Guilt. We’ve all felt it. It’s no fun to be guilty. That why kids ALWAYS say “no” when you look them in their cookie-covered faces and ask them if they ate cookies they weren’t supposed to eat. The cute imagery, however, doesn’t do drive home the gnawing sensation in your gut when you feel that you have done wrong. Guilt is a painful reality. But are we always guilty when we feel guilty?
There are three sensations that often feel the same, but mean different things. We (especially Christians) get these feelings confused. These feelings are guilt, shame, and conviction.
Guilt is the negative emotion associated with the personal acknowledgment that you’ve done something wrong. Guilt is the result of going against your conscience, an established standard, or both. We are meant to feel guilty when we do wrong. Guilt is the emotional equivalent of pain: it is an indicator that something is not right. From the Christian perspective, it often the recognition of our guilt that points us to the need for God’s forgiveness. Without God, however, there is no forgiveness of sin, and the guilty person continuously bears the painful weight of his guilt.
Conviction is a gift of God. The Holy Spirit is here to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The Holy Spirit lets us know what is right and what is wrong. You may hear many Christians say things like “I felt convicted about that.” Sometimes our conscience checks us on things we know are wrong. That is not the Holy Spirit’s conviction. Conviction is when the Holy Spirit makes known to us things that we previously did not know were wrong or right. Conviction is a supernatural deepening of your understanding of God’s will. That is why one can be convicted of righteousness as well as of sin.
Shame is not the same as guilt or conviction. Shame is a result of external disapproval rather than internal disapproval. Guilt says “I know I’m wrong,” while shame says “they say/think I’m wrong, and that makes me feel uncomfortable.” Shame is a neutral force, but both Christian and secular entities sometimes make use of shame to control people. Sometimes the manipulation is unintentional, but it exists. In church, shaming comes from the misunderstanding. “We should look like Christ” turns into “We should look like Christ in the same way.” “We should avoid the appearance of evil,” passes through human filter, and when individuals make personal judgments that look wrong, the individual is made to feel ashamed of himself before he can learn whether his decision was correct or incorrect. Church often tries to be the voice of God for everyone, rather than praying that God’s voice be heard by everyone. For hundreds of years, the church has dealt with not trusting that individuals could handle personal relationships with God without screwing it up, so shaming people into acting the same became a regulatory precaution.
I write this blog because it is time we all begin to think critically about guilt and shame and conviction. A misunderstanding of these three things can block our ability to interact with God. Next time you feel guilty about something, ask God to show whether what you are feeling is guilt, shame, or conviction, and what to do about it. Knowing the difference will change your life.