According to my informal polls,1 yes—we are feeling guilty. I’ll estimate that around 85% of the population feels guilty right now. The other 15% either have a completely numbed conscience or are in the midst of an unusually good day and have a clear conscience. (A clear conscience doesn’t mean that you are momentarily perfect; it means that you are openly confessing your sins before God and you enjoy forgiveness of sins.)
These polls always surprise me. I expect that people who don’t follow Jesus would rarely report feeling guilty. They do not feel accountable before him, they are trying their best to do right (and what’s the big deal about a few rough edges; after all, we are all human), and guilt is just not a significant part of modern culture. Among those who follow Jesus, I would expect an awareness of guilt, but I would expect it to be more than counterbalanced by the knowledge of forgiveness of sins.
As an aside, one of the conversations by my hardy poll-takers was especially interesting. In it, the person interviewed said that she grew up in a completely a-religious home and guilt didn’t exist. When she came to Christ, she suddenly became aware of her guilt—that’s one evidence that the Spirit is on the move in us (John 16:8)—and she suddenly became aware of the beauty of forgiveness of sins. The proclamation of forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ death and resurrection is meaningless without the knowledge of personal sin. The knowledge of sin without forgiveness of sins is deadly.
Back to the polls. Along with the sheer amount of guilt that is going around, I see at least one other trend: guilt means different things to different people. Basically, when most people hear the word guilt, it means “I feel like I have done something bad,” and “bad” could mean lots of different things, not all of which fit into the biblical category of guilt. We should expect that God has different things to say to these different experiences. With this in mind, the first step in dealing with guilt is to identify what we really mean.
Here are some of the experiences that we tend to identify as guilt.
Good old-fashioned guilt, in its more narrow sense, is “I have sinned against the Lord.” We know who God is and what he requires of his people, and we know we have disobeyed. When Scripture speaks of no condemnation because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it is with this brand of guilt in mind.
A variation on this type of guilt is “I have sinned against the Lord, and I expect to continue, though I don’t want to.” I would suggest that the same treatment applies: overload the guilty soul with the surprising and true nature of what Jesus has done, believe him, and believe in him. Related to this is “I have sinned against the Lord, I expect to continue, and I want to continue.” There are a number of pastoral approaches to this one.
Legalism or Works-Righteousness
Here is one for hard-core guilt specialists. The apostle Paul speaks about it especially in his letter to the Galatians. Practitioners know that there is forgiveness of sins through Jesus, but they attach a rider to forgiveness that says they need to do something to earn it, such as feel really, really bad, or reform themselves before they receive forgiveness. This version of guilt puts a human face on the Lord and essentially says, “There is no such thing as a free lunch. If I have sinned, I have to make restitution in order to make it up to you.” That’s what happens in human relationships, so the legalist figures that the Lord is no different. Lauren Winner, in her book Girl Meets God, suggests that this is equivalent to cleaning up the house before the maid comes. The apostle Paul uses images that aren’t so nice.
A third experience that tends to be shoved into the word guilt is more accurately shame. Shame can overlap with real guilt, but it emphasizes the social consequences of guilt. “I have sinned, others know it, and I feel exposed and outcast.” Shame can also be unrelated to our own sin, in which case it usually comes from the sins of other people. For example, any person who has been sexually violated will feel this. The problem is that when shame is thrown into the guilt category, you try to confess your sins because you feel so dirty, but the problem is not your own sin. Confess all you can and you won’t erode shame. It is treated in other ways.
Being Controlled by the Opinions of Others
This is a common one. You feel guilty because someone else is displeased or potentially displeased with you. You might have done nothing wrong that elicited their displeasure, but you always feel that you are wrong and can never measure up. I tried to give a way out of this mess in When People Are Big and God Is Small, and I confess that I am still working on it.
Being a Human Being
At least one other way I have heard people identify guilt is when they are actually confessing mere humanness. Find this in “I am a failure,” “I should have done more,” and “I should have known.” It overlaps with being controlled by the opinions of others but is not identical to it. As an extreme example, consider what happens when you have known someone who committed suicide. Guaranteed, you will feel guilty. The “should haves” will be endless. But the only thing you are guilty for is being a limited, finite human being who doesn’t know all things and can’t predict the future. A lot of regrets get wrapped into this version of guilt.
I admit to an agenda in breaking down guilt into various categories. One is that I talk to too many people whose souls feel like they are dying under the weight of guilt, and I want to understand it better so I can help them. Another reason is that when we apply the words of God to one category of guilt, but the person we are speaking with really needs to hear other words from the Lord, God’s words can feel meaningless or distant, and God’s words to all these groups of people are too precious and life-giving to even think such things. Our challenge is to match the problem with the cure in such a way that the last word is joy in what Jesus has said and done.
1 Full disclosure—my polls consist of my own conversations and those of students. Each year, I ask at least one class to engage in a conversation with someone about guilt, and the class has between forty-five and eighty conversations, which over a decade or two is a lot of conversations. So this is a bit more substantial than me asking my wife if she ever feels like she should be confessing something.