John 16:7-11 - Nevertheless, I am telling you the truth. It is for your benefit that I go away, because if I don’t go away the Counselor will not come to you. If I go, I will send Him to you. When He comes, He will convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment: About sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see Me; 11 and about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.
I can remember times in my life when I sat in church and felt overwhelmed by guilt. No matter how much I prayed, the guilt did not go away. Other times I sensed the Spirit convicting me about some sin and after sincere confession and repentance, the sense of conviction was lifted. I have come to realize there is a significant difference between guilt and conviction.
Since the Bible teaches certain standards, feeling bad about our sin is not a negative thing. But some churches have taken the whole “hell, fire and brimstone” message a bit far. Such churches use guilt to get people to behave a certain way. One problem with guilt-based approaches is that while they often work in the short term, they seldom work in the long term. On the rare occasion that guilt does change behavior over the long term, it robs people of the joy and happiness they should find in their faith. Another problem with guilt-based approaches is that young people with a more post-modern worldview refuse to be motivated by guilt. Therefore, they consider guilt-based churches irrelevant and simply ignore them. This leaves pastors and church leaders in an interesting dilemma. We need to help people learn the biblical principles for godly living, but we need to do it in ways that are based on Holy Spirit conviction instead of the human emotion of guilt. This leads to the third problem with guilt-based approaches: Who benefits from them? Guilt-based approaches are manipulative, often resulting in some benefit for the manipulator. But conviction is more honest and transparent; it leads to the benefit of the person sensing the conviction.
It can be difficult to discern between guilt and conviction because they often both start the same way, with some deficiency in our lives. Guilt reveals the problem, but then makes people feel stupid, unworthy, or full of shame. Guilt makes people feel like they will never recover from their mistake. This causes people to become either depressed or rebellious, neither of which solves the problem. Holy Spirit conviction, on the other hand, reveals the deficiency, but then uses that revelation as motivation for people to change because they really want to. Holy Spirit conviction is healthy and needed for a vibrant spirituality, but guilt is unhealthy and represses vibrant spirituality.
We must remember that guilt is from Satan and produces bad results. Conviction is from the Holy Spirit and produces good results. Guilt leaves us with an understanding that we have committed an offense, but offers no hope of redemption. Guilt fills us with the despair of condemnation.
Conviction, on the other hand, reveals an offense, a wrong or a sin, but also offers a way out of shame and condemnation through forgiveness and freedom in Jesus Christ. Once we have received forgiveness and changed our behavior, then bad feelings give way to joy. When people experience Holy Spirit conviction, instead of mere human guilt, they 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. As Christian leaders, we must never use emotional guilt to manipulate people’s actions. However, it is a sacred honor to encourage people to respond to Holy Spirit conviction and find the forgiveness and joy that results.
Lord, help us respond humbly to genuine conviction from Your Spirit but never accept man-made guilt over things You have already forgiven. Amen.
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