What Is a Guilty Conscience?

Guilt can be debilitating, or it can motivate change. The Bible tells how to know if our guilt is deserved, and how to cleanse our guilty conscience.

Have you ever felt guilty for doing something you thought was wrong? What about times when you didn’t know for sure if what you were doing was right or wrong, but yet you still felt guilty anyway? Just what is a “guilty conscience,” and how should we deal with it?

What is a conscience?

Our conscience is the part of our mind that makes judgments of right and wrong. If we do what we think is right, we have a clear conscience, but if we do what we think is wrong, we can have a guilty conscience.

Many think that your conscience will guide you and keep you from acting poorly or making bad choices. Some may refer to it as the little voice in your head. Others believe that our conscience is the voice of God. But, in reality, our conscience is not an infallible moral compass. How well our conscience works depends on what it has been taught and how well we have followed those instructions.

What is a guilty conscience?

What exactly does the term guilty conscience mean? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a guilty conscience as “a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that one has done something bad or wrong.”

Can our conscience be wrong? Does our conscience need to be trained?

Many today believe or assume that man is inherently “good,” and that’s why we have a guilty conscience when doing wrong. Many think that man naturally knows right from wrong. Yet notice what we are clearly told about the human mind in the book of Jeremiah.

“O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). It carries that thought further in chapter 17: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (17:9).

That doesn’t sound like man is inherently good or knows how to choose good over evil.

Satan told Adam and Eve from the very beginning that, by the choices they made, they could be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:5). The problem is that man doesn’t naturally know the difference between the two.

Our conscience, if it is accurately aware of what is right and wrong, can warn us against doing wrong and help us desire to stop doing wrong and change.

But if our conscience isn’t completely and properly educated, we can end up feeling guilty even for things that aren’t wrong. And, on the other hand, we can feel fine about doing things that really are wrong.

So the conscience can be a tool for a Christian, but it is a tool that must be educated.

God is the One who defines what is right and what is wrong. But since our consciences are shaped by our families and our society, they do not always accurately reflect God’s definitions. We must train our conscience by studying the Bible and internalizing God’s definitions of right and wrong, which are revealed through His law. And, if we have children, we should do our best to teach them what God says is right and wrong.

If something is not wrong according to God’s law, we shouldn’t carry a burden of guilt for it. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Learn more about this in our articles “How to Deal With Guilt and Shame” and “Forgiving Yourself?

Conscience seared with a hot iron

What happens if our conscience accurately warns us we are doing something wrong, but we ignore it? One of the negative things we see described in the “last days” is that some people will have a conscience that is “seared with a hot iron”!

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:1-2).

Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty for sin, can cleanse your conscience of all that you have thought and done. He calls on each of us to repent and change.This describes someone who eventually doesn’t feel guilty or have second thoughts about what he or she is doing. Constantly ignoring guilt can be like burning away our nerve sensors. We can be “past feeling” (Ephesians 4:19)—hardened and desensitized. If we allow this to happen, we can end up with little or no conscience!

Adam Clarke’s Commentary gives another view of 1 Timothy 4:2: “‘Having their conscience seared with a hot iron’—They bear the marks of their hypocrisy as evidently and as indelibly in their conscience in the sight of God, as those who have been cauterized for their crimes do in their bodies in the sight of men. It was customary in ancient times to mark those with a hot iron who had been guilty of great crimes, such as sacrilege, etc.”

Thankfully, most people have not reached the stage of having a completely seared conscience. Most people are carrying around some load of guilt, and eventually it becomes unbearable. What does the Bible say about a guilty conscience?

Stricken by conscience?

Scripture gives an example of seemingly conscience-stricken individuals in the book of John. These men were not accused publicly, but the story suggests that their consciences caused them to reconsider their judgment and condemnation of another person.

“Now early in the morning He [Jesus] came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?’

“This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear” (John 8:2-6).

We’re not told what He wrote, but it apparently had something to do with each individual personally, because as He wrote, the woman’s accusers left one by one.

“So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.’ And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst” (verses 7-9, emphasis added throughout).

Whatever it was that Christ wrote on the ground so convicted each of them in their consciences that they no longer felt they could condemn this woman.

And what about the woman, whose sin was evident to all, and who no doubt felt guilt and a deep desire for a new start? Jesus told her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (verse 11).

How to clear the conscience

God’s law teaches us what sin is. When we know God’s law and yet sin, it weighs heavily on our mind. It’s a violation of our conscience.

How do we get rid of the guilt when our conscience tells us we have done something wrong? If we have thought or done wrong things in the past, what can be done about it? The good news is that there is hope!

Jesus Christ was willing to pay the death penalty for our sins so that we can be forgiven and have our consciences cleansed. God says that the weight and the guilt can be removed through our High Priest, Jesus Christ.

“But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:11-14).

Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty for sin, can cleanse your conscience of all that you have thought and done. He calls on each of us to repent and change, and there are clear steps for doing that. (See our article “How to Repent.”)

In the next chapter of Hebrews we read, “Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-22).

The apostle Peter outlined the conversion process in Acts 2:38: “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.”

Repentance includes a commitment to change, and baptism represents the washing away of sins and death of our old person. We come out of the water in newness of life, and the gift of God’s Holy Spirit helps us to overcome sin and become more like God. It changes us—converts us. (Study more about conversion in our free booklet Change Your Life.)

Cleansing of the conscience with God’s help

Paul described the conversion process in terms of changing who we serve. The converted person strives to no longer be a slave of sin, but with God’s help, a slave of righteousness, obeying and following our Master Jesus Christ.

“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?

“But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.

“And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

“I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness.

“For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death” (Romans 6:16-21).

Continuing to repent; avoiding willful sin

Guilt and shame come when we know we have done wrong. What if we didn’t know that something was wrong? When we find out that what we have done is wrong, feelings of guilt generally follow.

Paul explains in Romans 7:7-9 that we are shown what sins we are committing when the law is revealed to us. We must take this knowledge seriously, since the Bible warns, “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:26).

After God has shown us the knowledge of the truth and His way of life, it becomes possible to sin willfully (by a knowing and willful choice; see our article “What Is the Unpardonable Sin?”).

But this is not the same as letting our guard down and slipping back into a sinful habit. No Christian perfectly avoids sin. As human beings, we slip from time to time—we make mistakes and sin. But God is faithful to forgive us when we confess to Him, and again repent.

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:9-10).

Do you have a guilty conscience? Look to God and His Word for the direction you need to avoid, and to clear, a guilty conscience.

About the Author

Paul Carter

Paul Carter is pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, congregations in Los Angeles and Bakersfield, California. He is a contributing writer for Life, Hope & Truth, as well as the director of two summer camps for teens and preteens in the Southwest. He is married with three wonderful children, and enjoys the outdoors including hunting, fishing, hiking and volleyball.

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