No one likes feeling guilty. Knowing they’ve done something wrong or hurt someone by their actions, or by their spoken or written words. Even believers too often seem steeped in guilt, held back from doing what God has asked them to do, like write His truths to people. But the reality is that guilt is a gift that God uses to make you a better person—and writer—than you ever imagined. Come see how!
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Guilt. Most people feel it. And hate it. It’s one of those emotions you never want to experience, and yet it tends to invade our lives all the time. But why? After all, those of us who follow Christ shouldn’t feel guilty about anything, should we? All our sins are covered by Christ’s sacrificial, restoring act on the cross. We’re forgiven, now and forever. So what place does guilt have in the life of a believer… and the life of a writer?
I (Karen) confess, I wondered about that myself. Are we, as God’s children, who’ve been restored to Him by the blood of Christ, struggling with emotions God doesn’t want us to feel? If that’s the case, is it bad?
Are we hindering our relationships with God and others, or damaging our witness? Are we letting that unnecessary emotion keep us from doing what God has asked us to do on our writing journey? After all, if we’re guilty, who are we to write about life and faith? How can we inspire others when we’re caught in guilt ourselves? And if we’re doing all that, engaging in something we shouldn’t be, how do we stop? And if we are supposed to feel guilt, how could we ever consider it a gift?
All good questions, which we’ll tackle today.
So let’s start by figuring out what the word guilt really means by going to our favorite resource for such things, Webster’s. The definitions are:
: the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty broadly: guilty conduct
: the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously : culpability
: feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : morbid self-reproach often manifest in marked preoccupation with the moral correctness of one’s behavior : self-accusation
: the state of being liable to penalty for offense against law—used in respect to persons and sometimes property that by reason of illegal usage has become liable to forfeiture or other burden
Okay, so now that we have the definitions, let’s consider the question of whether or not we believers should be feeling guilty. In 1 John 1:8, John delivers this bit of “encouragement” to Christ’s followers:
“If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth.”
Ouch. Okay, we still sin.
Then there’s Romans 8:23:
“And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering.”
Groaning, longing for release from sin! So, if we still sin, then surely we have things to feel guilty about?
James certainly seemed to think so. Consider James 4:7-10:
“So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.”
Wow. We need to wash our hands, to purify our hearts, to not divide our loyalty. As for sorrow and deep grief…sadness and gloom…that all sounds like the consequences of guilt.
Paul talks about his own struggle with his sinful self in Romans 7:14-15. How many of us can relate to this:
“…The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”
Then he writes this powerful truth in Romans 7:24-8:4 (ESV):
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
These are just a few of the Scriptures that show that those of us who are restored to God our Father through Jesus’s death and resurrection are far from sinless. And if we sin, you know we’re gonna feel guilt. More important, be in a factual state of guilt. The truth is that guilt, or feeling guilt, doesn’t damage our witness or hinder our obedience in whatever tasks God gives us, including our writing.
I can hear you now: How can we write for others, to inspire and uplift them, if we’re guilty? Well, as Jesus pointed out in Luke 5:31:
“It is not the well who need a physician, but the sick.”
Guilty or not, OF COURSE we can inspire others in our writing because we’re not writing from some “holy” point above what our readers struggle with. We’re right there with them, in the struggle. Those who haven’t faced what our readers have are the ones who have little to say.
So yes, we do—and should—feel guilt. But why, exactly? What’s the purpose of guilt? Is it just emotions or is it something else entirely?
John I. Snyder wrote in his blog post, “A State of Being: Guilt and Shame”:
“From the Bible’s point of view, guilt, real guilt, is first and foremost not a feeling. It’s a state of being. It’s the position of being out of line with our God by virtue of our sin. It can be fixed only by being placed into a right relationship with him, a solution that’s brought about only by God himself, not by us. It is his specialty to fix this problem. Resorting to our own measures only makes things worse…[When God fixes our guilt] nothing more can be—or needs to be—added to it. We can’t make it better or earn it.”
So guilt, true guilt (yes, there’s false guilt out there, but we’ll talk about that another time), is a twofold proposition. It’s a state or condition. When we do what we know is wrong—or when we don’t do what we know to be right—basically, when we sin, we are guilty. Our emotions have little or nothing to do with our guilt. We are, factually, in a state of being guilty.
