False guilt is feeling guilty when one is not actually guilty. Guilt is a result of wrongdoing and it is appropriate to feel guilty when we have done wrong. However, false guilt comes from deception and is a barrier to living a full life in Christ. False guilt can come from the accusations of the enemy or from our own misunderstanding of the forgiveness of Christ and the freedom that is ours in Him.
What does the Bible say about false guilt? How can I avoid false guilt?
The Bible tells us that we are all guilty of sin (Romans 3:23). It also tells us that we can receive forgiveness through Jesus (Romans 6:23; Colossians 1:11–14; Ephesians 1:3–14). When we come to Christ, all of our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven. However, even as Christians, we still sin (1 John 1:8–9). And our sin does still put a barrier between us and God. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin. This conviction may well come in the form of feeling guilty. We then repent (agree with God that what we did was sin and turn from it), confess our sin to God, and receive forgiveness. Because we have forgiveness in Christ, we need no longer feel guilty.
However, sometimes the enemy will continue to accuse us for our sins and we continue to feel guilty. This often leads us to living from a place of shame, where we believe ourselves to be unlovable and unforgiveable rather than believe that we are who God says we are in Christ. The false guilt of living from a place of shame can impede our relationship with Christ. Rather than approach Him with peace and in thanksgiving, we may attempt to placate Him through good works. But the truth of the gospel is that our works are inconsequential. They do not earn us God's love or His favor. We cannot do enough good works to gain forgiveness (Ephesians 2:8–9). The only remedy for our sins is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Good works flow from knowing Jesus and resting in His forgiveness (Ephesians 2:10), not from trying to win Him over or alleviate our own guilty consciences.
False guilt may also occur when one is not guilty at all, and has not ever been guilty of that particular sin. If we have a view of God as out to catch us in our mistakes and waiting for us to mess up, we may carry a consistent sense of guilt. It is right to recognize that each breath we breathe is due to God's grace. Certainly we are sinners by nature and deserving of God's wrath. But in Christ, we are adopted children of God (Romans 8:15–17; Ephesians 1:3–14). After describing his battle with sin and the way his flesh seemed to keep winning, Paul wrote, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." (Romans 7:24—8:4). Paul did not allow false guilt to reign. Instead, he proclaimed the righteousness won for us in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
First John is a very helpful book in regard to false guilt. John told his readers, "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:1–2). Clearly we do still sin, and thus guilt is merited. However, we need not live in guilt. We trust in Christ, our Advocate. Hebrews 7:23–28 talks about the way Jesus intercedes for us. Hebrews 4:14–16 tells us, "Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." When we sin, we simply come to Christ and can receive His forgiveness. Guilt need not linger.
When we find ourselves plagued with false guilt, we can remind ourselves of the truth of the gospel. We can be encouraged by Scripture such as 1 John 3:19–20, "By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything." We can remember the great mercy and grace of God, give Him praise for it, and then seek to follow Him, holding fast to our identity in Christ and living our lives for His glory.
How can a Christian overcome the guilt of past sins?
Does the Bible talk about forgiving yourself?
Should Christians confess their sins, even though they are already forgiven?
How should our identity in Christ affect the way we live?
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