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Good Guilt, Bad Guilt

By James Bradford

Dr. Jim Bradford was elected general secretary of the Assemblies of God by the Executive Presbytery in February 2009. He is a member of the Executive Leadership Team and the Executive Presbytery. Prior to his election as general secretary, Bradford served as senior pastor of Central Assembly in Springfield, Missouri. Jim holds a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Minnesota. Bradford and his wife, Sandi, have two daughters.

Nearly exhausted, writer and Christian counselor Paula Rinehart one day found herself asking out loud why God made it so hard to serve Him. That question triggered for her an emotional and spiritual journey which culminated in a rather unexpected discovery. Her persistent, guilt-inducing “inner critic” turned out not to be the voice of God at all.

Daring to entertain the possibility that guilt and God do not always go together is both scary and freeing. The tendency for women in vocational ministry is to tolerate a certain undercurrent of nagging guilt in their lives because it seems to legitimize their unworthiness and magnify God’s holiness. After all, who are we to adequately meet the expectations of a God whose modus operandi is perfection?

Guilt is sort of like spiritual cholesterol. There is the good kind and there is the bad kind. Discerning the difference can radically affect our quality of life spiritually.

Biblically, however, we need to realize that not all guilt is good, or of God. Guilt is sort of like spiritual cholesterol. There is the good kind and there is the bad kind. Discerning the difference can radically affect our quality of life spiritually.

In 2 Corinthians 7:10, Paul calls good guilt “godly sorrow.” We usually refer to this good kind of guilt as the conviction of the Holy Spirit. In that same verse, however, Paul also talks about a destructively bad kind of guilt. He calls it “worldly sorrow.” We often call it condemnation.

The difference is hope. Godly sorrow leads to repentance and renewal (2 Corinthians 7:9). Worldly sorrow, on the other hand, leaves us despairing and wanting to give up – a kind of spiritual “death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). In other words, good guilt is truly prompted by the Holy Spirit and produces hope for change. This godly sorrow pushes us in Christ’s direction for forgiveness and renewed obedience. “See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done” (2 Corinthians 7:11, NIV).

Bad guilt, however, leaves us emotionally depressed and spiritually stuck. It is the kind of guilt that weighs us down and wears us out. It is more frustrating than energizing. We constantly feel we are never good enough and wonder what use there is in even trying. The condemning voices never seem to stop. Paul certainly had it right when he said “worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Corinthians 7:10, NIV).

Our job, biblically, is to embrace the good and censor the bad. God’s will is that we walk free of “worldly sorrow” (bad, needless guilt) as we respond to the “godly sorrow” (good guilt) that points us to the finished work of Christ on the Cross. The ultimate truth which transcends our guilt-ridden souls is this: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1, NIV). Unfortunately, believing that may require a faith choice that runs counter to our feelings.

So why does bad guilt persist in the first place? For some it is the result of a performance-driven, perfection-based approach to life and ministry which pushes us far beyond Christ’s expectations of us. Additionally, the performance-driven person tends to believe, “I am what I do,” while the perfectionist believes, “Everything I do, I must do flawlessly.” Together they make for a toxic brew of frustration and agitation. We can never enjoy being loved by Christ. Instead, we fixate on a set of subjectively vague performance flaws in ourselves that often have nothing to do with actual moral wrongdoing. Not surprisingly, we never seem to find the renewing rest in Christ, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light (Matthew 11:29,30). Instead, we always feel guilty.

For others, bad guilt persists because of a deep sense of personal shame. Good guilt admits we are unworthy, but shame writes us off as worthless. More than pointing to what we have done, shame lies to us about who we are. This is bad guilt at its worst – convincing us we are unlovable, unforgivable, unchangeable, unblessable, and unusable. It is precisely here that we need the revelation of Christ bearing our shame on the Cross to profoundly transform us by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Christ we are loved, forgiven, and adopted as God’s fully privileged sons and daughters. Unworthy, yes; worthless, no.

Another reason for bad guilt is our own self-righteousness. Human nature still seeks to be righteous apart from Christ. We think we are not really bad to start with. Then, when we do sin, we are so disappointed with ourselves that we cannot get over the guilt. But God is usually not as surprised at our capacity to sin as we are. “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10, NIV). We need to be clothed with the righteousness God has provided for us in Christ rather than being pridefully impressed with our own supposed righteousness. True repentance means grieving more for having disappointed God than for having disappointed ourselves. We repent and we let it go.

Clearly, then, not all guilt is created equal. Like good cholesterol, we need good guilt. It is God’s moral siren to warn and redirect us towards forgiveness-centered change in Christ. The bad kind of guilt, however, is deadly. It clogs up our vitality in Christ with the spiritually bad cholesterol of condemnation and despair. May God give us grace to discern between the two and to live in the guilt-free joy of Christ’s forgiveness and favor.