The Gift of Guilt

by Larry Barber


Michael walked sluggishly into my office, collapsed onto my couch, and for several minutes sat bent over, face buried in his hands, not saying a word. When he finally looked up he did not make eye contact with me but stared out the window as though lost in another world. After several more minutes, he slowly and painfully spoke of the guilt that had so debilitated him. He wanted to know how he could stop feeling the way he did. The personal anguish often associated with experiencing guilt can be incapacitating. And for Christians living in an unbelieving world, the conflict between the biblical view of guilt and the world’s view can be especially perplexing because the world says we should not feel guilty about anything. How well we understand and respond to this conflict reveals much about our spiritual and emotional health.

Our conscience is that part of our mind that informs our appraisal of our motives and behavior; it reflects the values, morals, and beliefs we have learned and internalized through observation, personal experience, and our own choices. Although we may not always be aware of the process, our conscience judges us every time we make a decision, and we either “pass” or “fail.” Guilt is the anxiety we experience when our conscience tells us that our behavior or motives fall short of our own expectations, others’ standards, or an authentic moral standard.

Because our conscience reflects learned values (from the culture and environment within which we were raised, the instruction we received, and the choices we have made along the way), the character of our consciences can vary greatly from one another and we can even experience “false” guilt when the value informing our guilt is false. Our conscience can tell us we have done something wrong when we have not. The following example illustrates how one’s learned values can result in false guilt.

My wife and I visited a beautiful resort to dine at their buffet breakfast. In one of the resort’s shops, I purchased a necklace of red coral, carved into a rose, for my wife. While we were walking through another shop, a sales woman immediately recognized the necklace and enthusiastically commented that she had been looking at that very necklace and found it exceptionally beautiful. When my wife offered to let the woman wear the necklace while we ate breakfast, the woman was excited and pleased, yet in the next moment she flushed with embarrassment. She replied that while she would love to wear the necklace for a short time, she could never bring herself to purchase one because fifty years before her mother had taught her that only prostitutes wear red. She said she would feel too guilty to wear red and would be horrified if her mother ever found out.

As a young person, this woman had been taught by her mother that to wear red was to identify with prostitutes. She had internalized her mother’s lesson, making it one of the beliefs that formed her conscience and in turn shaped her behavior as an adult. When she thought of wearing red, her conscience wrongly informed her of an imagined offense, rather than a real one. In reality, prostitutes are not the only women who wear red; chaste women also wear red. Yet, the woman had never questioned the authenticity of her mother’s beliefs because she wanted to avoid the emotional discomfort of displeasing her mother. She could not disregard her mother’s ever-present voice in her mind because she had not done the difficult personal work of developing beliefs and coming to her own conclusions about what makes something right or wrong. Because she had not developed an understanding of authentic morality in this area, she experienced false guilt, and she responded to it with fear (of punishment and embarrassment) and with excessive self-condemnation.

But even though our conscience can mislead us with false guilt, “true” guilt has a good purpose. God designed it to create a state of anxiety within us whenever our motives or behavior fall short of His authentic moral standard. C.S. Lewis observed that God uses pain to get our attention. Even though guilt makes us very uncomfortable at times, God uses it to alert us to wrong, just as pain alerts us to disease or injury. God does not desire to condemn us unmercifully for our transgressions, but rather mercifully to give us vital information. Guilt allows us to consider our motives and behavior so that we can learn from our experiences and understand the limits and full weight of our responsibility. Preoccupation with excessive self-blame and condemnation does not facilitate the maturing of our faith. But unlike this false guilt, the true guilt we experience when we commit a real transgression is truly a gift from God. With it, we are given eyes to see the truth about God and ourselves. Thus guilt actually indicates God’s Spirit is working in our lives.

