One question that many followers of Christ are often faced with is this:
Is what I’m feeling conviction or guilt?
Some may not even know that there is a difference between conviction and guilt, and those who do can find it hard to apply their knowledge to real life.
But the difference between conviction and guilt is one that has the potential to completely transform the way we live our day-to-day lives and interact with the world around us. Being able to discern each feeling- and its source- is an invaluable ability in the walk of every believer. But before you can know the difference, you have to understand what both feelings essentially are.
What is Conviction?
Conviction is a word typically used by Christians to describe how the Holy Spirit points out sin in our lives and draws us to repentance. John 16:8 says, “And when [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Conviction is a two-stage process: The Holy Spirit shows you your sin, and He shows you how to turn from it and walk instead in righteousness.
Conviction is actually the first step to receiving the forgiveness of Jesus Christ; after all, how can you be forgiven for something you don’t know is wrong? Unless you recognize your own shortcomings and flaws, you cannot receive the gift of grace.
This process often isn’t pleasant; no one likes to be reminded of how imperfect they are. But the more we see how undeserving we are, the more grateful we are to our Savior for loving us anyway. And so conviction, as messy as it is, is a healthy step to growing closer to God.
What is Guilt?
Guilt, on the other hand, is not from the Spirit, but from Satan. And because guilt and conviction can often seem so similar, Satan relies on our own confusion and uncertainty to break us down. Guilt is the exact opposite of healthy; it is crippling.
In her article “Discerning the Difference Between Holy Spirit Conviction and Demonic Condemnation, Kathy Degraw says this:
[Satan] is hoping we will take on the emotions of guilt, regret, blame and shame. He wants these emotions to plant a seed inside us; telling us that we are no good, that we will do it again and nobody is going to forgive us for our mistakes.
The ultimate goal of conviction is to shape you into a better person and follower of Christ, whereas the ultimate goal of guilt is to make you feel as hopeless, worthless, and loveless as possible. Guilt leaves out that critical step of ‘turning’ that allows us to change for the better instead of dwelling on our mistakes.
The Effects of Ongoing Guilt on Your Spiritual Health
“For Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” – 2 Corinthians 7:9-10
As we’ve already seen, guilt can seriously take a toll on our relationship with Jesus. It drives a wedge between us and Him by reminding us of how much of a failure we are. It makes us feel inadequate to approach the throne of God, even though the Bible encourages us to approach boldly because of what Jesus has done on our behalf.
Guilt says we are responsible for saving ourselves, and that because we can’t do it, we have no hope. Grace says Jesus has done all that we cannot, and that he is the salvation and hope for all.
This article from GraceThruFaith puts it perfectly: “Normally a person experiencing conviction will be drawn toward the Lord to receive His forgiveness, like Peter did after denying Him. A person feeling guilt will hide from Him in shame, like Adam did in the Garden. So the difference between conviction and guilt can be seen in the direction we’re facing. If we’re looking toward the cross, it’s conviction. If we’re running away and hiding, it’s guilt.”
The Effects of Ongoing Guilt on Your Physical and Mental Health
Guilt is not only damaging to your spiritual health; it can also harm your physical body. The intense amount of stress it can cause may trigger small symptoms like headaches and other minor pains, but it may also pave the way for larger problems.
Guilt does a good job of eating away at all of the body’s systems over time, including the cardiovascular system, the digestive system, and even the immune system. This is not to mention the many ways in which the mind suffers, as well.
The sooner you get rid of your guilt, the better you will feel-literally.
Here are 5 ways that guilt affects your physical and mental health.
1. Interference with Mental functions
Dr. Winch, a New York based psycholgist states, “Unresolved and excessive guilt interferes with cognitive functioning, concentration and daily tasks,” says Dr. Winch. “[It’s] distracting and demoralizing…[and] can make us resort to self-punishment.”
2. Decreased Immunological Function
According to a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, participants in the self-blame group showed an increase in shame and guilt as well as an increase in sTNFalphaRII. Basically, they saw an increase in a specific type of Tumor Necrosis Factor which is a pro-inflammatory protein associated with chronic states of inflammation.
3. Mental Illness
The Washington University of St. Louis conducted a 12-year longitudinal study of 145 pre-school aged children and found that more than half of the 47 pre-schoolers diagnosed with depression displayed pathological guilt. They evaluated this by looking at the fMRI brain scans of the children every 18 months and saw smaller insula volume in the right hemispheres in those with depression and guilt.
The insula is region in the cerebral cortext thought to play an important role in emotions, perception, self-awareness, and cognitive functions. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association of Psychiatry.
4. Increased Stress
According to WebMD, guilt usually causes stress which induces the production and secretion of chemicals such as cortisol.
This puts a person at risk for minor things such as headaches and low back pain to more serious things such as cardiovascular disease.
5. Can Make Anxiety and Depression Worse.
Michael McKee, PhD, who is the vice chairman of The Cleveland Clinic’s psychiatry and psychology department says that people who already have mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression can worsen their already fragile mental state with guilt.
How to Deal With Guilt/Conviction
So now that you’ve identified your guilt and/or conviction, how should you go about dealing with it? If you’re feeling guilty, here are some things you can do:
1. Meditate on Scripture.
Scriptures to focus on so that you don’t listen to the lies of the accuser:
Revelation 12:10, John 8:44, Ephesians 6:11, James 4:7.
Scriptures to focus on when you feel guilty about unrepentant sin:
Psalm 32:1-5, Psalm 38:17-18, Hebrews 12:5-7
Scriptures to help you move on putting the past behind you:
2 Corinthians 5:17, Philippians 3:13-14
Scriptures to help you with the guilt of past sins:
Isaiah 43:25, Romans 8:1, 1 John 1:9, Jeremiah 50:20, Jeremiah 33:8, Hebrews 8:12
In particular, I think its important to read passages that are uplifting and remind you of the hope you have in Christ. Get rid of all the worldly lies in your head and replace them with truth, you are forgiven, you don’t have to live in the guilt that this world may have led you to believe about you or your past.
2. Get Rid of the Stigma
You are not weak for having constant feelings of guilt. It’s ok to reach out for help. God even references mental health in several scriptures: See Philippians 4:6-7, 1 Peter 5:7, John 14:27, 2 Timothy 1:7.
3. Seek out Support
There are a number of resources out there to help you. Your local church will likely have both layman’s Pastoral counseling as well as professional counseling from a person who usually has a master’s of divinity and a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist. If they don’t, your church can usually refer you to someone who is.
Other resources out there include seeking a Psy D. (Doctor of Psychology) counselor or even just going to someone you trust and are comfortable with and opening up to them about what’s going on in your life will help.
If you’re being convicted, these tips are for you:
Come up with little ways to change. Maybe you don’t have to make a drastic transformation in your life, or maybe you do. Either way, change is not a quick and easy process. Look for opportunities, tiny steps toward an ultimate goal.
Reach out to fellow believers struggling with the same thing. Believe it or not, you are not alone in your fight. These people will not only provide you with helpful advice, but also provide you with the love and support you’ll need as you overcome your battle.
Do you struggle with this? Share your thoughts below!