Severe guilt feelings are real, even for blood-bought, justified, adopted Christians. From what I gather, many who experience such feelings reason in this way:
“I have sinned in a severe manner against a friend/family member and against God. This friend has forgiven me. God has forgiven me through Jesus. However, I still have guilt feelings. What can I do?”
Believers should experience real godly grief when they sin, leading to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10-12; Psalm 51:7-8). Yet, these fretful feelings of guilt or condemnation that remain after one has confessed and repented can be characterized as anxious thoughts, which the Lord tells us to put off. Thankfully, the Bible addresses this very topic and gives us a plan for change. Philippians 4:6-9 says,
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Paul in Philippians 4:6-9 tells us that in order to experience God’s presence that brings anxiety-killing peace, we must pray, ponder, and practice. We can apply this to the anxiety provoked by feelings of guilt or condemnation.
What should we be praying, pondering, and practicing? Romans 8, a chapter full of soul-liberating truths, gives us plenty of ammo.
Pray Romans 8
Paul’s instructions in Philippians 4:6 for peace-giving prayer first involve dependence. Romans 8:15 proclaims that we have been given the Holy Spirit, and by Him we cry “Abba! Father!” Our guilt feelings lead us to humbly cry out to our Father, who will graciously give us all things (8:32).
Paul also teaches dependent prayer is specific in request. Romans 8 contains several passages to turn into prayers that directly counteract stubborn guilt feelings. However, we will focus on one. Jesus promises us that if we ask for the Holy Spirit, the Father will give Him (Luke 11:13). In Romans 8:16, the Spirit testifies with our souls we are God’s children. Christian, ask the Father for His Spirit to cause you to personally know you are a beloved child of God. What could give you more peace when experiencing feelings of guilt?
A final aspect of such prayer is thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is important for anyone struggling with any kind of emotional distress because it forces us to intentionally and actively delight in what God has already given us and respond with worship. This is how the psalmists were delivered! However, in the moment of temptation, knowing what to thank God for can be difficult, so prepared lists are helpful. Romans 8 is chock full of gratitude items, such as freedom from sin’s penalty and power, the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, adoption, future resurrection, and promises of God’s commitment to keep us and transform us.1
Guilt-struggler, commit to praying Romans 8 for help in your battle against anxious thoughts.
Ponder Romans 8
Another strategy Paul gives us for experiencing the presence of “the God of peace” is to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8). He also tells us in Romans 8:6 that “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” People who experience unrelenting guilt feelings are not experiencing life and peace, but death. How so? Death and its entailments are a result of hostility to God and not pleasing Him (Romans 8:7). When we dwell on guilt over our sins, we are not believing God, and are embracing lies about God and ourselves:
•“God still condemns me.”
•“I am in the flesh and cannot please God.”
•“Jesus is not with me.”
•“The Spirit is either unable or unwilling to help me in my weakness.”
•“I have no hope.”
•“God is against me because I keep messing up.”
•“God must be punishing me for this sin because life has been hard.”
If you struggle with unrelenting guilt feelings, these lies are death. In fact, they are Satanic, for they are from the Accuser, the father of lies.2 You may not consciously embrace them, but you function as if you do. You need the truth—or better yet truths—to set you free (John 8:32). Romans 8 answers each one of these.
•“God has not, does not, and will never condemn me!” (8:1)
•“I am not in the flesh. I am in the Spirit. I can please God.” (8:9)
•“I belong to Jesus Christ. He is in me!” (8:9)
•“The Spirit testifies to me, ‘You are God’s child.’” (8:16)
•“I have the greatest hope in the world. I will be resurrected to live in a renewed creation.” (8:18-25)
•“God is for me, not against me. I know this because He crushed His Son for me. He will give me every good thing.” (8:31-32)
•“None of my hardships will separate me from God’s love. In fact, He uses them to make me more like Jesus.” (8:28-30, 35-39)
This is just an example of truths that the Spirit will use to set you free. Take hold of them and set your mind upon them. Yes, this can be difficult. Therefore, follow the good Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ orders and preach them to yourself.3 Doing so will be life and peace to you!
Practice Romans 8
My ACBC supervisor told me one of the primary reasons Christians struggle to believe they are forgiven is they do not plan for change. Paul exhorts us to practice what we “have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). He teaches in Romans 8:5-6, “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Thought and deed, or the inner man and the outer man, are intimately linked together. This means that in order to experience God’s presence, life, and peace we must not become monks and merely ponder these wonderful truths; we must practice such things.
Guilt-strugglers can be so paralyzed by introspective fear that they become idle. They will do nothing until they believe themselves to be right with God.
Just as exercise can warm the body, practice can warm the soul. This practice is performed in the context of human relationships with your family, your local church, and your community. Go and practice the things you have been pondering and thanking God for.
•Encourage a guilt-ridden Christian God does not condemn him, that He is for him, and that he can live a Spirit-empowered life.
•Go and be a faithful presence in the lives of other undeserving people (i.e. family, church members, neighbors, etc.)
•Go to your local nursing home or hospice ward. Read and explain the truths of Romans 8:18-30 to people.4
•The Spirit prays for God’s suffering people. Go and do likewise.
•God’s love is a major theme in Romans 8. We are to love as Christ loved (John 13:34). Prayerfully study 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. Write down specific ways you can demonstrate such love to your family, fellow church members, friends, coworkers, enemies, etc. Practice them.
Much more could be said on this topic. I pray this provides a helpful grid for guilt-strugglers and counselors of guilt-strugglers to battle such feelings. These feelings and lies outwit us and overpower us. Carnal weapons like self-forgiveness will pass away, but the Word of the Lord stands forever!
1. Temporal blessings such as family, health, food, breath, house, etc. are obviously helpful to keep on the list. However, heavenly blessings (Ephesians 1:3) deeply satisfy and cannot be taken from you. Therefore, make them your thanksgiving bread and butter!
2. An entire post devoted to Satan’s role in unrelenting guilt feelings begs to be written.
3. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures, pp. 20-21.
4. For believers, remind them of their future hope. For unbelievers, tell them this can be their hope if they receive Jesus!