Guilt is also the emotional response we feel when we’re in a state of guilt. Whether our wrongdoing is in violation of God’s laws, civil laws (that don’t break God’s laws), or our own personally held values, the result is the same. True guilt. We sin, and we feel guilt.
I’m betting we all know that terrible feeling. The heaviness inside. The regret. The restlessness and even sadness or grief. The awareness that we’ve damaged something—whether that’s our integrity, our relationship with God or people, or our witness as believers—and the holy nagging to put things right.
How does this affect writers? Writers seeking to honor Christ are constantly presented with opportunities to violate what we know to be right. Temptations for writers are out there. For example:
- Publishers want to contract you if you’ll just take out the Jesus stuff.
- You include something in the book that’s “true to life,” but doesn’t honor God.
- You fudge the truth about your sales or career to make yourself look better.
- You make getting published your goal rather than obedience.
- You ignore agreed upon responsibilities to family and friends because you have to write.
- You put off writing even though you know it will make you miss a contracted deadline.
Those kinds of things, and so much more, leave us with uncomfortable, nagging, even devastating guilt. As they should, because we are guilty when we’ve sinned. 1 John 1:8-10 makes that pretty clear:
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”
Now there’s some guilt I wouldn’t want.
So yes, we’re created in God’s image, and we’re commanded to be holy as He is holy. We’re given clear guidelines in Scripture as to what’s right and what’s wrong. When we go against those truths, of course we’ll feel guilty. It’s only natural. And it’s natural that true guilt negatively affects everything—keeping us from moving forward in our relationships, career, and faith—until we make things right.
Let’s repeat that: true guilt affects everything…until we make things right. That, friends, is a vital aspect of true guilt. And that’s what makes true and healthy guilt a gift in our lives and writing.
God never intended for believers to live wracked by guilt. To feel guilt every day, in every way, and never get away from it. Let me put in a side note here: For unbelievers, guilt is absolutely intended to be there, to draw people to Christ. But for believers, God never intended us to live incapacitated by guilt and overwhelmed by how terrible we are.
Isn’t that where guilt hits writers the hardest? In that place where we look at the task in front of us, a task God has given us, and let guilt tell us we’re not worthy to do it? If we live with unresolved guilt, it festers and becomes a barrier to our belief that God can use us.
Which is why it’s such good news that God doesn’t want us to live with guilt!
Grant Agler, a pastor, wrote this in his article “Guilt – Is it from God?“:
“God is for you. Remember that, he is not against you, he is for you. He has gone to great length just to demonstrate how much he is for you.”
Agler then points us to Romans 8:31-33:
“If God is for us, then who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.”
This amazing God who is for us, ALWAYS for us, knows what living in guilt would do to us. As Agler writes:
“[Our] loving father…would never heap guilt on you that has no clear resolution. God will give you something better than just guilt, he will give you a ‘path to repentance.'”
God wants to erase our guilt. To remove it so we no longer feel it. He uses true guilt, a good—although terrible—thing to move us to repentance and reconciliation. Again, that’s the purpose of true guilt: reconciliation, restoration, and freedom through forgiveness. That, without a doubt, is a gift.
I (Karen) have never had a problem with confessing my sin to God, but oh, how I hated having to go through the humiliation of confessing my sin to those I’d wronged. But God, in His mercy, showed me the wonder of forgiveness and erased guilt when I was seventeen years old. I’d deliberately disobeyed my dad. He’d told me I could go out to dinner with my friends, but I was not to go cruising with my friends afterwards because it was dangerous. If they wanted to go cruising, he told me to ask to be brought home first.
As much as I adored my dad, well, I was seventeen! So when my friends decided to go cruising, I went along. When I came home, I was consumed with guilt. This was the first time I’d flat gone against my dad. I went up to my room and lay on my bed crying and suffering.
I pulled out my Bible and God led me to Psalm 32, which is a wonderful testimony of the effect of feeling guilt when we sin. In verses 3-4, it was clear David had an intimate knowledge of feeling guilt:
“When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.”
That, my friends, is a terrible place to be even temporarily. I can’t imagine living there.
Which is why it’s so wonderful that we who believe in God never have to stay in a state of guilt. The very millisecond we surrender to the Spirit’s leading and confess our sins, God’s forgiveness washes us clean. When we follow the Spirit’s leading to make things right, freedom is restored.
