Guilt immobilizes and defeats many people. It paralyzes others with toxic messages of unworthiness and blame. In addition, guilt pressures and drives other people to overcompensate or overachieve. All of these reactions are a futile effort to prove that their 'guilt message’ tapes--which play and replay in their minds--are not true.
Guilt is something that affects each person differently. For most people the 'guilt message’ tapes take root when we are young children.
Why do many Christians have so much trouble with guilt?
There is not a simple answer to this question. We need to explore some aspects of guilt before we talk about why we can still feel guilty after we confess our sins. After we talk about why we still feel guilty in this post, next time we will discuss three practical steps you can take to reduce the guilty feelings.
Is guilt real or a figment of my imagination?
Yes, guilt is a real occurrence in every one’s life. However, not all guilt is authentic guilt. To determine its authenticity, it is critical to first define and understand the difference between the fact of guilt and feelings of guilt.
What is the fact of guilt?
The fact (truth) of guilt exists when you violate God's will as expressed in His Word, the Bible. The fact of guilt exists whether or not you feel guilty.
What are the feelings of guilt?
The feelings (reaction) of guilt occur in two forms: authentic guilt and false guilt. They are easily confused. As Christ followers, God uses authentic guilt to protect us from moral, emotional, spiritual and physical harm. If we violate God's moral law, we will become uncomfortably aware of the violation. This authentic guilt comes from two sources: the Holy Spirit and our own conscience. God’s Holy Spirit is our indwelling Helper as explained in John 15:6. God also designed our conscience so that it provides guidance. In secular thinking, there is no such thing as authentic guilt or violating God's moral laws. However, God's Word teaches that this is faulty thinking, and His Word can help distinguish the difference between the two.
How do we distinguish the difference between authentic and false guilt?
A good question to ask yourself is "Have I violated a clear principle or command in God's Word?" If the answer is no, your guilt is probably based on misinformation and/or faulty assumptions. As a child, you may have been told to “clean your plate" because of the starving children In Africa. You may have a twinge of guilt now when you leave food on your plate. This is an example of false guilt. It is rooted in a silly saying that was used to motivate a child to finish their dinner. There is no sin involved. It is false guilt, since there is no violation of any command in God's Word.
What is authentic guilt?
Authentic guilt is rooted in the objective facts of God's Word. It is free from bias or prejudice caused by personal feelings. The feeling of authentic guilt performs a valuable function in every Christian's life. This guilt is a warning signal that something is wrong. It motivates you to cleanse your life of sins and helps you work to rid yourself of character defects. It lets you know you have made a misstep, or that you are moving in an unhealthy direction. Authentic guilt is a powerful tool God uses to build character and redirect our lives. God uses small doses of authentic guilt to motivate you to move in a healthier path.
The problem for many people is that they have not learned to listen to the message of authentic guilt. When they don’t respond to God's gentle doses of authentic guilt they jump into a pool of corrosive, destructive, emotional substance called false guilt. This false guilt is shame-based. This shame-based guilt yields many self-defeating, dysfunctional behaviors such as self-blaming, self-shaming, codependency, addictions, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and actual sins.
Another destructive problem is preoccupation with unnecessary guilt. This preoccupation clouds your ability to recognize legitimate sources of guilt. Obsessing on false guilt it makes it difficult to recognize the dysfunctional aspects of your life that you need to confess and release through the process of recovery. There is a paradox of guilt: the very people who carry massive loads of false guilt often live in denial regarding the authentic guilt they carry.
In 1 John 1:9 we read, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Why do I still feel guilty after I confess my sins?
The reason for the remaining guilt feelings is simple; God has forgiven you but you haven’t forgiven yourself. God tells you that as far as He is concerned you are forgiven. God says you are righteous, according to his forgiving grace, but you insist on punishing yourself.
If you insist on hanging onto a huge guilt load, you give Satan room to work in your life. Satan wants to paralyze and render you useless by convincing you that you are unworthy of your relationship with God. This is a lie! You are worthy of a relationship with God because Jesus died, paying your debt, and freeing you to live for Him. Jesus death and resurrection wiped out the fact of your guilt.
"A feeling of guilt without the fact of guilt has no valid reason to exist."
In our next post we will discuss three practical steps for handling guilt.