankind that they are guilty before God (Romans 3:20, Galatians 3:24) and are in need of forgiveness from God. Christ taught that God’s standard is far above behavioral compliance, He focused on the heart (see the Sermon on the Mount Matthew chapters 5-7). Taking an honest look at Scripture will rightly lead everyone to conclude that they are guilty before God. We have fallen short of God’s standard of holiness and purity in intent and action; therefore, we are guilty.
Two types of true guilt:
- True guilt experienced by the unconverted: Scripture teaches that everyone enters this world guilty before God (Psalm 51:5). True guilt is the result of man having this sin nature which leads to separation from God through sin. The Bible teaches that all unrighteousness is sin (1 Jn. 5:17), all have sinned (Romans 3:23), and sin brings death (Romans 6:23). True guilt exists not as merely a feeling, but as a reality resulting from the distance between sinful man and a perfect God.
Some feel the emotion of guilt when they disobey God’s law, where others do not. This is one reason why it is very important to distinguish between the emotion of guilt and being guilty positionally before God. We are either converted, positionally God’s child, or unconverted, positionally God’s enemy. Our position with Christ is not determined by evaluating our emotions. Apart from trusting Christ and seeking to follow Him, we are guilty before God whether or not we feel guilty.
- True guilt experienced by the converted soul: Once an individual is justified, they are no longer condemned or guilty before God (Romans 8:1). The penalty of sin, eternal death, has been removed through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice (1 Cor. 15:52-57). Once justified, an individual experiences true guilt in a different way than the unconverted. The difference is that the penalty for the believer is no longer eternity in hell. Instead, the believer experiences true guilt in the sense that when they break God’s commandments, they feel conviction (true guilt from the Holy Spirit) of sin (1 Jn. 1:4-10). This is vastly different than eternal condemnation. The message from God during these times is, “Come unto Me.” He desires that we recognize our sin, experience sorrow for our sin, remember our need for Him and turn to His open arms (Matthew 11:28-30, Hebrews 12:5-7). The believer should always understand that they are not worthy of God’s forgiveness nor are they “good enough” in themselves to meet God’s standard. This reality can be felt or experienced through the emotion of guilt. There is truth in the reality the believer is not 100% righteous if they look at themselves; however, the reality of justification through faith is the believer has been given 100% righteousness through Christ (i.e., imputed righteousness; 2 Cor. 5:21). When the believer feels conviction (true guilt from the Holy Spirit) and seeks to turn toward Christ, their imputed righteousness from Christ is not at risk. Instead, the Holy Spirit is exposing the individual’s need for continued growth and sanctification. This truth is essential to understand so we do not falsely conclude that our justification rests on our works or obedience. It is true that true faith produces obedience and good works; however, true faith does not produce perfect human beings. The believer is called to live an overcoming life after they have been rescued from the penalty of sin (Romans 6:1-2).
What is false guilt?
False guilt is when the believer feels guilt when guilt is not warranted or when they feel guilt without the hope of salvation. False guilt is experienced by the believer (and only by the believer). The unbeliever stands condemned before God and therefore cannot experience “false guilt” as defined here. The unbeliever can experience a type of false guilt as a result of confused emotions, which is a much lengthier topic. For this article’s purpose, false guilt is when an individual feels condemnation when he is not condemned.
Truth is found in the Bible. We are to recognize our emotions as we walk through life, but we must look to truth to determine our position in Christ and the correct response to our emotions. When what we know from the Bible and what we feel emotionally is in conflict, we should always stick with what we know from the Bible. To rightly assess the path forward in life, we must start with truth and be led forward by truth for each additional step. When truth and our emotions are in line, this will feel more natural than it does at other times. When emotions and life’s experiences create confusion, it is imperative to hold onto what is true according to the Scriptures.
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For Further Information:
Self Esteem: What Does the Bible Say?
This booklet, created by ODB Ministries, addresses the biblical basis of Christ-centered self-worth and how to avoid the unbiblical and unhealthy extremes that people often believe on this issue.