Guilt (Notes for Wed. 10/12/2011)

Sermon Series: One

Sermon Title: Guilt

Date: 10/12/2011

Sources Used:

Gary R. Collins, Christian Counseling 3rd ed.


Guilt is often a co-conspirator with many emotional, psychological, and moral problems such as depression, loneliness, alcoholism, homosexuality, and grief.

Victims of abuse of all kinds often experience guilt.

People who may lose a loved one suddenly or due to prolonged illness may experience guilt.

“Guilt has been described as the place where religion and psychology most often meet (Collins, 178).”

It is important to distinguish between two categories of guilt: objective and subjective.

Categories of Guilt:

1. Objective Guilt - a law has been broken and even though the law breaker may or may not feel guilty, or be aware of guilt, there is guilt. There are four types of objective guilt. In each case a person may break a code or standard but never experience a feeling of guilt. In every case it could also be established that people break objective standards everyday and seldom experience guilt. For example, many people exceed the speed limit, which makes them guilty according to the law, but they never slow down and because they have not been caught they do not experience guilt.

a. Theological guilt - failure to obey the laws of God. The Bible describes breaking God’s law as sin. People can be, and often are, guilty before God without feeling any sense of remorse. People who believe in the Biblical God or a god (theism-belief in god), hold to an absolute law which establishes a standard of right and wrong for every person. Those who are not theistic (believing in God or a god) do not hold to the same universal/absolute standard of guilt, most often believing that morality is relative. If one does not have a theistic view, one does not hold to the existence of theological guilt. Some who hold to an atheistic view (no belief in god) would charge that belief in god is unhealthy because it establishes undue guilt.

b. Legal guilt - the violation of societal laws. A person may break an established societal law without ever being caught or feeling remorse, yet they are guilty.

c. Personal guilt - failure to obey one’s own personal standards or resists the urgings of the conscience. This type of guilt may be experienced by a father who is called into work on the weekend after he has made a promise to spend more time with his children. Personal guilt may also be due to breaking a diet, a budget, or failing to meet a personal goal.

d. Social guilt - breaking an unwritten but socially accepted rule. This may be guilt over failing to offer someone a wedding gift, being rude in conversation, or pushing one’s way to the front of a long line. The offender may not feel any sense of guilt, but others who hold the social standards may view the offender as guilty.

2. Subjective Guilt - an uncomfortable feeling of regret, remorse, shame, and self-condemnation that often comes when we have done or thought something that we feel is wrong, or fail to do something that should have been done. Subjective guilt brings discouragement, anxiety, fear of punishment or rejection, self-condemnation, and a sense of isolation, which may all be tied together as guilt. In this sense shame is often tied to guilt. Subjective guilt may motivate us to make changes or the reaction may be destructive, inhibiting, or make life generally miserable.

a. Appropriate subjective guilt – when one breaks a law, disobeys biblical teachings, or violates the dictates of conscience and in response feels remorse in proportion to the seriousness of the action.

b. Inappropriate subjective guilt - are feelings of that come from a false accusation or perception, or guilt that is out of proportion with the seriousness of the act. Inappropriate guilt may be associated with tragedy as one may place on himself or herself undue blame.

What the Bible Says About Guilt

The Bible describes those who have broken God’s law as guilty. The Bible uses a variety of terms, but the basic teaching of the Bible is that breaking God’s law is sin. Every person is a sinner. Every person is guilty before God.

Part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to bring about a sense of conviction (John 16:8).

The law of God was given to establish guilt in the sinner, who often denies or represses guilt (Rom. 10:3, Gal. 3:21-22, James 2:10).

David expresses how the guilt of sin impacted his life (Psalm 32).

Paul describes his inner anguish over trying to do right but fails often (Romans 7).

Paul tried to stir up guilt in the Corinthian church and distinguishes between a godly sorrow and a worldly one (2 Corinthians 7:8-10).

- Godly sorrow - produces remorse, repentance, restitution, and forgiveness.

- Worldly sorrow - may produce feelings of remorse but leads to no productive outcome, change of action, restitution, or forgiveness. The Bible says only that it leads to death.

- Godly and worldly sorrow illustrated - A simple example is shared on page 180 by Collins. Two people are in a cafe when one spills hot coffee on another’s lap. One reaction may be to acknowledge one’s clumsiness and feelings of embarrassment. The person may even be self-critical. While the assessment may be somewhat true, it leads to no productive action. On the other hand a person may indeed be clumsy and embarrassed over the situation, yet move to immediately take action to help clean up the mess and make restitution for the damages.

