I often talk with pastors and other servants of the Lord who judge themselves harshly. I tell them, “Don’t feel bad. Feel sad.”
God never wants you to linger with bad feelings about yourself — even if you sin. This may be a new thought for you. It may sound like I’m contradicting the teaching of the Bible. If so then you to take to heart the Apostle Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 7:8-13 where he contrasts “worldly sorrow” and “godly sorrow.” The Apostle Paul was the greatest of all psychologists, second only to the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
After we feel sad about our sin and confess it to God to receive the mercy of Christ then we can feel happy! So we can say, “Don’t feel bad about your sin, feel sad — and then glad!” What joy there is to be forgiven of our sins by the Lord! But first we need to admit to our sin.
What is Sin?
The Greek word for sin means “to miss the mark.” It’s the idea of an archer missing the bull’s eye. Adam and Eve sinned when they disobeyed God, seeking to be their own god, to run their lives independently of God. Sin is rejecting God and his loving care and wise governance. Sin is slop as the Prodigal Son found out when he landed in a pigsty (Luke 15:15-16). Sin may be exciting or pleasurable at first, but it leaves us empty, tears apart our souls, and wounds others.
Guilt in the Bible refers to an objective state of sin before a holy God, which is our problem. Guilt as psychological state of self-condemnation which adds to the problem of sin. Of course, it’s necessary that we feel convicted by our sin, realizing that we’ve separated ourselves from God and been unloving to him and other people (including our own selves).
Why it’s Bad to Feel Bad About Sin
Nothing good comes from guilt and shame. Many Christians don’t understand this. When we condemn ourselves for our sins, failings, or struggles it pushes us away from God. When Adam and Eve sinned they covered up with fig leaves and went and hid from God. Guilt tripping ourselves over our sin pulls us down, down, down into depression and isolation, further and further away from the mercy of Christ and the care of other people. Shame sucks the joy of the Lord out of our lives, suffocating us and rendering us incapable of loving God or other people. Shame is worldly sorrow. When we’re punishing ourselves with guilt we’re rejecting the mercy of Christ that we need, which cuts off the flow of God’s Spirit of grace from us to others.
Often we guilt trip ourselves when we haven’t even sinned! It’s a false guilt. For instance, we pressure ourselves to do what we should — not considering our emotions, needs, resistances, and limitations — then we create a dichotomy between our heart and our behavior. In the short term this may help us not sin in action, but in the long term it increases temptation to sin and isolates our true self from God and his grace. Focusing only on eliminating sinful behavior is what the Scribes and Pharisees did and it always leads to hypocrisy (presenting a false, idealized self) and a widening sanctification gap (our true self becomes hidden in sin and pain). Instead, we want to be deeply honest before God and safe people and look to God to help us train with Jesus to become the kind of person who wants to do what is good and loving.
Don’t slide down into guilt, judgment, self-condemnation, shame, and self-hatred! God doesn’t want that for you — it doesn’t honor him and it won’t help other people or you. (Have you ever experienced someone trying to bless you while they’re deprecating themselves? You don’t feel cared for!) Instead, God would have us respond to our awareness of sin with the sadness that leads to repentance (re-thinking our approach to life and turning around to trust in Jesus and bring ourselves into God’s kingdom).
Here’s what sadness over sin sounds like:
I’m disappointed that I didn’t express love for God… I wish I would’ve willed good for that person and been kind… I am sad that I reacted with such anger… I missed out on appreciating the blessing of Christ with me and sharing that… That’s not the kind of person I want to be!… Lord, have mercy on me!
Why it’s Good to Feel Sad About Sin
It’s helpful when conviction of sin leads us to feel sad because godly sorrow inspires us to reach out for Christ’s hand of mercy that will pull us back up to our feet in God’s kingdom. Godly sorrow produces a longing for the righteousness that comes from God. Godly sorrow leads to salvation, being reconciled to Christ and helped to become more like him. Godly sorrow becomes empathy for God and the people we’ve hurt and when we understand others we are in position to love them.
Godly sorrow as a response of conviction to sin is hope-filled and facilitates the response of faith-trust in God’s mercy through Jesus Christ.
“There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Believe it. Take it to heart. Be sad about the sinful part of you that hurts God, others, and yourself (Rom. 7). Bring your sinfulness to the cross of Christ and learn to receive God’s forgiveness. Watch and pray with Jesus (Matt. 26:41) to plan now that the next time you fail you will not wallow in self-recrimination, but will immediately cry out, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” (The ancient “Jesus Prayer” inspired by Luke 18:13, 38).
To live continually in the mercy of Christ is true bliss!
More Soul Shepherding
In “The Curb of Shame” I explain the wisdom in Martin Luther’s controversial exhortation to “Sin boldly!”
You can go deeper in your appreciation for Christ Jesus. Forgiveness, unfailing love, and the power to become like the Lord are available to you!
Unforsaken: With Jesus on the Stations of the Cross by Bill Gaultiere is 68-pages of heart-warming appreciation for Christ and inspiration to learn to live your daily life with his attitude of love for God and people.
Unforsaken is great for personal devotions, small groups, and retreats.