What do conviction, guilt, and condemnation mean to us as Christians? And why is it important to know the difference?
A certain amount of conviction or guilt is not bad when we have justifiably done wrong. However, guilt and condemnation have become a way of life for some people, sabotaging their best efforts to move on and derailing their lives. This is concerning.
My purpose for writing this blog is to bring release to the many people who are carrying around unnecessary burdens of guilt. It seemed a simple subject to start out with but the more I delved into the topic, the more complicated I found it to be. Guilt is far bigger than the scope of this article, but I hope that these words prompt you to take steps in the right direction, and ultimately find freedom from self-condemnation.
Definitions vary depending on the source; the explanations used here are not so much to be grammatically correct as to be a starting point to recognize and address these factors in your life.
With all the noise and opinions around us, many people are falling victim to long-term guilt and condemnation. It might be common, but the consequences of these belief patterns can cause devastating consequences to an individual, not just for them but also for those around them.
The word Conviction can be used in 3 ways:
- Being found guilty by a court of law. e.g. Convicted of an offense.
- A belief that something is true
- When a person is convinced of their error or sinfulness.
Let us look at each one in more detail.
1. Found guilty by a court of law
Being convicted of a crime in a court of law is determined by the laws of the country and is up to lawyers and judges to resolve.
2. Believing what you know to be true
The conviction of a belief is to have confidence in our truth and to stand firmly on what we know. These convictions are stored within our Belief Systems and are developed over the period of our lives, based on the influences of upbringing, experiences, and education. We assess and manage the situations in our lives based on these convictions.
We look at Belief Systems in detail during our coaching sessions, but for now, know that a sound belief system is crucial as a point of reference for how we see ourselves and the world around us.
3. To be convinced of wrongdoing and sinfulness
As Christians, we rely on Biblical truth and the guidance God gives us through His word. God doesn’t give us a book of rules and regulations because He wants to make our lives on earth difficult, He gives us His Word so that we are clear on sin and disobedience. The Bible is our handbook to live by as we grow and mature in our Christian walk.
We are all born with a moral code placed in our hearts, commonly known as our conscience. But God goes a step further to make it easier for us and He sends the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. Through supernatural awareness, the Holy Spirit intervenes by tugging at our hearts, to convince and convict us of wrongdoing.
Our conscience and this type of (Biblical) conviction are good because they bring awareness, urging us to confess, repent, and change our behavior. In this way God teaches us, resulting in spiritual, relational, and personal growth.
Where a conviction is felt immediately, guilt is a more long-term permanent emotion. It settles in, usually, when we have ignored our conscience or conviction, and gone ahead to do something we knew we shouldn’t have. What starts out as a niggle can become quite overwhelming and often doesn’t go away until we do something about it. The feeling might fade, but rest assured it has rooted itself deep into your subconscious and will rear its ugly head unexpectedly when triggered by a memory.
The cause of our guilt as well as the effects of our guilt become part of our belief system, which affects our thoughts and behavior. There are 2 categories in which we view guilt:
1. Objective or Rational guilt
Objective guilt is when a person is guilty according to a law that has been broken, regardless of whether they feel guilty or not. The wrongdoing is based on fact and not on a person’s feelings, opinions, or emotions.
These laws may be:
2. Subjective or Irrational guilt
Subjective guilt describes the emotions related to perceived guilt and is based on our beliefs, not necessarily fact. This form of guilt rapidly becomes toxic if left unchecked, because there is no rational thought behind it and we often don’t know the source or why we believe what we do.
Again, not all guilt is bad as it can motivate us to change our behavior, repent, and seek forgiveness. I call this benign or appropriate guilt because if we are legitimately wrong we need to address it. It is not usually harmful unless we take no corrective action or continue to feel the guilt for longer than is appropriate .
If we ignore the guilt and continue to do wrong, then we are acting in disobedience and rebellion toward God and there will be consequences.
Inappropriate or toxic guilt is when our regret, blame, shame, and sense of responsibility are out of proportion to the seriousness of the event. It can be the result of our own beliefs and the expectations we place on ourselves, which we perceive to have been wrong, or it could come from blame directed at us from another source, which we believe to be true.
The longer we ignore this toxic guilt, the more at risk we are of the destructive influence it will have on our lives. Guilt is a conditioned emotion, it becomes a habit when we default to blaming ourselves more and more. Both prolonged guilt and inappropriate guilt can turn to shame, the intense feeling of unworthiness that becomes our identity. The longer we leave it, the more difficult it becomes to rectify, resulting in condemnation.
