The Bible’s Viewpoint
Feelings of Guilt—Are They Always Bad?
MANY people today view guilt feelings as undesirable. They feel the way German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche did, who said: “Guilt is the most terrible sickness that has ever raged in man.”
But some researchers are now coming to a different conclusion. “Guilt is an essential part of being a feeling, responsible person,” says Susan Forward, Ph.D., an internationally recognized therapist and author. “It’s a tool of the conscience.” So, then, are all feelings of guilt bad? Are there any circumstances where guilt feelings might be helpful?
What Is Guilt?
A feeling of guilt is triggered when we realize that we have hurt someone we care about or when we otherwise fall short of the standards we feel we should live by. As one reference work puts it, guilt relates to “a sense of indebtedness because of a person’s culpability for a failure, offense, crime, or sin.”
In the Hebrew Scriptures, guilt was associated with an Israelite’s failure to live up to God’s Law—over half the references to it being in the Bible books of Leviticus and Numbers. Interestingly, the word is almost absent from the Christian Greek Scriptures. But on the few occasions it does appear, it similarly relates to serious offenses against God.—Mark 3:29; 1 Corinthians 11:27.
Unfortunately, we may feel guilty without really being guilty. For example, if a person is a perfectionist and tends to set unreasonable standards for himself, each disappointment may trigger a feeling of undeserved guilt. (Ecclesiastes 7:16) Or we might allow legitimate remorse over a mistake or wrong to intensify into feelings of shame and end up punishing ourselves unnecessarily. What good, then, can feelings of guilt accomplish?
Guilt Feelings Can Be Good
Feeling guilt can be good in at least three ways. First, it signals that we are aware of acceptable standards. It shows that we have a working conscience. (Romans 2:15) In fact, a book published by the American Psychiatric Association treats the absence of guilt feelings as societally threatening behavior. Those with defiled or deadened consciences have trouble seeing the difference between right and wrong, and that can be dangerous.—Titus 1:15, 16.
Second, a guilty conscience can help us avoid undesirable actions. Just as physical pain alerts us to a potential health problem, the emotional pain associated with guilt alerts us to a moral or spiritual problem that needs our attention. Once we are aware of the weakness, we are more inclined to avoid hurting ourselves, our loved ones, or others again in the future.—Matthew 7:12.
Finally, confessions of guilt can help both the guilty and the victim. King David’s guilt, for example, was accompanied by intense emotional agony. “When I kept silent my bones wore out through my groaning all day long,” he wrote. But when he finally confessed his sin to God, David gladly sang out: “With joyful cries at providing escape you will surround me.” (Psalm 32:3, 7) Confession can make even the victim feel better because an admission of guilt can assure the victim that the other person loves him or her enough to regret causing so much pain.—2 Samuel 11:2-15.
A Balanced View of Guilt Feelings
For a balanced view of guilt, notice the stark contrast in the way that Jesus and the Pharisees regarded sinners and sin. At Luke 7:36-50, we read about an immoral woman who entered the house of a Pharisee, where Jesus was dining. She approached Jesus, washed his feet with her tears, and perfumed them with expensive oil.
The pious Pharisee looked down on this woman as beneath his dignity and attention. He said to himself: “This man [Jesus], if he were a prophet, would know who and what kind of woman it is that is touching him, that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39) Jesus quickly corrected his thinking. “You did not grease my head with oil,” Jesus said. “But this woman greased my feet with perfumed oil. By virtue of this, I tell you, her sins, many though they are, are forgiven, because she loved much.” No doubt these kind words lifted the woman’s spirits and lightened her heart.—Luke 7:46, 47.
Jesus was in no way condoning immorality. Rather, he was teaching that proud Pharisee the superiority of love as the motivation for serving God. (Matthew 22:36-40) It was right, of course, that the woman feel guilty over her immoral past. Evidently, she was repentant, for she cried, made no effort to justify her former conduct, and took positive steps to honor Jesus publicly. Seeing this, Jesus told her: “Your faith has saved you; go your way in peace.”—Luke 7:50.
On the other hand, the Pharisee continued to look down on her as a sinner. Perhaps he hoped to ‘put the fear of God in her’ and shame her. But constantly trying to make others feel guilty if they do not always do things the way we think they should is unloving and, in the long run, counterproductive. (2 Corinthians 9:7) The best results come from imitating Jesus—by setting the right example, commending others honestly, and expressing confidence in them even though at times reproof and counsel may be needed.—Matthew 11:28-30; Romans 12:10; Ephesians 4:29.
Feeling guilty, then, can be good, even necessary, when we have done something wrong. Proverbs 14:9 (Knox) says: “Fools make light of the guilt that needs atonement.” A guilty conscience can and should move us to confession and other positive action. However, our basic reason for serving Jehovah should always be, not guilt, but love. (Job 1:9-11; 2:4, 5) The Bible assures us that when good people are encouraged and refreshed with this in mind, they will do all they can. More important, they will be happy doing it.