Are You Experiencing True Guilt or False Guilt?

We must differentiate between true guilt, and false guilt. Listen to how Paul differentiates between the two:

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness; to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. 2 Corinthians 7:10-11


Before we investigate these types of guilt, I would like to give you an overview.

  • 1. True guilt. Corinthians calls this Godly sorrow in the NIV, or sorrow that is according to the will of God in the NASB.
  • 2. False guilt. Corinthians calls this worldly sorrow in the NIV, or sorrow of the world in the NASB.
    Within false guilt I see two categories:
    • a. Deliberate pretended guilt.
      b. Imposed guilt. This is guilt that we, the world, and other people impose upon ourselves.

Let's explore.

1. True Guilt (Godly Sorrow)
Godly sorrow, sorrow that is according to the will of God, can produce repentance. This is true guilt. I believe that God wants us to feel guilty until we admit our sin, mourn our sin, repent from our sin, and accept His forgiveness. This verse instructs us to be repentant, not merely remorseful. Take a look at the difference. Remorseful can be explained as "a selfish dread of the consequences... but with no effective change of heart." 5 It indicates that we're sorry because of the repercussions of our actions, but, given the same set of circumstances, we would probably do it again. This is the thief in jail crying because he got caught, who, when released from jail, goes and robs another bank. It is regret for the punishment, regret for the consequences, without a deep change.

Repentance is vastly different than remorse. Repentance is a l80degree turn. Repentance is a total change of heart, leading to a change of emotions, attitudes, thoughts, and actions. face, a choice to leave that sin behind. My Word Study Dictionary says that it "involves regret or sorrow, accompanied by a true change of heart toward God."

I think Second Corinthians is telling us that true guilt does serve a purpose. It can produce earnestness, "diligence" and "haste"7 to clear ourselves, to set the issue right as best we can. It can lead us to call it what God calls it: not a mistake, but a sin. It can lead to indignation and alarm: appropriate anger at ourselves for our sin,
and alarm that we have erected a barrier hindering our connection with God because of our sin. Finally, it can lead to longing and concern, driving us to see justice done, to work to make restitution for the pain that we have caused someone.

Godly sorrow, sorrow that is according to the will of God, true guilt, leaves no regret. I think no regret, means that when we have Godly sorrow, we take the necessary steps to repent, to make restitution, and to change. We accept God's forgiveness, and then we do not look back. We can then remove that member of the Committee, choose not to listen to him anymore, and free ourselves from carrying around the guilt.

2. False Guilt (Worldly Sorrow)

  • a. Deliberate Pretended Guilt

    This type of false guilt involves being pretentiously sorry in order to escape consequences or to manipulate I for selfish gain. We may fool other people, but God, who r searches our hearts, is not deceived by our masquerade.

    As all sin does, this pretended guilt can interfere with our connection with God.

    b. Imposed Guilt

    This type of false guilt is a less intentional sin. It can be guilt that the world imposes upon us through movies, television, music, magazines, the internet, or other forms of media. It can be guilt that other people, even family and friends, may impose on us. It can be guilt that we may impose upon ourselves. Sometimes, we may accept this guilt because we simply don't know God's truth. Other times, we may be at least partially aware of the truth, and our acceptance of this guilt is more deliberate; we allow people and the world to impose this guilt on us.

Are you guilt-ridden from what you have heard from sources such as these? Perhaps you have heard comments like this:

  • "You should be spending more time with your family."
  • "You should coach the soccer team."
  • "You should have spent time with your relatives, instead of having a romantic dinner with your spouse."
  • "You should keep more up to date with world news."
  • "You should stay later at work. You don't appear dedicated and will probably lose your job the next time the company lays workers off."

Or perhaps you have been perusing some magazines and now feel guilty that you are out of shape.

Or perhaps the neighbors just bought their teen a car and you feel obligated to buy your teen a car.

Or perhaps your friends are trying to send you on a guilt trip because you did not contribute to their favorite charity.

Or perhaps you feel obligated to volunteer every time you are asked, and feel guilty if you decline a request to "volunteer.

How can we know if our guilt is true guilt or false guilt?
We can't always know. Submerging ourselves in Scripture and prayer can draw us closer to God and help us to discern if it is God calling us to repentance, or the world imposing false guilt upon us. Realize that God's truths do not produce oppressing guilt. If it is Godly sorrow, we will sense conviction, not guilt. As we repent and receive His forgiveness, He can lift the burden, bring us His peace, and give us the power necessary to accomplish His will.

Second Corinthians says false guilt brings death. False guilt can hinder our connection with God. False guilt is sin. It is not of God; it can drive a wedge between God and us; it can hinder our fellowship with God. When we are carrying false guilt, we cannot be in right relationship with God.

How do we remove these members of the Itty Bitty Should-Have Committee? The first step is recognizing the Committee. The second step is repenting of our sins relating to the issue. The third step is plunging into God's Word, allowing the Holy Spirit to root out Satan's lies and replace them with God's truth. The Holy Spirit can then enable us to make the choice not to listen to this Committee anymore, and can free us from carrying around the guilt and the weight of the Committee. At first, we may need to actively choose every day, many times a day, to take every thought captive (2Cor 10:5), to refuse to listen to the Committee, to choose not to dwell on the past, but to live in today. And, as we continue to walk in Christ, His Spirit can blast every member of the Itty Bitty Should Have Committee off our shoulders and out of our lives.

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Celeste Li, M. D. is the author of
Triumph Over Suffering: A Spiritual Guide To Conquering Adversity
She is active member of Christ Fellowship Church in Palm Beach Gardens Florida.
Celeste teaches a course in Triumph Over Suffering and serves in Christ Fellowship’s Ministry for the Suffering.