Oxford defines the emotion of guilt as, “a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation”. All of us who have felt guilt know that this is an understatement. Guilt hurts. It hurts emotionally and oftentimes physically. In this article we will look at guilt: the positive and the negative.
Have you ever thought of guilt as a gift? That’s not just a provocative title or opening sentence, it’s truth. Think about it, what would happen if there was no guilt? Guilt is to the soul what pain is to the body. Without pain, we could burn ourselves to death and never realize it. Without guilt, we would feel no need for repentance. We would not seek a Savior. We would wallow in our sin until it ultimately destroys us. Look at what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:
For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God. Therefore we are comforted.
-2 Corinthians 7:8-13
Godly grief leads to repentance. Repentance ultimately leads to comfort. Consider the account of Peter’s denial of Christ:
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house, and Peter was following at a distance. And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Peter experienced guilt so much that he wept bitterly. Christ was so merciful that He accepted him by proclaiming those iconic words that started Peter’s journey years ago, “Follow me.” The ultimate purpose of guilt is to spur us on to seek God and His forgiveness. While guilt and remorse are good things, they can be perverted just like any other emotion.
Paul also speaks of “worldly grief” in 2 Corinthians 7. He says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” The first thing that comes to mind when I hear this verse is the account of Judas Iscariot.
Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself.
Judas felt intense guilt, but his guilt did not lead to repentance. It lead to death. It was worldly grief.
As children of God, we must remember that there is absolutely no condemnation for us (Romans 8:1), but there is a fight (Romans 7:21-25). There is a fight to find our ultimate joy and delight in the beauty and holiness of our Lord. The Holy Spirit is our Guide, and He uses guilt to prod us on to righteousness and ultimate joy.
Just as a rod is used for good in the hands of a shepherd, so is guilt in the hands of the Holy Spirit. But just as a rod is used for evil in the hands of an abuser, so is guilt in the hands of the Accuser.
And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brother has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
Satan is the Great Accuser. He plants doubt, sows division, and places deceit in our hearts. Guilt from Satan is never a good thing. In fact, it is harmful.
So how do we tell whether our guilt is from Satan or from God? The answer has already been alluded to. Healthy guilt leads to repentance, harmful guilt does not. Is the guilt you are experiencing pushing you on to repentance or is it causing you to doubt God and His forgiveness? Again, there is absolutely no condemnation for us who are in Christ Jesus, but there is a fight. Just as a healthy fear of God leads to an immovable faith in God, healthy guilt over sin leads to victory over sin through Christ.
Everyday leading up to Valentine’s Day we will be posting on a different emotion. Subscribe to get them in your inbox. Did you enjoy this article? Give it a like. Do you have questions? Comment below or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Would you like prayer? All you have to do is let us know. We’re here to serve.