The Bible is clear that God is willing to forgive the guilty if they are repentant. Through Jesus Christ God has not only provided the guilty with atonement for sin, but an example of how to make changes that will result in righteous behavior.

One important condition for those who would receive forgiveness is that they would also extend it to others (Matt. 6:12, Luke 6:37).

Summary - most people do not seek forgiveness simply due to objective guilt. As stated, many people are objectively guilty but have no sense of guilt. People who have only a sense of objective guilt often seek forgiveness simply out of fear of being caught. However, when a person begins, subjectively, to feel a sense of guilt there will be actions and reactions in response. It is at this point that it is important to discern why someone feels guilt (godly or worldly, justified or unjustified) so that Biblical measures may be taken to address the issue.

Causes of Guilt (worldly and godly causes):

1. Past experience and unrealistic expectations - in some homes a child may grow up in an environment in which the standards were so high and rigid the child almost never succeeds. The child is constantly blamed and made to feel like a failure. In adolescence and adulthood those that are raised in such an environment may feel a sense of guilt as they rebel against and reject these unrealistic standards or they may create unrealistic expectations for themselves that never allow them to feel a sense of success, which foster a sense of constant failure and guilt. The person may always work to achieve more but will never be satisfied.

There is no Biblical basis for holding someone to unrealistic standards. Though one may charge that the law of God is an impossible standard, it is important to point out that Jesus fulfilled the law. As the righteous one He died for the sins of the guilty. In Christ the forgiven are liberated from the law and given abundant life. In Christ we are to adopt realistic standards and press toward Christian maturity. There is no biblical basis for a person wallowing in self-condemnation and guilt.

2. Inferiority and social pressure - In a society that places high value in the “elites” it is difficult to live up to the comparisons. In response we are not only critical of ourselves but tend to justify the self at times by being critical of others. Such behavior becomes cyclical in nature.

The Bible says that a person should seek to be “approved unto God (2 Timothy 2:15)” and sets forth Christ alone as the comparative standard.

3. Faulty development of the conscience - The Bible portrays the conscience as a mechanism placed within each one of us that makes us a moral soul with a sense of right and wrong based upon the absolute standards of God. Yet man, in sin, represses the witness of his conscience (Rom. 1:18ff). The Bible is clear that the moral barometer of the conscience can be changed based on teaching and behavior (1 Tim. 4:2). Constant participation in sin can dull the conscience. The conscience of some can be distorted if they are raised in uncaring, unpredictable environments that are demanding, neglectful, or full of fear (which can be fear for a variety of reasons).

The Bible promises that in salvation man is regenerate and the conscience becomes retrained in Christ. Through experiencing forgiveness and engaging in Biblically based discipleship a person adopts godly standards, exercises forgiveness, and practices confession and restitution.

4. Supernatural influences - Before the fall Adam had no conscience, no knowledge of good and evil, and no sense of guilt (Gen. 3:22). Man’s fall into sin brought both objective and subjective guilt into the experience of humanity. The Bible shares that man can be made to experience guilt by godly promptings of the ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8) or by the ungodly, accusing work of Satan (Rev. 12:10, Job 1:9-12, Zechariah 3:1). In a godly way the work of the Holy Spirit will lead us toward confession, repentance, restitution, and forgiveness. In an ungodly way, Satan may make someone who has been forgiveness continue to dwell upon guilt, which may even deceive them into thinking that for some reason they have not been forgiven.

5. Lack of forgiveness. As outlined above, when a person fails to forgive they will not experience forgiveness.

Dealing with Guilt

1. Guilt is not in and of itself a damaging emotion. One needs to have a sense of guilt. It is abnormal, dangerous, and dishonest to be incapable of or to deny guilt. Guilt can lead to a healthy end as it compels us to confess, make changes, and find forgiveness.

2. If a person cannot rectify a feeling of guilt it is imperative to distinguish if it comes from a background of undue expectation, unrealistic social pressure or comparisons, failure to believe in forgiveness, or failure to extend forgiveness to others.

3. People who feel guilt may express it in a wide range of ways which may include defensiveness, self-condemnation, tension, frustration, or irritability. Realize that initial symptoms may not be the root problem. Get to the root problem.

4. Foster understanding and an attitude of acceptance. It is important to make the distinction that an attitude of acceptance is not the same as condoning sin. A person may take a hard stance on sin, but still aptly communicate with real confession, repentance, and restitution forgiveness and acceptance will be extended. It is vital that the church embrace its Biblical mandate to become a community of discipline with the goal of purity and reconciliation (Matt. 18:15-20).

5. Teach and learn godly, Biblical values through Christ centered discipleship.

6. Have faith in the Scriptural portrayal of God’s character and believe in God’s promises.


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