I can remember times in my life when I sat in church and felt overwhelmed by guilt. Other times I sensed the Spirit moving in me to remove the stain of sin from my heart. What is the difference between guilt and conviction? Since the Bible teaches certain standards, feeling bad about our sin is not always a bad thing. But some churches have taken the whole “hell, fire and brimstone” method a bit far. Such churches use guilt to get people to do the right thing. One problem with a guilt-based approach is that while it often works in the short term, it seldom works 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 a guilt-based approach is that young people with a more post-modern worldview simply 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 situation. We need to help people learn the biblical principles for godly living, but need to do it in ways that are based on Holy Spirit conviction instead of the human emotion of guilt.
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. It can be difficult to discern between guilt and conviction because they often both start out the same way, with some deficiency in our lives. Guilt reveals the problem but then makes people feel stupid or useless. 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.
Another way of expressing the difference between guilt and conviction is in terms of the cross. If we are clinging to the cross, we find forgiveness and conviction is relieved. If we are running from the cross, guilt chases us until it captures us and tortures us.
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, 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 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 encourage people to respond to Holy Spirit conviction and find the forgiveness and joy that results. However, we must never use emotional guilt to manipulate people’s actions.
Lord, help us respond humbly to genuine conviction from Your Spirit but never accept man-made guilt over things You have already forgiven. Amen.
This devotional is from the book “Heavenly Mundane” by Dr. Terry W. Dorsett. Dr. Dorsett has been a pastor, church planter, denominational leader and author in New England for more than 20 years. He is a happy husband, a proud father and adoring grandfather. He is a cancer survivor and believes that God works powerfully through times of suffering. He writes extensively and you can find all of his books at: