For a Christian, feeling guilty is a complicated reality. On the one hand, feeling guilty is an essential part of Christian discipleship. We are guilty, and refusing to acknowledge our guilt is perhaps the greatest spiritual disease. On the other hand, guilt feelings can paralyze us, chilling our hearts and robbing us of joy. A measure of guilt is healthy and essential, but guilt can go bad. When we are most emotionally vulnerable, bad guilt can assault us with a terrifying ferocity, and it is only right that we learn to fight back.

The idea that some guilt feelings should be resisted is complicated—so complicated that I want to start by pointing out what I am not saying:

• First of all, by “bad guilt” I do not mean “false guilt.” False guilt is a true problem; many of us beat ourselves up over things that were not our fault. We need to fight false guilt, but that is not my topic here. Bad guilt is something else again. “Bad guilt” is still real guilt—that is, guilt feelings rooted in real sin.

• In no way am I suggesting that we should deny our guilt in order to feel better. The human story is the story of sin, of a lack of love for God and for each other. Why is the world—why is my life—the way it is? Why did Christ need to die on a cross? Because we are evil people. Each of us can see ample evidence of our own evil, and John tells us that if we deny our sins, the truth is not in us (I John 1:8). We cannot fight bad guilt by denying our sin; that will only make our situation worse.

• Neither am I suggesting that we should downplay our guilt, telling ourselves that it is no big deal. It is a big deal; sin is treason against our creator and a corrosion in our souls. Feeling terrible is an appropriate response to our sins because we have done terrible things. We cannot fight bad guilt by telling ourselves the fairy tale that our guilt is not serious; sooner or later reality will break in, and how will we comfort ourselves then?

We cannot fight bad guilt by denying or downplaying it. If there is an answer to debilitating feelings of guilt, it is not to be found in selective amnesia. Rather, the feelings rooted in true guilt must be met and overcome by something bigger: an understanding of the grace and mercy of God. The healthy mind knows that sin is a big deal but that the grace of God is a bigger deal.

Some of the most profound and comforting teachings on the relationship between guilt and grace are found in the book of Romans. In Romans 5, Paul compares the condemnation that resulted from the transgression of Adam and the free gift of life that resulted through Christ’s obedience.

But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:15-17)

These verses are all about the triumph of grace over guilt. They make it clear, first of all, that mankind is guilty. Adam, our forefather, disobeyed God, bringing God’s judgment, and all his children have been busy adding to his transgressions ever since. Notice, however, God’s overwhelmingly gracious response. If Adam’s one transgression brought judgment, shouldn’t the continuing sins of mankind drive the last nails in our coffin? But God’s response to our multitudinous offences is not further condemnation but grace; He freely and abundantly overlooks the sins of His people and gives them life. A key concept is abundance: God responded in a measured way to Adam’s sin, but Christ’s gift abounds to the many; He gives an abundance of grace. Yes, we are guilty, but God’s mercy has overflowed, burying our guilt in the avalanche of His good will.

Paul clearly does not intend us to hide or downplay our guilt. In fact, he makes it clear in Romans that not only are we guilty, but God intends us to know our guilt clearly, to feel our guilt to the uttermost. What teacher makes our guilt clear to us? The law:

…by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)

And yet even as the law shines the light on our guilt, God responds to that guilt with grace.

And the Law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21, emphasis mine)

Paul is very clear: we are guilty, and God even wants to rub our nose in our guilt through our inability to keep the moral law. But over and above our guilt is God’s unshakable intention to forgive.

We are now in a position to understand the concept of bad guilt. Guilt has gone bad when the sinner feels only guilt and not the joy, the release, the thirst-quenching goodness of God’s grace. Christians should not deal with guilt by trying to make guilt smaller; we should deal with it by making grace bigger. We still feel the shame of guilt because we are guilty. God has revealed more than our guilt, however; He has revealed how willing He is to overlook even the deepest and ugliest sins. Grace, then, is bittersweet; but if the bitter is not outweighed by the sweet, we have not yet understood grace.

