The Blurry Line: Between Conviction and Guilt
Readings: Psalm 42, 103 ◊ John 16:5-11 ◊ Romans 8:1-17 ◊ 1 John 3:18-24◊
Sometimes I need to talk to myself… give myself a pep talk. Maybe I should provide a little context here.
I am a task-driven personality, classic type-A, and very goal oriented. I set the bar high for myself and go hard for it. I have followed this method of living and learning for most of my life and it has rewarded me with high achievements and success in many of my ventures. It should not come as much of a surprise then, that I’ve approached many aspects of my personal discipleship in following Jesus Christ in the same way. I set high goals and go hard at them.
I don’t think this methodology is necessarily a bad thing, nor do I think it is a process for everyone to incorporate. It works for me, but there are a few drawbacks, especially when considering my personality type. I have a very competitive nature, so winning or succeeding is important. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking sports, games, or my faith, the goal is to win. I say this to make a point; when I don’t meet my goals, it is a downer. I can become discouraged and depressed; even worse, I can start to feel guilty and my inner voices will often become self-deprecating and self-defeating. This is not good. It can be demoralizing, debilitating, and disastrous.
The question might be, “Why be so hard core about my goals and pursuit of them?” Jesus teaches us that our passion and pursuit of him should be second to nothing (Luke 14:26; Mark 12:30). The Apostle Paul compares the Christian journey to a race and exhorts those who participate to train and run as if you intend to win (1 Cor. 9:24; Phil. 3:14). There are many other references describing single-minded and whole-hearted devotion (Col. 3:17, 23) to the pursuit of Jesus, but I think the point is clear. When these exhortations are coupled with an intense personality type, I think the product can turn out like what I’ve described of myself earlier.
Recognizing these points and seeing them in me has been helpful in my own self-awareness. I am able to examine my heart and my motives, ask questions, and discern how to deal with my emotions. It isn’t always easy. I sometimes find myself at the intersection of Guilt Street and Conviction Avenue. This can be a tough place to be.
While it might be an issue of semantics for some folks, I think there is a difference between guilt and conviction. The line separating the one from the other can be blurry at times, but I still contend the two are very different.
Conviction: a fixed or firm belief; the state of being convinced
Guilt: the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, or violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law
What is the difference between these two words and why does it make a difference?
Guilt often plays itself out as an evil taskmaster. Guilt tells me I’m not working hard enough and I’ll never measure up. Guilt tells me that God is not happy with me, because I never measure up to my potential. Guilt leaves me feeling devalued and unloved… unloved by me and unloved by God. Guilt tells me if I will only work harder, maybe I can become more or better and become favored by God. Guilt is a liar and comes from the chief of all liars.
Guilt and its handmaiden, shame, can paralyze–or catalyze one into action. Appropriate guilt can function as social glue, spurring one to make reparations for wrongs. Excessive rumination about one’s failures, however, is a surefire recipe for resentment and depression. Psychology Today
Conviction is a clarifying light; it reveals weaknesses and uncovers weak excuses. Conviction is a truth serum, debunking every myth and exposing every lie. Conviction finds dust where I thought I had cleaned and shows me wrinkles where I thought I had ironed. Conviction makes me feel challenged and sometimes it makes me feel embarrassed and sheepish. Conviction lets me know when I have not been giving my all and says to me with firm-voiced love, “You can do better.” Conviction leaves me wanting to change, desiring to do my part in the work of becoming more like Jesus. Conviction is truth and conviction is love, because it comes from God the Holy Spirit.
Guilt pushes me toward the Law, by which man is always a failure. Here, in this place, I measure my worth by my performance and feel like a failure. The dangerous thing about this place is the blurry intersection. Guilt and conviction can look very much alike at this juncture. We must remember, “There is no condemnation for those who are found in Christ,” and reject the guilt trip that leads to despair. Perhaps what we are sensing and “hearing” in our heart is conviction… maybe there is some merit to the words that have been twisted. The enemy of our souls will often twist the words of God…this can be the blurry difference between guilt and conviction. As we examine our souls, confident in who we are as Christ’s children, the Holy Spirit might convict us of areas we have not given our all or we might be shown parts of our self we have not renounced and relinquished to God. This being the case, we thank God for showing us what he desires and agree to surrender to him and obey his leadership. I am comforted by the words of the psalmist who knows of what I speak.
He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve. For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth. He has removed our sins as far as the east is from the west. The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust. Psalm 103:10-14
I remember these words as I reflect on the tension I feel between guilt and conviction and I am consoled… comforted. I also remember this word to me is not a release from my responsibility in this partnership with God through the Holy Spirit. I may reject the guilt, but I need to respond to the conviction and be true to doing what I can do… Truthfully, there are steps I can take and there are things I can be doing to help my maturation and development into the character and nature of Christ. I know I am loved by my God. I know my Father delights as I turn my heart and my face to him. I pray God will help me, and I know he will, if only I will begin by taking the initiative to act on the conviction and not succumb to the guilt.
“Whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes. Whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures. Wherever you live, do not easily leave it.” –Antony the Great