Feelings of guilt, like feelings of pain, are a gift from God. Both are warning systems alerting us that we are in danger. When these gifts are absent it poses a crisis—a person with a medical disorder in which he can feel no pain (congenital analgesia) lives in constant danger, and a person who never experiences the feeling of guilt may very well be a sociopath. Both of these are horrifying conditions, which often result in harm to self and others, but we do not need a diagnosis to misuse or abuse what God has intended for good.
Feelings of guilt and pain can be easily corrupted. Though pain is a gift from God, when someone needlessly physically mutilates him or herself, they are dishonoring God by harming his image bearer. Likewise, harboring false guilt for things that are beyond our control or because of our personal limitations in certain areas of our lives is a wicked form of spiritual self-mutilation.
It’s not about humility
False guilt is not humility. It is the result of an unhealthy self-preoccupation that is often rooted in our expectations about what we think we should be able to do and accomplish. The problem is that we do not often distinguish between true guilt and false guilt, and we mask our false guilt as humility. Wallowing in false guilt is the fruit of fixing one’s gaze on oneself rather than on the acceptance and freedom found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We are objectively guilty because we have sinned against God. Our subjective feelings of guilt, when they accurately reflect what the Scripture names sin, are a path to confession, repentance and a renewed experience of the grace of God. But often our subjective feelings of guilt are not rooted in what the Scripture describes as sin, rather in our own misplaced longings and identity. Often with false guilt, the standard is not God’s revelation but our perception of how we compare to those around us. We think we should have or be able to do what we see others around us doing, so we feel guilty and begin to accuse ourselves.
Falling prey to Satan’s tactics
When we harbor false guilt we become a malicious witness, not against our brother (Deut. 19:15-20), but against ourselves. Satan’s name means adversary and accuser. He is the accuser of the brothers, and he will answer to Christ for his malicious accusations (Rev. 12:10). When we accuse ourselves and bear false guilt, we are unwittingly imaging the evil one in the world. False guilt is one of the primary weapons of Satan’s parasitic rival kingdom. I once heard my friend Russell Moore explain, “No one is more pro-choice on the way into an abortion clinic than Satan and no one is more pro-life on the way out of an abortion clinic that Satan because he thrives on hopeless accusation.”
Genuine feelings of guilt that lead to conviction, confession and repentance do not leave the believer in self-oriented groveling but rather declaring, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). False guilt cannot lead to an experience of grace because its root is satanic self-deception. Satan’s temptations of Jesus were fundamentally accusations, based on Scripture but abstracted from the cross and the gospel. “If you are the Son of God . . .,” Satan asserts, you should be able to claim these promises right now (Matt. 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13).
Satan’s tactics have not changed. He longs for us to be gripped by the constant ache of false guilt: You do not have that? You cannot do that? Look at how much everyone around you is doing. Why didn’t you do more? You are worthless if you do not have what others have. You are not bright enough, attractive enough, credentialed enough, and successful enough to really be useful. You are a burden to those around you. This kind of false guilt is a self-feeding beast. It produces hypersensitivity and a paralyzing self-loathing that often projects self-accusation on others.
The answer found in gospel-esteem
When we become our own accuser based on false guilt, the gospel becomes eclipsed in our thinking. False guilt accuses but offers no hope. Instead of taking every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), every thought becomes a referendum on whether or not we are measuring up and whether others think we are measuring up. The answer is not found in the prevalent notion of contemporary American culture that all feelings of guilt are bad and we should focus on our personal self-esteem. The flattery-oriented, “everybody is always a winner” culture is vacuous. The answer is found in gospel-esteem. We are guilty, but Christ died for sinners, and there is forgiveness found through faith in him.
Embracing gospel truth on a daily basis means viewing our lives through the lens of Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). God’s love demonstrated on the cross of Christ atones for the sins of those who trust him and removes their condemnation. It is an act of rebellion to develop a new self-generated legalistic standard and to make accusations against oneself based on that standard. Paul declared, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
Trusting God and his all-wise providence means living the life we actually have in faithfulness to him as the most strategic and influential thing we could be doing for the sake of the gospel. Wishing we had a different life and could attain some level of self-defined success is the most worthless anti-gospel thing we could waste our time doing (Matt. 25:14-30). We are called to surrender our lives, strengths and weaknesses, ability and disability, to Jesus for his glory. Do not let anyone rob you of your gospel freedom in Christ—including you.