I imagine there are plenty of Christians who rarely feel the sting of conscience or the pangs of regret. But I also know many, many Christians (including the one I see in the mirror) who easily feel bad for all the things they are not doing or are doing less than perfectly. In fact, I’m convinced most serious Christians live their lives with an almost constant low-level sense of guilt.

How do we feel guilty? Let me count the ways.

  • We could pray more.
  • We aren’t bold enough in evangelism.
  • We like sports too much.
  • We watch movies and television too often.
  • Our quiet times are too short or too sporadic.
  • We don’t give enough.
  • We bought a new couch.
  • We don’t read to our kids enough.
  • Our kids eat Cheetos and french fries.
  • We don’t recycle enough.
  • We need to lost 20 pounds.
  • We could use our time better.
  • We could live some place harder or in something smaller.

What do we do with all this behind the scenes guilt? We don’t feel stop-dead-in-our-tracks kind of remorse for these things.  But these shortcomings can have a cumulative effect whereby even the mature Christian can feel like he’s rather disappointing to God, maybe just barely Christian.

Here’s the tricky part: we should feel guilty sometimes, because sometimes we are guilty of sin. Moreover, complacency as Christians is a real danger, especially in America.

But yet, I don’t believe God redeemed us through the blood of his Son that we might feel like constant failures. Do Peter and John post-Pentecost seemed racked with self-loathing and introspective fear? Does Paul seem constantly concerned that he could be doing more? Amazingly enough, Paul actually says at one point “I am not aware of anything against myself” (1 Cor. 4:4). He’s quick to add, “I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” But it sure seems like Paul put his head on the pillow at night with a clean conscience. So why do so many Christian feel guilty all the time?

1. We don’t fully embrace the good news of the gospel. We forget that we have been made alive together with Christ. We have been raised with him. We have been saved through faith alone. And this is the gift of God, not a result of works (Eph. 2:4-8). We can be so scared of antinomianism, which is a legitimate danger, that we are afraid to speak too lavishly of God’s grace. But if we’ve never been charged with being antinomian, we probably haven’t presented the gospel in all it’s scandalous glory (Rom. 6:1).

2. Christians tend to motivate each other by guilt rather than grace. Instead of urging our fellow believers to be who they are in Christ, we command them to do more for Christ (see Rom. 6:5-14 for the proper motivation). So we see Christlikeness as something we are royally screwing up, when we should it as something we already possess but need to grow into.

3. Most of our low-level guilt falls under the ambiguous category of “not doing enough.” Look at the list above. None one of the items are necessarily sinful. They all deal with possible infractions, perceptions, and ways in which we’d like to do more. These are the hardest areas to deal with because no Christian, for example, will ever confess to praying enough. So it is always easy to feel terrible about prayer (or evangelism or giving or any number of disciplines). We must be careful that we don’t insist on a certain standard of practice when the Bible merely insists on a general principle.

Let me give another example. Every Christian must give generously and contribute to the needs of the saints (2 Cor. 9:6-11; Rom. 12:13). This we can insist on with absolute certainty. But what this generosity looks like–how much we give, how much we retain–is not bound by any formula, nor can it be exacted by compulsion (2 Cor. 9:7). So if we want people to be more generous we would do well to follow Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians and emphasize the blessings of generosity and the gospel rooted motivation for generosity as opposed to shaming those who don’t give us much.

4. When we are truly guilty of sin it is imperative we repent and receive God’s mercy. Paul had a clean conscience, not because he never sinned, but, I imagine, because he quickly went to the Lord when he knew he was wrong and rested in the “no condemnation” of the gospel (Rom. 8:1). If we confess our sins, John says, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). We aren’t meant to feel borderline miserable all the time. We are meant to live in the joy of our salvation. So when we sin–and we’ll all sin (1 Kings 8:46; 1 John 1:8)–we confess it, get cleansed, and move on.

This underlines one of the great dangers with constant guilt: we learn to ignore our consciences. If we are truly sinning, we need to repent and implore the Lord to help us change. But if we aren’t sinning, if we are perhaps not as mature as we could be, or are not as disciplined as some believers, or we are making different choices that may be acceptable but not extraordinary, then we should not be made to feel guilty. Challenged, stirred, inspired, but not guilty.

As a pastor this means I don’t expect that everyone in my congregation should feel awful about everything I ever preach on. It is ok, after all, for people to actually be obedient to God’s commands. Not perfectly, not without some mixed motives, not as fully as they could be, but still faithfully, God-pleasingly obedient. Faithful preaching does not require that sincere Christians feel miserable all the time. In fact, the best preaching ought to make sincere Christians see more of Christ and experience more of his grace.

Deeper grace will produce better gratitude, which means less guilt. And that’ s a good thing all the way around.

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71 thoughts on “Are Christians Meant to Feel Guilty All the Time?”

