The part guilt plays in our relationship with God and with others can be perplexing. We know we’re forgiven as Christians and loved children of God, so why do we still feel guilty? We put this and some other curly questions about guilt and shame to Noel Due and asked for his insights.

Why do people have feelings of guilt?

Simply because they have a conscience. That conscience is schooled by upbringing, peers, social norms and other factors. It registers when we have transgressed. That’s not to say a conscience is reliable. It’s not. It needs to find a law to align itself to. The things to which it aligns itself may be a long way from the truth of who God is. And when we transgress, it acts as judge, jury and executioner.

How do feelings of guilt differ from shame?

Guilt is related to transgressions: I have done a wrong thing. Shame is related to our identity: I am a wrong thing. Guilt and shame may work in tandem, but shame always carries the feeling of how you appear in the eyes of another. It always leads you to believe you are not enough. Not just that you have not done enough or done too much of the wrong thing (guilty feelings); but that you are not enough.

Why do forgiven Christians, who know they are forgiven and saved by grace alone through faith feel guilty?

Because our consciences are still at work. Often, they are misaligned too. They can be aligned to all sorts of pietistic and religious attitudes and actions, which carry with them ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’ type words. In addition, your conscience – being as much a part of fallen humanity as the rest of you – will constantly need to be renewed by hearing the gospel. It’s never a once-off thing. The amazing thing about grace is that it is always amazing. If we’re not amazed, it is because we may not be hearing the gospel, or because our consciences are so deeply bound by the ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’ vocabulary of church life that it has built up like wax in our spiritual ears.

What is the difference between a shame-based culture and a guilt-based culture?

That’s not easy, as both cultures operate with shame and guilt as real experiences; but they are often expressed differently. In shame-based cultures, the fear of being put to shame (losing face) acts as a powerful social conditioning factor. It relates to the way one is viewed by the group, and therefore the status and acceptability (or not) of that group. In the West, shame-based action (being put to shame on the one hand or presenting a face so that we maintain group acceptability) is increasingly evident through social media; and the associated ‘cancel culture’ or ‘defriending’ actions that cause so much pain.

Can feelings of guilt ever be a useful, productive, or positive thing in terms of our lives, our faith, and our relationships with God and others?

While the conscience is not the inner voice of God, God can awaken the conscience so that we begin to hear him through that means. The Spirit comes to convict of sin, righteousness and judgement. He uses the Law to do that and under the weight of that conviction, our consciences become deeply troubled. We cannot put things right and so find grace in the love of God. Luther’s experience of that arc from the conviction of sin to the experience of God’s grace was the spark for the Reformation. But if preachers or well-meaning Christians use guilt as a motivator it destroys relationships. It produces the deeds of the flesh, not the fruit of the Spirit.

Can guilt damage our relationship with God?

Yes, especially if we feel that God can never forgive us. So, we continually try to go up the down staircase. Instead of seeing that God has come to us, we are constantly trying to get to him; imagining that he has high expectations of us and that we must keep trying harder to please him. We become like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son; or we look down our noses with contempt at others, like the Pharisee in Luke 18.

Can guilt damage our relationships with others? What can we do in such cases?

Nothing but the love of God can free us to forgive and confess our failures to others. Guilt only leads to more and more self-justifying behaviour, chief of which is being critical of others in the very areas in which we feel most guilty. Shame likewise corrodes relationships, because it feeds envy, jealousy and the need to constantly be proving to others that we are enough. But where there is true forgiveness, there is no ground to defend. That means we can be both authentic and vulnerable because we all stand in the same place at the foot of the cross.

What is false guilt? How does false guilt harm us?

False guilt is feeling guilty when you don’t need to feel guilty. It is one of the great weapons of manipulative people, conmen and dictators. False guilt is feeling you must take responsibility for something that is not your responsibility. It is often more linked to the insecurity that arises from shame, but emotionally it feels like a burden of guilt.

I know God has taken the burden of my sin, and I have confessed my sin to him, but I am still weighed down by feelings of guilt. How can I be free from such a burden?

In part, this is the battle of life on this side of heaven. We are yet to fully realise what we have been remade as in baptism. We are a new creation in Christ, but every day the world, the flesh and the devil tell us otherwise. The battle of faith is to believe that God’s promises are true all the time. Luther once said something like this: ‘the Law says, “do this”, but it is never done. Grace says, “believe this because all is already done”.’ We are not alone.

Rev Dr Noel Due is pastor of Northern Territory’s Top End Lutheran Parish and formerly served the LCANZ as Pastor for New and Renewing Churches. Among other publications, he is the author or co-author of New Life New Love, Live in Liberty: The Spiritual Message of Galatians and Spirit Filled: Normal Christian Living.

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