I am prone to guilt: to being consumed by the things I’ve done wrong, the things that I am not, and by the knowledge that I am not perfect. Yes, sometimes I do brush away my sin far too flippantly, or ignore it, or live contentedly in it: this I am not proud of either. But the main vein of my response to sin or mistakes is guilt.
Here’s a prime example:
Last weekend, Brian (my fiancé) and I were in Sioux Falls, attending a marriage conference. We had a lunch break, so we drove downtown to find a restaurant we’d heard of. This restaurant turned out to be in a quite rundown area of town, and as we parked (right next to a homeless shelter), we realized it was permanently closed. No pizza for us.
As we sat in my car googling another place to eat, a stocky Native American man made his way to my window. He wore shabby clothes and had a wide face dotted with moles and blemishes. He ambled along slowly, but I couldn’t deny he was approaching us. I hesitantly rolled my window down, knowing exactly what he would ask.
“Hello. I know you are both hardworking people, is that right?” Brian and I nodded and smiled haltingly at the man while he made his request. Loose change, he asked for. Anything would help. I dug in the center console of my car and found approximately $2.50 in coins. It looked pathetic, but the amount was something for him and giving it away was nothing for me. He thanked us and said something about unity, then something else in his native language, raised a large hand in a wave, and left.
I rolled up my window, feeling mostly satisfied. “He was nice,” I commented to Brian. Although I had withheld a fresh $20 bill from the man, and it still nestled discreetly in my wallet, I mostly felt good about myself. I had done good.
As we made the short drive to our second-choice restaurant, though, guilt assailed me. Why hadn’t I said anything about Jesus? I had seen the chance. Then it had slipped away as I dropped the coins into the man’s open hand and drove away. What could I have said that would mean anything for his salvation? Why did I always miss opportunities?
We pulled into a parking spot across the street from the next restaurant, a bar that would have greasy, tasty food. It was in the same questionable area of town, and I felt an urge to get inside this place as fast as possible. As I got out and took a few clambering steps towards the restaurant, there was a group of three men behind me.
As I walked, one called out to me: “Hey sistah. Do you have ‘awogmbwmfo’?” The words jumbled as I turned towards them briefly and uncertainly called out “No—thanks—” then scurried across the road. What in the world did they want from me?
As I rejoined Brian and swung open the bar’s door, it clicked in my head.
Jumper cables. They had asked me if I had jumper cables.
To which I had responded: “No thanks!” and ran away.
Once Brian and I were seated, I was so overwhelmed by everything that had just happened that I came close to tears. I thought I looked like the biggest jerk ever. We were nicely dressed for the conference. We had been entering a restaurant, where we had plenty of money to fill our stomachs. We were so privileged. And I blew off someone asking for jumper cables.
On top of that I felt vulnerable and confused, and I also feared that I looked racist: all the men had been Native American. We ended up switching tables so we could keep an eye on my car, because I was convinced that they would break into my car or destroy it or something.
Looking back on it, I see that guilt assailed me when it had no right to. Those men didn’t have to yell out at me: they could have approached Brian and asked for jumper cables. In that moment, I had done what felt right and safe.
As we were driving away from the bar, we actually witnessed someone break into the car that had been parked next to us. Now I’m glad that we didn’t stop to chat, or even help them. My conscience is clear, and it saddens me that I felt so guilty right away.
I’ve been studying through 1 John with a friend, and a certain passage really stuck out to me when thinking through this experience and guilt:
This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 1 John 3:19-20
When we feel overwhelmed with guilt and condemnation, we know that God is greater than our feelings. He knows everything: he knows the stories and futures of those men who called out to me, he knows their true motives (whether innocent or ill-willed), and he knows my heart and my motives (whether innocent or ill-willed). Above self-condemnation, we have confidence and obedience in the Trinity. God has also given us the Spirit to remind us that we belong permanently to the truth, and he can lead us in uncertain and tricky situations.
Our hearts are not always right when they condemn us.
When our consciences are right
But honestly, sometimes they are right. An active conscience is a good gift. We are not perfect, and often give into selfishness, pride, sinful worry, lust, the need for control, and other sins. These sins need to be identified and killed. Often when my heart condemns me, it has every right to do so!
So how do we know if our hearts’ condemnation is right or wrong? I have a few questions we can ask ourselves when dealing with guilt:
The 4 Questions:
1. First, ask “did I sin?” If we have committed a sin (something that God says is wrong) then our conscience is right to make us feel uneasy. It is a good thing to recognize our own sin.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8
On the other hand, if you’re feeling guilty about something that isn’t a result of your sin, you may need to recognize your guilt as faulty and overreactive. Either way, acknowledge the guilt, identify its source, and then move on to the next step.
2. Next, ask “Is this feeling of guilt making me feel paralyzed, dirty, and hopeless?” Satan loves to paralyze us in our shortcomings. He knows that everyone sins, and he wants to make us sad, ineffective, and stunted in growth because of that.
When God brings a sin to our minds, though, he does so to let us to move on in forgiveness, positive change, and victory over sin. There’s a difference here. If satan is trying to paralyze you in hopeless guilt, it’s time to ask Jesus for the power to let go and move on.
3. Next, ask “Have I trusted Jesus to forgive my sin?” If you have accepted Jesus’ work on the cross, you are now made holy in God’s eyes. You have Jesus’ spotless record given to you. You have a Savior who overcomes every sin, and you have received perfect forgiveness. Confess the sin to him and trust his power to forgive. You are made righteous!
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9
4. The final question is “How will I move forward in Jesus’ power to kill this sin?” This part is important. If we don’t move forward in killing our sin, it will continue to enslave us. Kill your sin, or it will kill you. Jesus gives us amazing grace and forgiveness, but lingering sin can still harm us and the people around us. The Bible uses strong language when it talks about killing sin. It’s something we’re commanded to do:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Colossians 3:5-8, emphasis added
It’s also incredibly helpful to have people around us who will help us in this process. Do you have someone you’re comfortable being honest with, someone who will lovingly bring your sin to light? We don’t need to confess our sins to others to be forgiven, but it can help us feel free and live free from these things. As followers of Christ, we want to live like him, and we should be helping each other do that!
So in the end, guilt is a tricky emotion. I hope that with these steps, you can trust God to help you move past guilt and deal with the things you need to. Ultimately, we have no condemnation because of our Savior Jesus. Thank him for this today!
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. John 3:17-18, emphasis added
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. Romans 8:1-2, emphasis added
Hello! I'm Anna, a college student living in the Midwest. I'm a strong believer in uncontrollable laughter, powerful words, and a morning cup of coffee. I pray these posts will encourage you to live a full life with and for God: unhindered. Follow me on social media for post updates!