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  2. JB Epp says:

    “From this plain reason then appears the necessity why we, as well as the first apostles, in this sense, must receive the Spirit of God. For the great work of sanctification, or making us holy, is particularly reserved to the Holy Ghost; therefore, our Lord says, ‘Unless a man be born of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’

    Jesus Christ came down to save us, not only from the guilt, but also from the power of sin . . . Tell me, are not many of you offended at what has been said already? . . . Are not others ready to cry out, if this be true, who then can be saved? Is not this driving people into despair? . . . I would to God . . . that the whole world was filled with this despair . . .

    Hitherto I have been preaching only the law; but behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy. If I have wounded you, be not afraid; behold, I now bring a remedy for all your wounds. Notwithstanding you are sunk into the nature of the beast and devil, yet, if you truly believe on Jesus Christ, you shall receive the quickening Spirit promised in the text, and be restored to the glorious liberties of the sons of God; I say, if you believe on Jesus Christ. ‘For by faith we are saved; it is not of works, lest any one should boast.'” ~ George Whitefield

    see http://the-new-birth.blogspot.com/2010/04/common-privilege-of-all-believers.html for longer quote and link to source sermon)

  3. Heather says:

    Good post. I come from a church back-round where the gospel wasn’t ever completely preached. It was bible founded but not saturated. I am my own person, I should’ve let the gospel heal my from guilt. Now that I go to a Christ centered Bible saturated (and still imperfect of course) church I feel like our poor pastor is always trying to remind his flock “Yes, you have done wrong. But Christ’s Sacrifice is more powerful than your sin” It’s so encouraging to hear. So encouraging to read about. As my pastor said just last weekend. When we feel bad about our sin, to punish of ourselves (if it is in fact a sin) there is no point, we cannot feel bad enough about our sin, we cannot punish ourselves enough about our sin. It is too big. That’s where the gospel comes in and heals us. It keeps us humble yet gives us HOPE. Praise God. Great encouraging post!

  4. Liz Willis says:

    Just wanted to say thanks so much for the great blog and particularly for this encouraging post. Thank you for encouraging us not to ignore our consciences and to live truly thankful, Christ-honouring lives that flow out of an appreciation of his amazing grace. I needed this reminder this morning!

  5. Michael says:

    Kevin, I agree with much of what you say. Most churches do preach a “don’t drink, don’t smoke and don’t date girls that do” gospel.

    However, let us not totally remove the guilt that comes from doing stupid things. Sometimes we need this to motivate us to do better. If I feel guilty about smoking a pack a day, because I am dishonoring the body (the temple) God gave me, then hopefully this guilt will motivate me to change.

    IF I know without a doubt french fries are bad for my kids, and God blessed me with children to take care of, then why in the world am I giving them those french fries?

    Maybe what I’m describing isn’t guilt, but more like anger or drive. Then again, I feel like many of those Christians of the past may disagree with your post.

    Would Paul (or Augstine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon) say American Christians watch to much TV? Eat food they know will kill them? Buy couches when they are in debt up to their eyeballs? Completely neglect their kids education?

    Maybe you could touch on the distinction between doing something stupid and doing something sinful? Is it a sin to give our kids food we know is bad for them? Is it a sin to not give when we know we could easily give more, but that new couch sounds so much better? Is it a sin to waste our time watching 3 hours of TV every night?

    IF we could determine what is sin and not sin, then we could not feel so guilty about these “non-sins”.

  6. Matthew says:

    I’d like to learn more about hot to motivate others by grace rather than guilt, emphasizing who they are in Christ already.

  7. herijenn says:

    I appreciate this post. I think I’m finally coming to grips with the fact that I am a sinner. Not in the sense that I didn’t know that I have sinned and do sin, but in the sense that while I’m on earth, that’s part of my identity. And my job isn’t to change that. My job is to focus on building a deeper relationship with God and letting change and healing in the life flow out of what Christ has already done on the cross for me. Guilt isn’t supposed to drive us to be better. Guilt is supposed to drive us to the cross.

  8. Jenna says:

    Great article. Thanks.. For a great look at this with lots of insight check out “How People Grow” by Dr.s Cloud and Townsend

  9. David Howarth says:

    To help with some of the very issues you raise, for some time I have wanted a considered answer to the question, “what is sin?” Maybe someone could write a book on it…

  10. Patsy says:

    Thank you. Your words came at the right time, but no surprise there The Lord always finds ways to communicate with me. I’m a fairly new Christian and my husband is atheist. My faith is tested every moment of the day and there are times when I feel like I could never be what The Lord wants me to be. I need more faith and more strength, but I’m so surrender by Jon believers and poor faith people that I wonder if I will make it to the end. Anyhow. Thank you for your words and God bless you

  11. john mason says:

    The Shorter Catechism defines “sin” as, “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” So, there is no one who is sinless in this life. But we live in freedom under God because we live in the forgiveness given to us through Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean that God “doesn’t see our sins”–of course he has knowledge of them, but he has decided to forgive them and to put them as far from us, as east from west. As to whether we should feel guilty, we would be foolish if we didn’t. But our feelings don’t mean we’re stumbling out of God’s favor. We should look in another direction: faiith, hope, and courage, that lead us on.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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