The fact remains, however, that many Christians find their own feelings of guilt overwhelming. Bad guilt prevails. Why might this be? The answer is complex, but several reasons come to mind. One possibility, of course, is simple ignorance. Many Christians have not yet heard the gospel proclaimed accurately, or if they have, they have not understood it. They think that their relationship with God is primarily based on rewards and punishments: do good, and God will reward you; do bad, and He will punish you. Seeing God in this way, many Christians cannot help feeling rejected by God every time they fail morally. They need to hear the good news afresh: we are truly guilty, but God will forgive and bless us anyway.

Bad guilt can also prevail among us when our theology is confused. The Bible promises that God will overlook sins, but it also says that He only forgives those who repent and have faith. These ideas create a tension that many Christians struggle with: “Sure, God forgives those who repent and believe, but have I truly repented? Have I really believed?” The inevitable presence of real sins in the lives of believers confuses them. “Maybe I gave in to lusts of the flesh because I have not truly repented. Maybe I found myself tempted by wealth because I do not truly believe the promises of the gospel.” Our confusion is theological; it arises from failing to make appropriate distinctions between a heart of faith and total freedom from sin. The heart of the believer is willing to confess sin, willing to see the need for forgiveness, willing to admit that God’s values are what we ought to pursue. Over time, the believer’s faith will mature, and his or her life will show it. That is far from saying, however, that a believer will ever be free from sin in this life. If the presence of lust, anger, selfishness, and lack of love—that is, real sin—disqualifies one as a believer, then there are no real believers. The good news is that God’s forgiveness is not reserved for sinners who have stopped sinning; it is for those who know they continually fall short but who trust God to forgive and restore them.

Ignorance and confusion, however, are not enough to explain the prevalence of bad guilt among us. I see in many Christians—I have seen in myself—an unshakable feeling of guilt, even though we understand the gospel very well. We believe in theory that we are forgiven, and yet we cannot rejoice. The prison gates are open and yet we still sit mourning our captivity. How can this be? In one sense, the answer may be slightly different for each one of us. The course of our lives has led us to embrace foolish and untrue beliefs about ourselves that keep us from seeing the magnificence of God’s grace. Each of us, then, faces the task of discovering and fighting his or her own mistaken beliefs. In another sense, however, we all have the same problem: unbelief. God has announced our release, but to a certain extent we do not believe Him. And as strange as it may seem, many times that unbelief is rooted in the remains of our own self-righteousness. The gospel is good news, but it is humiliating news. We are so far from what we should be that only the grace of God can save us from what we deserve. God has chosen gladly to forgive, but we feel humiliated knowing that He must forgive so much. Somehow, we would like to feel that we have done well enough to be worthy (or at least somewhat worthy) of God’s approval. I came to this conclusion looking at my own life; my attachment to my own guilt was so strong that it forced me to an embarrassing conclusion: I would only feel forgiven when there was no sin left in my life to forgive. Many of us, if we are honest, feel the same way. And since in this life we will never be free of sin, we will always feel more sorrow than joy; our hearts will be full of bad guilt.

In the end, whatever issues each of us may need to sort out individually, we all must take the same step: we must strive, with all our heart and soul and strength, to believe God when He tells us He is full of mercy. However bad we may feel about ourselves, God has sworn that He will forgive us completely if we turn to Him. He has not said that He will partially forgive us but remain angry until we clean up our act; He has told us that His mercy abounds and overflows in response to our sin. The biggest testimony to the mercy of God is the cross of Christ:

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. (Romans 5:8-9)

Christ’s death on the cross is the strongest evidence of God’s love and mercy we will ever find. Jesus did not die for good people; He died for bad people, to reconcile them to God. If God loved us that much when we were His enemies, how much more can we count on Him to be on our side now that Christ has shed His blood to make us His friends? These are the truths we must learn and repeat and dwell on and believe.

So often those who are trapped with bad guilt are waiting for some theoretical day in the future to feel forgiven. Maybe one day, when we have prayed more or sinned less, we will feel qualified for God’s love. Meanwhile, we live with a self-inflicted lack of joy. We must fight back. God wants us to believe what He tells us, and He has told us of His mercy even more than He has told us of His justice. Mercy is big enough to cover everything: the sins I committed in the past, the sins I am committing even as I write, the sins that I will commit tomorrow. We have to recover a high view of grace. Do you want to know how big the grace of God is? Imagine a boat floating on a deep sea. Deep under the boat is a pile of garbage sunk to the bottom of the sea. The garbage is your sin. The sea is the grace of God. All that is left to do is get in the boat.