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, says “It's 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. 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. Guilt reveals an error or sin then makes a person feel stupid, useless, overwhelmed with shame and causes a person to feel as if they will never recover from this and will never have anything good to offer to anyone ever again. This causes a person to either spiral into deep depression or for those who fight back, extreme pride in the attempt to self-justify the error or sin committed. And nothing good ever comes from this, only destructive behavior that continues to bring a wedge between a person and their reconciliation (for unbelievers) or intimacy (for believers) with God. Conviction on the other hand, not only reveals an error or sin, but uses this revelation as a catalyst to spur a person on toward love and good deeds.” Check out Sunny’s website on this issue at http://www.aboutmyfathersbusiness.net/2008/04/difference-between-guilt-conviction.html.
When considering the difference between unhealthy guilt and healthy conviction, Jack Kelley, Director of Grace Thru Faith Ministries, says “The answer can be determined by checking which direction you’re going. 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 its Satan making you feel ashamed. Either way, you can ask God’s forgiveness and you’ll receive it and begin feeling better (1 John 1:9). Then if you resist the devil he’ll flee from you (James 4:7) and you’ll be at peace again.” (Check out Jack’s website on this issue at http://gracethrufaith.com/ask-a-bible-teacher/is-it-conviction-or-guilt/.)
For those who like things plain and simple, 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 while we go through it, but it is a process worth experiencing.
For more devotionals like this one, consider Touching the Footprints of Jesus.