What Is the Difference Between Guilt and Conviction?

By Dr Terry W Dorsett 

Many of us grew up in churches that took a hard line on just about every issue. Since the Bible teaches us to have certain standards about various things, the hard line approach we learned as children was not always a bad thing. But it does seem that some churches have taken the whole "hell, fire and brimstone" message a bit far. Some churches try to "guilt" people into doing the right thing. One problem with a guilt-based approach is that while it does tend to work in the short term, it seldom works in the long term. On the rare occasion that guilt does change behavior over the long term, it tends to rob people of the joy and happiness they should find in their faith. Another problem with a guilt-based approach is that most young people, who have a more post-modern worldview, simply refuse to be "guilted" into anything. Therefore, they consider guilt-based churches to be irrelevant and simply ignore them. This leaves pastors and church leaders in an interesting situation. We need to help people learn the biblical principles for godly living, but need to do it in ways that are based on Holy Spirit conviction instead of the human emotion of guilt. This takes a lot of prayer and thoughtful contemplation.

Perhaps the first step in the process is

to help people learn the difference between Holy Spirit conviction, which is healthy for a vibrant spirituality, and guilt, which is normally unhealthy. Sunny Shell, a writer for About My Father's Business Ministries, explains why it is often difficult to discern whether or not we're experiencing guilt or conviction over a mistake we've made or a sin we've committed. Sunny says, "One of the reasons why this is so confusing is because they both start out the same way. Both guilt and conviction point out an error (either a sin or a simple mistake). But after this similarity, they take very different paths." Once the error has been pointed out, guilt seeks to make a person feel stupid, useless, and overwhelmed with shame. Guilt causes people to feel like they will never recover from their mistake. Guilt makes people feel like they will never have anything good to offer to anyone ever again. Guilt causes people spiral into deep depression or attempt to justify their bad behavior. Neither of those are good options and often the only thing that comes from such efforts is a growing wedge between people and what ever it is they need to do to find reconciliation.

Holy Spirit conviction on the other hand, not only reveals the problem, but uses this revelation as a catalyst to move a person toward good deeds instead of continued wrong.

Jack Kelley, Director of Grace Thru Faith Ministries, puts it this way, "If you're headed for the cross to find forgiveness, then you're experiencing the conviction of the Holy Spirit. If you're running away from the cross and hiding from God, then it's Satan making you feel ashamed."

Think of it this way: guilt is from Satan and produces bad results while conviction is from the Holy Spirit and produces good results. Guilt leaves us with an understanding that we have committed an offense, a wrong, or a sin but offers no hope of redemption. Guilt fills us with the despair of condemnation. Conviction, on the other hand, also reveals an offense, a wrong or a sin, but conviction also reveals a way out of shame and condemnation by offering forgiveness and freedom in Jesus Christ. Once we have received forgiveness and changed our behavior then bad feelings go away and they are replaced with joy. When a person experiences Holy Spirit conviction, instead of mere human guilt, then he or she will have an inner desire to do what is right out of the joy of their salvation and not out of fear of punishment from God or the leaders of the church. When a person has a conviction about something, it gives order and meaning to their actions.

As Christian leaders, we must encourage people to study the Bible for themselves. We must urge them to consider what choices they will make when no one else is around. When people study the Bible for themselves and make choices about their actions without anyone else telling them to do it, then we know they are learning to act on their convictions and not out of guilt. For many of us, this is a lifetime process, so we must remember to be patient with each other while we go through it, but it is a process worth experiencing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Terry W. Dorsett holds a Masters in Religious Education and a Doctorate in Administration. He oversees the work of the Baptist denomination in Vermont. He is widely sought after as a speaker in area churches. His innovative and fresh approach makes him an effective communicator with young adults. He is the author of two books and a frequent contributor to Baptist Press. His blog can be found at http://www.terrydorsett.com.

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