September 14, 2019

The Difference Between Guilt and Conviction

By Jeanne Harrison

Did you know there’s science behind the expression “weighed down by guilt”? In 2013 Princeton University released a study proving that people who feel guilty have a physical sensation of being heavier than they actually are. Participants were divided into two different groups and told to recall either ethical or unethical memories. In a separate study they were asked to rate their perceived body weight. People who recalled unethical memories reported a higher perception of their own body weight. 

Intrigued, researchers took it one step further. They asked participants to rank how much effort it would take to perform various helpful tasks. Some of the tasks were non-physical, such as lending money to a friend, while others were physical, such as carrying groceries up a flight of stairs. There was no difference in how people perceived non-physical tasks, but amazingly, participants with a guilty conscience viewed physical tasks as requiring significantly more effort than those with a clear conscience. Researchers concluded that the experience of guilt is not just emotional, but grounded in actual bodily sensations. In other words, guilt weighs us down. Literally.

I believe it. 

When I was in undergrad, I did something truly unethical. I read my boss’s private email. Rumors of a scandal were flying around campus, and I heard a professor say he had received an email from the administration regarding the situation. At the time I worked for the director of academic services. Later that afternoon, it struck me that my boss had likely received the same email, and I had access to all of her accounts. So I read it. 

Cue guilt. It descended on me like an elephant. What have I done? I could lose my job! Instantly, two thoughts warred within: No one can know…I have to tell somebody. I needed to assuage my guilt in a way that would reap no consequences whatsoever. So I told my boyfriend. Unfortunately, it was Clint. (I had yet to learn that Clint’s moral compass points due north and doesn’t deviate by a single degree.) 

“You have to tell her,” he said

“What?! Clint, I could be fired!” 

“If you really want to make it right, you need to own up to it.”

“How about this,” I suggested. “I will confess it to Jesus. I will get right on that, and then everything will be forgiven. I just cannot tell her!”

Here’s the difference between guilt and conviction: guilt is not willing to pay the price of repentance. Guilt wants to make the problem go away as painlessly as possible because guilt’s primary focus is me. What will they think of me? How will the consequences impact me? 

Conviction focuses on God. We begin to experience conviction when our hearts are grieved not solely because we might lose our job, or our spouse, or our standing, but because we have broken fellowship with God. In 2 Corinthians 7:10 Paul captures the difference between guilt and conviction by describing two different kinds of sorrow. He writes, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” 

The question is, why are you lamenting over your sin? Is it because you fear losing the things of the world—the respect of your boss, the esteem of performing perfectly, the pleasure of sin itself? If so, you are experiencing worldly sorrow. Or are you pained because you have personally grieved God’s heart? This kind of godly sorrow takes us straight to the cross—to repentance, restoration, and life.

In order for me to repent, I had to care more about my relationship with God than I did about my reputation. Beautifully, God is the One who changed my heart. He held my hand and led me from guilt to conviction. The day I told my boss what I had done, I thought I would pass out. I’ll never forget what she said: “Next time, if you’re that curious, just ask me. I would have shown you the email. But it’s probably not a good idea for you to read my private messages.” (There’s a gracious understatement!) Then she stood up, hugged me, and said, “I forgive you. And I still trust you.” 

It brings tears to my eyes to remember that moment. When we run from repentance, we also run from absolution. We continue to stagger beneath the suffocating weight of guilt. That is the kind of sorrow that leads to death. 

Hebrews 7:23-28 describes the alternative—total and perfect cleansing from sin. Verse 25 says that Jesus “is able to save completely those who come to God through Him.” Unlike every other priest who aged out, Jesus holds His priesthood permanently. He doesn’t offer sacrifices day after day. He sacrificed “once for all when He offered Himself.” 

Do you long for complete restoration? For the lighthearted confidence of a right relationship with God? Today—no matter what you have done—it is available to you through the perfect priesthood of Christ. 

4 Responses

  1. This is so true, Jeanne! We were just discussing this with the middle schoolers as we read through Jonah. I love reading what you write.

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