In a recent series ‘Overcoming’, I addressed the topic of guilt. I began with a quote by the Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand, “The memory of old transgression stands like a savage watch dog before sanctuary of God’s peace.” Guilt is a universal human experience that leaves us full of regret from our past, and fearful of the future. In the course of the sermon we discovered that before guilt comes sin, the decision to break God’s law so that we can follow the desires of our own hearts. Immediately after sin comes guilt, which is not so much the feeling as it is God’s verdict against us. Guilt assigns the blame we deserve. After the verdict comes the shame. Shame is the emotion we feel and can bring with it fear, isolation and even depression. It is impossible in just one sermon to address all the issues surrounding a topic like guilt. This article is a chance for us to think about how we typically respond to guilt.

We all have developed strategies for managing guilt. There are many wrong ways to deal with it and they all have one thing in common; none of them work. They might make you feel better for a short time, but none of them remove the reality of blame or feelings of shame. Here then, are some of the wrong ways to deal with guilt.


Moral self-improvement.

This is an attempt to deal with guilt before it even begins by starting with the sin that makes us guilty in the first place. This approach recognises the problem, but cannot solve it. We reason that if we can live a better life, then we can avoid the problem before it starts. It’s actually the oldest strategy for dealing with guilt, and often comes in the form of religion. Manmade religion says “I have gone against God.” But its solution is to try and appease God with good works (and when that fails, good intentions). Religious people know they owe God a great debt for their disobedience. But they often make the terrible mistake of thinking they can pay it back through good works or by performing religious duties. If we do improve our behaviour we run the risk of pride, and when we fail we fall into despair. It’s a half truth that fails every time.


Deny that we really are guilty.

In this case you simply refuse to accept the charge against you. You argue that there were extenuating circumstances for your sin and therefore your wrong doing is not really your fault. A common complaint for those who try this approach is that they fall short because they are being forced to live up to other people’s standards. If they could rather be considered according to their own standards, then they could be free from guilt altogether. You might like to think of it as the ‘be true to yourself’ plan. It sounds like freedom, doesn’t it? But what happens if you tried that with the laws of SA? ‘The speed limit of 80 is not a standard that suits me’ you think, ‘so I’ll drive by following what my own heart tells me is right.’ It may suit your conscience, however when you are caught doing 150km/h, the magistrate will judge you according to the law, not the preference of your heart. How far then do you think this strategy will get you when you face God as judge? Simply making up new rules doesn’t mean we are free from the ones already established. But quite apart from that, what happens when you try to live by your own standards, and you can’t even keep them? Whenever you let yourself down, your own consciences calls you guilty, and you’re right back where you started from.


Train ourselves to ignore the feeling of shame.

The logic here is simply enough, “If I don’t feel bad, then surely I can’t be bad”. However, it confuses the verdict for the emotion it creates. Simply hardening your heart doesn’t mean you are free of blame If this is your solution to the problem of guilt, you will find that we constantly compare ourselves to others. ‘I might have lied on my tax form, but I’ve never robbed a bank.’ But your guilt is still there, and now on top of it you’ve become self-righteous and judgmental. We become the kind of people who try to build ourselves up by constantly discussing the failures of those around us.


Whether we try to manage the situation by justifying our sin, our guilt or our shame, the problem remains. What we need is a solution that comes from outside of ourselves to deal with the guilt within. In Romans Ch 5:1 Paul writes, ‘Since we have been justified through faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Justified is a legal term. It means that regardless of what we have or haven’t done, God resets our status to not guilty. He is able to do this because Jesus has taken our guilty sentence upon Himself and suffered its penalty on the cross. God doesn’t cook the books. The death of Jesus satisfies God’s complaint against us, but also is an expression of His love for us. The consequence of being justified by faith in Christ is that He takes both our guilt and our shame, and in their place leaves us with peace. The only way to be free from guilt and the burden of shame is to allow the God who accuses you to be the One who forgives you. Then regardless of our past, there is nothing left to fear in the future.

If you would like to listen to the four talks in the “Overcoming” series you can download them at the following

Written by Scott Tubman. Original article can be found here.