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”~ Brene Brown
Once a person believes they are guilty, they become their own judge and juror, condemning themselves to a cycle of self-blame, unreasonable expectations, unworthiness, and perfectionism, in all areas of their lives.
By this stage, the individual is filled with shame which prevents them from seeking help or talking to others about it. They face their torment alone. This stage is devastating because the guilt is deep-seated, making it difficult to break through and help the person.
Causes of Toxic Guilt
The initial source of guilt may be through our own doing or as a result of another person’s actions, and often we aren’t aware of it, but it still affects our thoughts and behaviors. What complicates the matter further, is that people differ on what they deem to be right or wrong.
There are numerous scenarios, but here are 4 areas where toxic guilt patterns may arise.
Unrealistic expectations from childhood
From childhood, we are taught good, bad, right, and wrong. Over-critical, strict, and rigid parents, church leaders, or teachers can establish impossibly high standards that give rise to unrealistic expectations in children from an early age. As a result, these children believe that they can never do anything right, and end up criticizing and blaming themselves even when it is not their fault.
The belief may not have been deliberately impressed upon them but children mimic their parents. If the parent is in the habit of falling into the guilt rap, their kids are likely to follow.
Faulty conscience development
Feelings of failure from childhood are reinforced into adulthood, leading to inferiority complexes, persistent guilt, and poor decision making. One bad experience builds on top of another, confirming and compounding the negative beliefs.
The original feeling of failure may be irrational, but a person’s perception of an event becomes reality.
Inferiority and social pressure
Inferiority complexes result from the belief that a person is not good enough, often based on other people’s opinions or traced back to childhood criticism. Compounded feelings of inadequacy in childhood, result in adults who succumb to the control of others they deem to be more capable than them.
These people are in real danger of being abused and manipulated especially by those that deliberately invoke unhealthy guilt in another person, in an attempt to achieve their own ends. A guilty conscience makes you vulnerable even when there is no justifiable cause and so continues the cycle of blame, guilt, and hurt.
Bullying is the worst type of infliction which usually stems from the perpetrator’s own sense of inferiority and condemnation. The effect this has on the victim is devastating. A person that is bullied at school believes the guilt laid on them by their bullies, leading to feelings of worthlessness, shame, condemnation, and in some cases suicide.
Signs that you may be a victim of the guilt trap
Guilt is the cause of much pain and suffering in the world and is one of the most common reasons why a person visits a counselor or Psychologist. There are consequences to breaking the law, as with objective guilt, but it is more often the effects of subjective guilt that lead a person to seek counseling.
Here are some symptoms that suggest you may be struggling with feelings of guilt:
- Ongoing stress and anxiety even when there is no obvious reason
- Self-doubt, lack of confidence, and low self-esteem
- Inability to say no and set boundaries
- Isolation and difficulty establishing relationships
- Defensive behavior
- Blame and projection
- Self-punishment and harmful behavior
If you can relate to some or all of the signs above, chances are you are carrying a fair portion of guilt. It may have built up over years, so fixing it will not be a quick fix. There are, however, some things that you can do to set you on the road to healing and managing your feelings. It is never too late to change.
God’s word is given to us to establish clear guidelines, truth in our hearts, and a common base to distinguish right from wrong. It is not meant to burden us with strict moral laws and codes of conduct, resulting in guilt and condemnation. But it is meant to bring conviction of wrongdoing that leads to repentance, changed behavior, and forgiveness.
A person is guilty when they break God’s laws, causing them to sin. But God also gives us a way to overcome sin and the inevitable guilt, so that we may attain peace and freedom again. God does not want us to live in bondage as hostages to beliefs that affect our lives, peace, relationships, and success. Be aware that it is the enemy’s no.1 weapon to use lies, pride, and fear to drive us into guilt because that way he can trap people in condemnation and control them through it.
When we confess and repent from sin, God promises to forgive us and wash us clean, through the blood of His son Jesus. Faith is believing that Jesus died to free us from the condemnation of our sins.
Speaking truth to other Christians
As Christians, we are called to speak truth to our brothers and sisters, but there is also a fine line between helping and judging. We cannot ‘convict’ another person because they do not think or believe the same that we do. We may share Biblical truth out of concern, in an attempt to guide and motivate others to correct their ways but it is not meant to laden people with guilt.
