“The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”Proverbs 28:1 NIV
Ever get called into the principal’s office? Or have your boss leave you a message: “I need to chat with you for a few minutes when you get in”? Then you probably know that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, when you know you’ve done something wrong, but you can’t figure out what it is. You have a guilty conscience. Or maybe your spouse or a good friend suddenly becomes sickeningly sweet and does something too nice. Immediately, you think, I wonder what they did? They must have a guilty conscience.
All of us struggle with feelings of guilt from time to time. If you don’t, beware! You may be infected with the sin of pride more deeply than you realize. A guilty conscience can come from three sources, and it is important to discern the source so that you can deal with it appropriately.
The first source of feelings of guilt (also known as conviction) is the Holy Spirit (see John 16:8), who convicts us of sin that we need to confess. The Holy Spirit is never wrong, and He often brings to my mind sins that I had forgotten about, or areas of my life that I haven’t ever fully surrendered to God. We feel guilty because we are guilty, and God is bringing that conviction to our hearts so that we can confess our sin and be set free (see 1 John 1:9). If we don’t confess the sin in our lives, we cannot receive His forgiveness, and that will lead to worse things in us than just a guilty conscience.
One way you can recognize the conviction of the Holy Spirit is that He will bring specific things to you to confess. He will remind you of an unkind thing you said to someone, reveal a pattern of pride, show you that you’re not generous, or bring to light a hidden sin or habit. This most often happens when worshiping, listening to a sermon, reading your Bible, or praying–God speaks directly to your heart with conviction. Now, God is not in the business of convicting us for no reason. When He convicts, it’s for the purpose of confession, repentance, forgiveness, and freedom. His conviction will never come with condemnation for those who belong to Jesus (see Romans 8:1). So, when He convicts, it will be specific and will put in your heart a desire to come to God, rather than run from God.
The second source of a guilty conscience is our own conscience! God has given us all a conscience to detect sin in our lives, but we must remember that our conscience is not always right. Sometimes my conscience detects “sin” that isn’t really sin. And sometimes my conscience doesn’t pick up on sin in my life because I’m blinded by pride. When you’re feeling guilty about something, it’s important to process that with the Lord in prayer, and turn to Scripture for guidance. A pastor I know once said, “Your conscience isn’t always right, but it’s always wrong to violate it.” Often, my conscience isn’t very specific, but when I pray about what’s bothering me, the Lord reveals the specific sin causing the guilt. In this way, our conscience really can be a guide that brings us to God.
The third source of guilt is spiritual attack. The name Satan literally means “accuser,” and he loves nothing more than to accuse us so we feel guilty and unworthy of God’s love. He will bring up past sins and try to convince you that you haven’t been forgiven and God could never love someone like you. He may try to falsely accuse you, but he doesn’t have to–we’ve all sinned enough that he has plenty to work with! The surest way to detect this form of spiritual attack is that it comes with condemnation and leads you away from God. Rather than inviting you to come to God, confess, and be free, it pushes you away from God into a pit of despair that leads to further sin.
Whatever the source of your guilty conscience, the answer is always the same: bring it to the Lord. If you’ve already confessed that sin, thank God for His forgiveness and walk boldly in your freedom. If you haven’t confessed that sin, thank God for the conviction (whatever the source), confess, repent, be forgiven and set free.
My prayer for the week is that you get to walk in the freedom of forgiveness that cost Christ so much.