Stepping Stones: Guilt and the Role of Emotion in Repentance

Guilt is an old friend of mine. 

When I was little, I used to go through intense seasonal bouts of guilt. They occurred every spring from when I was five until I was twelve. Every year, around Easter, a weighty blanket of grief would come over me, grief for all of the sins I had committed in my thoughts, words, or actions. Usually, the only thing that made me feel better was confessing to my dad or repetitively asking for God’s forgiveness in prayer. These seasons were so regular that I grew to expect and dread them; they were inexplicable.

While those consistent seasons stopped in middle school, the emotional burden of my sin had more subtle effects later on. Instead of feeling inexplicable and uncontrollable guilt, I consciously forced myself to feel badly for sins as an expression of “repentance.” I thought that making myself feel grieved would be honoring to God, since it indicated my awareness of my iniquity and His holiness. By the time I reached college, this self-flagellation had become so deeply ingrained in my understanding of sin that it was an emotional reflex. 

It was not until after my freshman year of college that the Holy Spirit showed me the reality behind my self-inflicted punishments. While well-intentioned, these habits were not true repentance. In fact, they were quite the opposite– they were my efforts to self-justify under a guise of “honoring God” by taking sin seriously. I believed that somehow– if I made myself feel bad enough, if I took my sin seriously enough– God’s righteous requirements would be satisfied. I feared that if I did not make myself feel bad for my sins, I would spiral into uncontrollable sin. 

I was living in a paradox of emotion: while I understood and genuinely believed in the Gospel, I did not feel the continual freedom of unlimited grace, grace which God gives from moment to moment. I did not recognize that emotional self-justification and the Gospel could not coexist; I did not let the freedom of the Gospel trickle down to my momentary, reflexive emotional responses to sin. I believed, but I was not truly free. 

After spending my summer working with Christian high school girls, I’ve realized that such emotional habits are not rare. Many girls who grow up in the church struggle deeply with guilt and shame and are caught in this paradox of emotion. They have heard the Gospel since birth, and they really do believe it; they seek to live God-honoring lives, but find themselves burdened by guilt and shame because they fear that letting go will mean spiraling into uncontrolled sin.

My sister, is this you? Do you find yourself believing but not feeling truly free? Are you burdened by guilt and shame despite your belief in the Gospel? 

In 2 Corinthians 7:9-10, Paul cuts to the core of the tension between guilt and Gospel freedom. At the time of this epistle, the church in Corinth was deeply grieved (read: guiltful) by Paul’s earlier exhortations against sin. When he hears of the Corinthians’ grief, Paul responds:

“As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (ESV)

Paul thus distinguishes between godly grief and worldly grief, and it is this distinction which belies the role of emotions in understanding sin: 

There is a place for feeling bad about your sin, but only if these feelings function as stepping stones to the cross. 

Feeling guilty about our sin is not symptomatic of a lack of faith in Christ’s work on the cross. Such feelings do play a role in a believer’s journey, but this role is not as a final destination. Feeling badly about sin can be a good thing– if it leads you further into grace, if it brings you to a deeper understanding of Christ’s sacrifice and the love that motivated Him. The final destination of all thoughts and feelings about sin must end at the foot of the cross, where you are free to lay down your guilt and live in freedom.

This is very different from worldly grief, which fails to propel you to grace and instead leaves you burdened by guilt. As Paul writes, this grief produces death– the spiritual death of growing further from knowing the freedom of the Gospel. Worldly grief obscures your understanding of God’s goodness and only distances you from freedom.

It is this worldly grief that can easily devolve into shame, which is very different from either godly guilt or worldly guilt. Guilt focuses on the action of sin (“I’ve done this”); shame focuses on a false identity of sin (“I am this”).While godly grief ends at the cross and is life-giving, worldly grief and any subsequent shame only speak lies about your identity. Shame is not meant for the life of a believer.  Instead, Scripture says that a believer’s identity is as a child of God (Galatians 3:26, Romans 8:14), a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). You are not defined by sin, but by Christ’s righteousness, paid on the cross (Romans 8:1-4). 

True repentance does not involve habitual self-punishment because no amount of emotional penance could ever stand in for Christ’s actions on the cross. As a Christian you are called to take sin seriously, but forcing yourself to feel bad will not cause God to be more honored by you. This is because God is not pleased with you because of anything you have done; He is pleased with you because of what Christ has done on your behalf. Jesus has taken your punishment for you; live in the freedom that this gift affords.

What does this look like, practically? 

While we may not have complete control over our emotions, we can tell ourselves truth to make our emotions life-giving, to transform any grief into godly grief. Guilt and grief will come unforced, because they are the natural product of our God-given consciences. When these natural feelings of grief arise in response to sin, we have the opportunity to make it into godly grief by repenting, bringing ourselves to grace, and then leaving our guilt at the foot of the cross to live in freedom. We can use the moments when we feel bad about sin to lead us nearer to the cross by preaching the Gospel to ourselves as the final word on our sin and identities. By doing so, we posture our hearts so that the Holy Spirit can enter in and use our emotions to deepen our understanding of grace.

Sisters, if you are struggling with guilt or shame, know that your Jesus loves you deeply; you are free because of His death and resurrection. There is a place for feeling bad about sin, but this place is as a stepping stone to the cross. Your ultimate destination is a grace which extends from moment to moment and never runs out. Dear sister, you are forgiven. You are free.

P.S. Even as I write this blog post at 1:20 am, now nineteen years old, I still do not understand why I experienced those bouts of guilt as a kid. All I know is that they have shaped the trajectory of my faith in immense ways (good and bad). I am so, so far from truly living in and understanding grace (sanctification is a lifelong process, thank goodness). I still struggle with emotional “self-flagellation” and have to preach the Gospel to myself at every turn. But if my childhood experiences mean I can share truth with all of you– my sisters in Christ– here on Common Ground, then I need look no further; that is reason enough. By God’s mercy and by the power of the Holy Spirit I am learning day by day to walk in the freedom of the cross, and I pray that He uses this post to do so for you as well.

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