November 14, 1995
A young woman is distraught: “I feel guilty all the time. What is wrong with me? I am a Christian, but no matter what I do, it seems as if it is never enough.”
Guilt and guilty feelings are complex. A person can unknowingly violate a law or a standard, like speeding without looking at the speedometer, and not feel any twinge of guilt. In such cases, lack of feelings or awareness does not change the facts — they are guilty.
On the other hand, being aware of doing wrong may or may not produce guilty feelings. If a person tells lies often enough, and excuses them every time, soon their conscience becomes hard and they can lie without it bothering them.
In contrast, guilt lands hard on a sensitive conscience. The offender cannot think of enough ways to apologize or make up for what was done, even though other people simply acknowledge or confess their wrongs, make them right, and their guilty feelings vanish.
There is also such a thing as false guilt — feeling guilty when no wrong has actually been committed. It happens when we take on more responsibility for real or perceived wrongs than actually belongs to us.
In all these cases, guilt is a symptom. Some wrong needs to be confessed and corrected, but it is not necessarily a wrong action. The person who feels guilt may need to deal with a conditioned conscience, faulty thinking, false teaching or unrealistic expectations.
For instance, guilt traps us if we fear human rejection. Proverbs says, “The fear of man will prove to be a snare.” People-pleasers focus not on God but human approval and always feel inadequate because it is impossible to please everyone.
Another example is children who are raised without praise and grow to adulthood driven by a deep need for approval. Without recognizing their motivation to please parents (who may be absent or even dead) they strive, always feeling as if they “never do enough.”
False guilt can also come to Christians who assume God is displeased unless we meet certain standards or follow certain rules. “Legalism” results in guilt because the Gospel never allows for our “doing” to be enough to please God. Anyone who takes their eyes off the fact “we are saved by grace through faith, not our works,” and that we “all fall short of the glory of God”, soon becomes hopelessly disappointed in themselves.
Even if we could keep His laws perfectly, the Bible says we cannot achieve right standing before Him in that manner. Instead, God is pleased by faith and by the actions that flow from it, not from guilt. The Bible explains, “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in Him.” In other words, we live the same way we are saved — by faith.
False guilt also flows from a proud assumption of being indispensable. Anyone who tries to do more than God calls or gifts them to do has an ego problem or “messiah complex.” The answer for that “guilt” is also in Christ. He did not preach to every person or convince every sinner that He was the Messiah. He simply did the will of His Father and was able to say, “I have completed the work You gave me to do.”
As far as true guilt, the Bible says all have sinned, whether guilt is felt or not. God bids everyone to confess their sin, turn from it to Christ and follow Him. His grace puts Christ’s righteousness on us, setting us free from guilt and making us His own child.
When Christians sin, they confess to God who continually “forgives our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness” — on the basis of what Christ has done, not our efforts. In Him, there is no further condemnation but free and complete acceptance.