An increasingly popular view among Christians is that God does not want us to feel bad about ourselves. Since by God’s grace no condemnation awaits the believer, we often conclude that any feelings of guilt or remorse are an attempt by Satan to diminish our joy and spoil our delight in the Lord. Since God builds His people up and such emotions run counter to that objective, they cannot come from Him.
But we need to be careful. While the devil indeed uses guilt to demoralize us, a danger exists when we assume that feelings of remorse and shame never have a place in a Christian’s life; that they are contrary to a healthy faith. In fact, we do ourselves a spiritual disservice when we categorically dismiss such emotions as an attempt by Satan to render us spiritually ineffective. Scripture actually informs us those feelings play a critical role in our spiritual growth and maturation.
The apostle Paul wrote the following words to the church at Corinth, after learning of their sorrow over his first epistle to them: “For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it” (2 Corinthians 7:8, NKJV). His first message had made the church uncomfortable and led to feelings of grief, yet Paul doesn’t apologize for or regret his words. How could so prominent a church leader be so insensitive to the feelings of believers? Listen to his reasoning.
“Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner. What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (vs. 9-11, emphasis mine).
Paul informs us there are instances when sorrow and remorse are appropriate. Indeed, he clearly asserts they represent a godly response to sin. Consequently, when he learned of the Corinthian church’s sorrow he rejoiced, because that sorrow led to repentance from the sins that had ensnared them. Whenever feelings of regret or guilt lead to repentance and the accompanying forgiveness, we too ought to rejoice.
Therein lies the distinction determining whether such emotions are healthy or unhealthy. When guilt surfaces for past sin from which we have already repented and received God’s forgiveness, we know Satan lies behind the attack and hopes to discourage and neutralize us. He loves to remind Christians of our past in a futile attempt to forget about his future. In such situations we should ignore our feelings of guilt and shame and instead rejoice over God’s mercy and forgiveness.
On the other hand, if such feelings are a product of unaddressed sin we’ve allowed to flourish in our lives – and from which we’ve never repented – then we know the Holy Spirit lies behind those pricks to our conscience. One of the critical roles the Holy Spirit plays in every believer’s life is bringing to bear conviction when we sin or toy with temptation. In such instances we need to confess our iniquity and ask God’s forgiveness. If we don’t, we risk becoming desensitized to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and suffering a slow spiritual decay.
Avoiding that outcome is one reason Paul tells us not to regret godly sorrow. It leads to salvation and a healthy relationship with Christ. In contrast, the world’s sorrow always produces death because it never recognizes the spiritual component of regret and guilt, and therefore can never properly address their root cause.
Take some time to examine the source of any guilt or shame you feel. Do not allow Satan to use those emotions to steal your joy and peace in Christ. But also resist the temptation to ignore them if they reveal the existence of ongoing sin. Remember, whenever we repent God extends His forgiveness.