Like a parent who uses consequences to instruct a child about the value of goodness, God uses the guilt we experience when we fail morally to develop a healthy conscience in us and to mature our faith. Every day, situations challenge us to decide how we will interact with others. Because we are morally broken, we will fail and hurt those we love most; as a result, we will experience the existential death, or natural consequence, of sin. This “death” involves guilt. When God gives us eyes to see the reality of a situation in which we have failed, He gives us the opportunity to understand right from wrong from His perspective. In God’s classroom we learn both the value of goodness and our profound need for mercy. Experiencing the guilt that is a natural consequence of our moral failure is a crucial element to maturing our faith and developing a healthy conscience. And along the way, a divine metamorphosis takes place inside us; our values are transformed so that we actually desire goodness. The Bible calls this transforming process “sanctification.” Thus true guilt is crucial to developing a healthy conscience and to maturing our faith.

We need God to develop our conscience because it can deceive us—with false guilt, as we saw in the example of the woman at the resort, but in another way as well. The woman’s conscience mistakenly informed her something was wrong when nothing was. But our conscience can also lead us to believe something is NOT wrong when it is. We see examples of this characteristic of a faulty conscience throughout the New Testament when Jesus interacts with the religious elite.

Matthew tells us that on the day after Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem and overturned the table of the money changers (casting out the buyers and sellers and accusing them of turning the temple into a robbers’ den) and then healed many people, the chief priests and elders came to Him and questioned His authority. They wanted to know who gave Jesus the authority to do what he did. The parable in Matthew 21:28-32 is part of Jesus’ response:

“A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, `Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered and said, `I will, sir’; and he did not go. And he came to the second son and said the same thing. But he answered and said, `I will not’; yet afterward regretted it and went. Which of the two did the will of His father?” They said, “The latter.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax-gatherers and harlots will get into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax-gatherers and harlots did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.”

Because Jesus is addressing the parable to the chief priests and elders and because he tells them that “the tax-gatherers and harlots will get into the kingdom of God before [them],” we can assume that Jesus is likening them to the first son in the parable who, in apparent obedience, says he will do what his father has asked but does not. The chief priests and elders, in apparent obedience to God, talk about keeping His Law but in their hearts they do not. Unlike the second son in the parable, the first son shows no regret for not having done the will of his father; and neither do the chief priests and elders show regret for not keeping God’s Law, because they genuinely believed they had done His will. Their consciences had not informed them that they had a problem: they were not the kind of people the Father wanted them to be. The chief priests and elders, like the woman at the resort, obeyed a false set of internalized values in order to avoid the moral crisis guilt brings, a moral crisis that could show them they needed God’s mercy. As a result, according to Jesus, they put their eternal destiny at stake.

In contrast, the second son’s actions show us the result true guilt can bring. At first, he rejects his father’s request. Sometime later, however, he regrets his disobedience and goes into the vineyard and works. His conscience appraised his behavior and used guilt to inform him that his motives or actions had fallen short of pleasing his father. Thus his conscience—and guilt—allowed him to see the truth. Experiencing guilt—a natural consequence of his moral failure—was a crucial precursor to the second son’s regret; it was the instructor that led him to see his actions from God’s perspective and thus to regret his rebellion. As a result, he changed his mind and obeyed his father.

Throughout the gospel accounts, the religious men to whom Jesus spoke rejected the opportunity He gave them to question the integrity of their values and morals. They lived their lives avoiding the discomfort associated with moral failure and personal guilt. In so doing, they lost the opportunity to experience a lifelong process of learning about the value of goodness, about right and wrong from God’s perspective, and about their need for mercy. Their consciences did not give them the help they desperately needed, and they rejected the help that came in the person of Jesus.

Because of our brokenness, understanding the difference between our false guilt and the true guilt God uses to teach us can be confusing. Unlike the woman at the resort who was blind to her opportunity to challenge the integrity and genuineness of the false values that had so shaped her life, we need to continually question the values that shape our decisions so that we might stand firm on an authentic faith and on morals that reflect God’s perspective, not our own. We must become attentive and discerning listeners to our conscience, the input of others, and the truth of the Scriptures so that we can draw accurate conclusions about our motives and behavior. Most importantly, as believers we must come to see guilt as a gift, an instructor leading us to authentic values and helping us to see our need for mercy.

Copyright August 2004 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Larry Barber