Manipulation and guilt trips are not Biblical or helpful and dealing with these situations is better left to an authority. Many people have been hurt and left the church because these situations have been mishandled. Be fair but gentle as Jesus would do.
How to deal with Conviction, Guilt, and Condemnation
The first thing we have to do when we sense that first conviction is to ‘nip it in the bud’ before it escalates.
- When you feel that conviction or prick in your conscience, don’t do it.
- Practice the pause.
- Think of the consequences of your action.
- Admit to the error, be it to yourself or another person.
- Apologise and ask forgiveness
In combination with prayer, if you think that guilt is weighing you down,
- Unpack those feelings of guilt. Name the cause. We can’t confront it if we are in denial.
- Is it rational or irrational?
- Can you take responsibility for your actions?
- Are you able to change certain behaviors to remove the cause of the guilt?
- Apologize and ask forgiveness if you have done wrong.
- Identify a solid system of values and beliefs that are based on truth, not other people’s opinions
- Set boundaries and practice self-discipline
- Neutralize the old faulty beliefs of your youth
Deep-seated guilt, shame, and condemnation are likely to require the assistance of another person. These are more complicated to deal with especially if the person is afraid to talk about it. Speaking to a counselor or psychologist can assist with understanding, acceptance, and how to overcome defensive behavior and barriers.
How God frees us from Guilt and Condemnation
Fortunately for us, God offers a way out of the guilt trap and it is called FORGIVENESS. The revelation of God’s forgiveness is a major theme in the Bible.
He lifts our burden of guilt when we:
- Study and believe the scriptures about sin and guilt
- Pray for God’s guidance
- Confess the sins we are guilty of
- Repent of wrongdoing
- Ask for God’s forgiveness
If you feel you are unable to do this alone, please seek wise counsel from a trusted confidant, or a person of authority in the church to pray with you and help you deal with the cause of your guilt.
Prompting by the Holy Spirit, genuine remorse, sincere repentance, and obedience will bring forgiveness and peace immediately. God’s forgiveness will help us to love and accept ourselves and others without any effort on our behalf. Guilt is fed by a person’s inability to forgive themselves and seek forgiveness from God.
We may not immediately “feel” forgiven because our minds are still conditioned to think we are guilty, but with continued prayer and acceptance, those feelings will begin to change, until we experience perfect peace. Choosing not to dwell on the situation also helps and will eventually cause the memory to fade.
In order to be forgiven, we need to learn to forgive others too. It is part of the process and a requirement from God to forgive our sins. In turn, we can’t always expect forgiveness from another human, but we can depend on forgiveness from God.
Breaking the cycle of guilt
After dealing with our own guilt, the next thing we want to do is break the cycle and avoid the guilt from being projected onto other people. If we don’t address our own guilt, it will impact those around us, particularly our children who look to us for guidance.
Parents have an important part to play in ensuring that children do not grow up with unrealistic expectations. The best way of doing this is to have a solid belief system intact for ourselves, one that will provide a solid foundation of truth, boundaries, and security for our children. Balancing this with love and encouragement helps to mold their characters in a positive way.
Discerning Conviction, Guilt, and Condemnation after Divorce
Guilt is often present after trauma and divorce is one such type of triggering event. It is inevitable to go through self-evaluation following divorce, asking yourself a million questions about what went wrong and where, and there will be the inevitable blame, guilt, hatred, and unforgiveness.
Pray daily for God to reveal His truth so that you may address your part in the divorce. Then pray too for God to guard your heart against lies, blame, and shame. Give God the time and space to reveal His truth in your life.
Self-analysis is good because it will help us to get perspective on our lives in order to move forward. You can’t go back and change anything, but you can avoid adding to the guilt and condemnation.
Single parent guilt
We can easily fall into the trap of guilt as single parents, blaming ourselves for our children’s broken home. Some helpful ways to renew your mind:
- Reset your expectations – you are doing the job of two parents
- Examine your belief systems
- Is your guilt rational or irrational
- Understand the cause
- Find solutions
- Speak to other single parents
- Work through the lists above
This topic turned out to be more extensive than I anticipated and is probably better dealt with in person, but I hope that it did leave you with hope for a way out. It is not an easy or quick fix but we serve a fair God and with commitment and obedience, we can live in freedom.