Question: "What is false guilt, and how can I avoid it?"
Answer: Scripture is clear that all humanity is guilty before a holy God. Romans 3 teaches us that there is no person who is righteous and that in the face of a perfect law, all mouths are shut and the whole world lies under judgment (verse 19). Furthermore, John tells us that if we try to say we aren’t guilty of sin, not only do we ourselves lie, but we make God out to be a liar. Guilt in and of itself is not a bad thing; it’s a fact of our fallen existence.
However, when it comes to feeling guilty, we must distinguish between false guilt and true guilt. It is normal to have feelings of guilt when we do something wrong—this is true guilt. But it is also possible to be innocent of something yet feel guilty about it—this is false guilt.
The major difference between false guilt and true guilt is their respective origins. False guilt has at least two possible points of origin: ourselves and the devil. One of the names of the devil in Scripture is “the accuser” (Revelation 12:10). It is a fitting name, as he can and does accuse us to our own minds and consciences. Satan will bring to mind our most horrible sins and cause us to focus on them rather than on God’s forgiveness.
Another possible source of false guilt is our own conscience. The Bible speaks of a “weak conscience” and defines it as a mistaken belief that something innocent is actually sinful (see 1 Corinthians 8:7-13). A weak conscience, then, is basically an uninformed conscience. A person who does not apprehend the freedom he has in Christ may consider things to be sinful which are not sinful at all, and his “weak” conscience can easily produce false guilt.
Then there are those who convince themselves that they’re somehow on permanent “probation” before God. They think that if they’re good enough—if they continually perform at a lofty standard—they’ll earn God’s grudging acceptance. It’s an easy pit to fall into. It can happen when we are more aware of our sin than we are of God’s grace.
True guilt, on the other hand, originates with the Holy Spirit. There are two places in Scripture where this is very clear. Hebrews 12 discusses the “chastisement” or “discipline” of the Lord. The true guilt a believer feels over his sin might be the chastisement of God on a child He loves. His love will not allow us to sin habitually, so He brings conviction. Then, in 2 Corinthians chapter 7, Paul writes about a previous letter he’d sent that apparently caused great distress. In verse 8, he says, “Even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it.” Paul recognized his letter caused the church “grief,” but he identifies their feelings as true guilt. They felt guilty because they were, in fact, guilty.
The cure for true guilt is not just a commitment to “do better.” As C. J. Mahaney says in his excellent little book, The Cross-Centered Life, “It’s impossible to resolve issues of yesterday by doing better tomorrow.” No, getting rid of true guilt requires godly sorrow leading to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). Once the sin has been repented of, the result is a rejoicing in the grace of God.
False guilt can result in depression and spiritual paralysis. Someone suffering from false guilt may feel that God has given up on him and despair of ever being sanctified. False guilt tends to be very “me-centered,” rather than God-centered. The tendency is to think we’ll never be good enough and focus on our shortcomings.
The cure for false guilt is the gospel. If you’re a Christian, start by confessing any known sin. The promise of God in 1 John 1:9 is for believers: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Remember that, once a sin has been forgiven, it’s forgiven for good. God separates our sin from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12).
Also, focus on the grace of God. God’s grace is free, it’s based on Christ’s work on your behalf, and it’s greater than your sin (Romans 5:20). Meditate on Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Preach the gospel to yourself every day, spending time in passages such as Romans 3:19-26 (especially verse 24); Psalm 103:8-13; Romans 4:7-8; Ephesians 1:3-11; and Romans 5:6-11. Meditate on the cross and all it means to you; never think of your sin without also remembering the cross and the grace of God displayed in it.
Finally, in addition to Scripture, let these words from John Newton’s poem “In Evil Long I Took Delight” sink into your soul:
“Thus while His death my sin displays in all its blackest hue,
Such is the mystery of grace, it seals my pardon, too!
With pleasing grief and mournful joy my spirit now is filled,
That I should such a life destroy yet live by Him I killed.”