God has a purpose for guilt—to lead us to repentance so it can be washed away. But feelings of shame and guilt too often are misguided, mishandled and unending. Or buried, rationalized and ignored.
An earlier draft of this article revealed my most embarrassing moment—an experience that I am so ashamed of, I don’t talk about it. Thankfully, to fit the assigned length, that story has been cut.
You, too, probably have things you are ashamed of or feel guilty about too. Some of them are not really your fault. Some are. Some you try to not think about, but they nag at you anyway. Some may even be held over you by others in a cruel power game.
Feelings of guilt and shame can be confusing
We can feel shame for things we can’t control. We can feel guilty even when we haven’t done anything wrong. We can be manipulated by someone who is an expert at injecting feelings of shame and guilt into our minds.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are times when someone (could it be me?) doesn’t feel guilty for something that really is wrong. Sometimes this is out of ignorance or out of a misguided conscience. Sometimes it is out of a seared conscience—one so often ignored and trampled on that it is no longer sensitive to guilt.
Satan, our enemy, has many ways of using these weapons against us. He wants us to feel so much shame and guilt (even when we haven’t sinned) that we feel discouraged, hopeless, debilitated. He wants us to say, What’s the use?
Satan also wants us to feel there’s no real way out of guilt when it is deserved. He wants us to seek to justify ourselves, to get angry at those we have sinned against and at God. He wants us to seek harmful distractions, to self-medicate and to feel cutoff from God with no way back.
Or he wants us to not feel guilty—when we really should.
There is a time and right purpose for guilt. God created us with the ability to learn about right and wrong and to feel guilt for wrong. He wants the feeling of guilt for sin to lead us to change. He wants us to repent and to wash away the guilt—not to go back and wallow in it.
How can you know when you should feel guilty?
Though feelings of shame and guilt can be misguided and our conscience can be off-kilter, there is a way to know for sure.
God defines right and wrong, and He has spelled them out clearly in the Bible. The essential framework is summarized in 10 short rules called the 10 Commandments.
To know if you should really feel guilty, do these two things:
- Study God’s law. Everyone has sinned and “become guilty before God” (Romans 3:19, 23), and sin causes the problems and evils of this world. Studying the 10 Commandments and the related principles taught in the Bible shows us where we have sinned so we can change. The first four commandments show us how to love God the way He wants to be loved, and the last six show how to love those around us. Disobeying these laws is what makes us truly guilty.
- Ask. If we still aren’t sure if we have sinned, we can ask God to help us see things as He does. We can also ask the people we may have hurt. This can not only educate our conscience about how our actions affect others, but it can help us in reconciling with them. (Note: We may not have sinned, but still might have hurt others by mistakes. Read more about dealing with mistakes in “Nobody’s Perfect” and “How to Apologize.”)
Such reconciliation—applying God’s principles (Matthew 5:23-24)—can be effective in rebuilding relationships.
However, this does not mean that you have to give a manipulative person a blank check to continue to shame and guilt you into doing whatever he or she wants. Right relationships grow through apologies and forgiveness, but provocation and continual shaming can be toxic. (See the story of Hannah’s being provoked by Peninnah in 1 Samuel 1:6-7 and the article “Toxic Friendships?”) Of course, we must avoid manipulating others with guilt as well.
How to wash away guilt
Our guilt for sin is part of how God leads us to repentance. When we see how bad our sin is, we will be “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). We will follow Peter’s admonition: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (verse 38).
Each part of this process of conversion is essential. God wants us to be motivated to change, and then He provides the supernatural help necessary to make spiritual change possible.
Repentance is more than a temporary sorrow. As the apostle Paul says, it takes a deep, diligent, godly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10-11; see more in our online articles “Godly Sorrow” and “How to Repent”).
The forgiveness of our sins and the removal of our guilt is only possible because of the incredible loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He gave His life to pay our death penalty for us.The forgiveness of our sins and the removal of our guilt is only possible because of the incredible loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He gave His life to pay our death penalty for us. His shed blood washes away our sins and guilt (1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5).
After we have genuinely repented, we can accept God’s forgiveness and not continue to carry guilt, knowing that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). We can be blameless in God’s eyes and move on with our lives.
Study more about this process of conversion in our free booklet Change Your Life!
Dealing with undeserved shame and guilt
The Bible shows that even Jesus Christ endured undeserved shaming (Hebrews 12:2). The apostles faced times when they were shamed for serving Christ, and so they reframed their situation, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). Peter later wrote, “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter” (1 Peter 4:16).
If we face shaming or guilting that is undeserved, what can we do?
Reminding ourselves that it is not deserved can help. Seeking wise counsel about how to deal with the person or people shaming us can also be a good idea.
And we can ask God to help us not take the unfair attacks to heart.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave some keys to dealing with anxieties and worries. It’s a matter of focusing on godly priorities and turning our concerns over to God. This helps us to minimize our worries. Consider these instructions from Jesus:
- “In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. [We give God and His Kingdom top priority.] Give us this day our daily bread. [We put our needs and cares in God’s hands.]
“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. [God alone can forgive our spiritual debt of sin.] And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one [our spiritual accuser]. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen” (Matthew 6:9-13).
- “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:33-34).
The continuing process of conversion
Of course, we must not assume our feelings of guilt are always undeserved. Even after our initial repentance and conversion, when we sin, we must apply John’s instructions:
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).
Then we can be completely clean of sin and guilt. As God said through Isaiah, “‘Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.
“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the LORD, ‘though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow’” (Isaiah 1:16-18).
Here are some more helpful resources on this important subject:
- When Emotions Become Dangerous: Working Through Guilt and Shame
- The Danger of Lasting Guilt
- How to Repent
- What Is Forgiveness?
Sidebar: Some Facts About Shame and Guilt
Asked which of the following three they avoid most, Americans say:
- Shame, 38 percent.
- Guilt, 31 percent.
- Fear, 30 percent.
“What’s our biggest cultural fear? Shame,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, which conducted the survey.
Why? Perhaps because “guilt says, ‘I deserve to be punished,’” he said. “But shame says, ‘I am worthless.’”
Research by Fibre One finds there’s not much Britons don’t feel guilty about. Except for the 16 percent who claim not to feel guilty about anything, “it seems Britain is a nation racked with guilt on a daily basis. Our feelings of guilt don’t subside for up to five hours on some occasions.”
According to Guy Winch on PsychologyToday.com, “Studies have found that concentration, productivity, creativity, and efficiency are all significantly lower when you’re feeling actively guilty.”
Dr. Winch also wrote, “The Dobby Effect—a phenomenon named after the head-banging elf in the Harry Potter books—refers to a psychological tendency for people to employ self-punishment to ward off feelings of guilt.” Guilt can also lead us to avoid or to resent the person we feel guilty toward.
What about any positive effects? Research on PsychologicalScience.org finds, “The more inclined an inmate is to feel guilt, the less likely he or she is to re-offend.”
However, “inmates inclined to feel shame, and who were also defensive and blameful of others, were more likely to slip back into crime. Inmates who were shameful but who didn’t blame others were less likely to end up in jail again.”