The Feeling of Guilt

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Feelings of guilt can often weigh us down.  It’s not something most Christians, or unbelievers for that matter, want to embrace.  Guilt, therefore, is to be avoided at all costs.  Some Christians, however, feel that if they’re not feeling guilty about something, then they’re not really living like a Christian.  A constant sense of guilt has become part of their Christianity.  This type of addiction to feeling guilty will either lead that person to a miserable life as a Christian, or it will lead to an abandonment of their faith because the constant feeling of guilt is too much to bear.

Those who don’t ever want to feel guilty might say that guilt is a tool of the devil to make us feel bad.  To live in Christ is to be free from guilt and to feel good, therefore we need to get rid of guilt in the things we do.  In this view, Christ died so that we wouldn’t have to feel guilty anymore.

Those who need to feel guilty in order to feel like a true Christian are “spiritual masochists.”  They will praise a preacher who “steps on their toes,” and think that good preaching is “hard” preaching, which means preaching that motivates by making people feel guilty.  Any positive message toward motivation is “soft.”

It’s important to distinguish between “feeling” guilty and being guilty.  Guilt is often spoken about as a feeling or emotion instead of a verdict.  A convicted murderer, however, is guilty whether he “feels” guilt or not.  When we’re talking to others about the topic, we need to be aware that we may be talking about the feeling of guilt instead of the reality of guilt.

The Bible never talks about guilt as a “feeling.”  It speaks about sorrow at the knowledge of guilt.  Paul says, “I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance” (2 Cor. 7:9).  Another biblical word for sorrow associated with sinful actions is the word “remorse.”  The gospel of Matthew speaks of Judas’ remorse: “Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders” (Mt. 27:3).

The feeling of remorse can help us.  It is not a positive feeling, but it is good, nevertheless.  When we manifest the symptoms of sickness, we know something is wrong.  The symptoms may not feel good, but it is our body’s way of telling us there’s a problem.  Once we know there’s a problem, we can treat it.  Remorse can work the same way.  When we feel godly sorrow, it is a sign that our relationship with God and/or others is not right.

If we fail to recognize that guilt isn’t an emotion, we will wander into language that isn’t biblical.  Christ didn’t come so that we wouldn’t feel guilty anymore, but so that we wouldn’t be guilty anymore.  When we’re speaking the gospel to others, we’re not telling them about the feelings they can be released from, but the verdict they’re released from, even though feelings of sorrow may be tied to it.  Of course, the knowledge of release from guilt will hopefully produce a joyful feeling.  The point isn’t that emotion is to be thrown out of the window, but that it must be properly understood.  May we all praise God that He’s set us free from the guilty verdict of sin!

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But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. — Galatians 4:4-5 (NIV)

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