Should We Feel Guilty?

Pastor James
February 15, 2024

Guilt. That terrible, oppressive word. Nobody likes it. It’s also a uniquely human experience. Do piranhas feel bad about attacking some poor animals in the river, tearing off their flesh down to the bones? Will lions form the CA (Carnivores Anonymous) and turn into vegetarians in big numbers anytime soon? But some humans choose to be vegans and vegetarians for moral reasons.

Why do we feel guilty? Many attribute it to our conscience--that inner compass of right and wrong. For many, conscience is simply the arbitrary, social standard of right and wrong, which our society instills in our minds through various social and institutional interactions we have. When we do things contrary to it, we "naturally" feel guilty.

Some reject the notion of guilt itself. To them, guilt is not “real” since it is based on society’s arbitrary standard of right and wrong. They don't believe in moral absolutes, understandably so. If we came into being by non-moral processes in this amoral universe; if we are nothing more than a random collection of mindless molecules, then, surely, there can’t be any validation for absolute morality in this cold, materialistic universe. So, it's foolish to beat ourselves up with guilty feelings. They preach the gospel of guilt-free thinking and life.

But such an approach only begs the question: “Where does our moral capacity to feel guilty come from?” Why is it that humans feel guilty in the first place? It's more than just the fear of social censure. Many of us have felt guilty about something that our society doesn't frown on. Is our conscience simply a product of our advanced intelligence? If that were the case, shouldn’t we expect that the more intelligent one is, the more moral he will be? But is that so? Something more than superior intelligence seems to separate man from other animals.

What if our ability to feel guilty shows something supernatural about us? Just like the universe, we are made up of lifeless particles, amoral in nature. Yet we live, think, and feel. Right and wrong, good and evil matter to us. Immanuel Kant said, "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe…: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me." How wonderfully odd is this moral law within us in this amoral universe of starry heavens! Though we live in this universe, we are not of it in some real sense.

Our sense of guilt may be a telling indicator that we are made in the image of a holy and righteous God, with whom we must do. Granted that some guilt feelings come from breaking the arbitrary rules of society, many come from breaking God's law, which is written in our conscience, though blurred and distorted by social moral codes.

Guilt isn't the cause of our problem: it's a symptom. It's like the thermometer, which tells us how hot or cold it is; it doesn't change the temperature. Getting rid of it will not change the temperature. Neither will getting rid of our guilty feelings remove what causes them in the first place--our moral failure and culpability before God.

If we are guilty before God, our guilt feelings are the least of our problems. We must face God and His judgment. "For the wages of sin is death…" (Romans 6:23); "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). Remember Lady Macbeth? Afflicted by the guilt of murdering King Duncan, she lamented as she rubbed her hands, “Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O!” She was right. But God provided us with something that can! Jesus the Son of God came to bear our guilt before the tribunal of God. He paid the penalty for our sins through His death, removing our guilt from us as far as the east is from the west! Oh, put your trust in Jesus Christ! Experience the burden of guilt lifted from you, enabling you to live in gratitude for Him, who laid down His life for guilty sinners!