Best-selling author Tamera Alexandar shared with us in podcast episode #130 about a devastating time in her career when she sinned. If you haven’t listened to that podcast episode, do so. You’ll see how God wouldn’t let her live in that sin. How, as humiliating as it felt, she confessed to those she’d wronged. And how God not only set her free, but made her so much stronger in her faith and obedience. Her experience is the perfect example of the gift of true guilt.
So that then, is the grand news for all of us. Yes, we sin. Yes, we put ourselves in a state of true guilt. And yes we feel the emotion of guilt. But it doesn’t end there! Thanks be to God, as Paul said, true guilt isn’t permanent!
In fact, it serves God’s purposes for our life, faith, and writing. True guilt:
- is natural and healthy in the life of a believer
- wrecks us when we sin and makes us admit our weakness and sinfulness
- permeates our spirits until we go to God and repent
- is TEMPORARY!
Once we’ve taken our guilt to God, once we’ve done as He leads to make things right, it’s done. Gone. It evaporates in the warmth of holy restoration. We are free and able to rejoice in God’s and others’ forgiveness.
Now, as much as true guilt is healthy for us, there is something else at work where guilt is concerned. Remember how we mentioned false guilt earlier? Well, sometimes we feel guilty but we’re not sure why. We can’t tell if what we’re feeling is true guilt, or false guilt. False guilt is devastating, and it’s an effective tool the enemy uses against believers.
It’s especially effective against writers seeking to honor God because writers are already so vulnerable to something we’ve talked about before in episode 81: Imposter Syndrome. Which is why we’re devoting our entire next podcast to understanding, exploring, and erasing false guilt.
Until then, here’s a handy list from the article “How to Tell the Difference Between True and False Guilt” on Lifecoachingonthego.com to help you determine if what you’re feeling is true guilt. Well…their list with a few tweaks from us.
When you feel true guilt:
- You know exactly why you feel this way.
- It’s clear you did something wrong and are responsible.
- You can’t ignore it and it doesn’t just go away over time.
- It leads to learning, forgiveness from God and others and yourself.
- It’s resolved by:
- facing and stopping the sin
- confessing the wrongdoing to God and those you’ve wronged
- taking steps according to God’s word and wisdom to make it right.
- It ends.
If those things resonate, then yes, what you’re feeling is true and healthy guilt. And yes, it’s a gift. We’re not saying it’s easy. Or fun. It’s going to take courage to deal with. And humility. But remember, God already knows your sin. Nothing you can do will surprise him or make him take his love from you, because God IS love. It’s his nature, and it doesn’t depend on you. Thank God, right?
When God has used good guilt to work His purpose in your life, you will be able to walk and write in the freedom of forgiveness. And your stories, be they fiction or nonfiction, will resonate with the authenticity of one who is forgiven and restored.
Then you’ll be able to sing with David the rest of Psalm 32. You didn’t think we’d forget to share that, did you? Well buckle up, friends, because the following verses are why this Psalm was so powerful to my (Karen’s) seventeen-year-old sinner’s self, and why I wept when I read it. I’d just confessed my wrong to my dad, and his forgiveness was swift and complete, and ended with the assurance, “Karen, you could never do anything that would make me not love you.”
Trust me, those are the same words you’ll hear from God when your guilt is forgiven. So, here are the words God gave me that night so long ago:
“Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty!… Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, ‘I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.’ And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.” Psalm 32:1-2; 5
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WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!
How has God used guilt in your life?
THE NOVEL MARKETING PODCAST
For the next few months, we have a sponsorship from the Novel Marketing podcast, and we’re bringing you Novel Marketing’s 10 Commandments of Book Marketing. We highly recommend this podcast with host Thomas Umstattd Jr., a genius on marketing and all things publishing! You can find the podcast at novelmarketing.com.
Today we’re covering commandment number 7: Thou shalt weigh thine options before investing in marketing.
Investing in marketing is a given. Every successful author does so. But how much of which resources do you invest? For example, one resource is time, and another is money. They’re both valuable. But how much do you have of each? And how do you allocate them?
You can’t spend the same marketing dollar on two different things. You’ve got to choose. Nor can you spend the same hour of time on two different things. There is always going to be a cost, a thing you chose and a thing you didn’t choose. The best thing you can do for yourself is understand and weigh your options so you can make the best decisions you can.
You also need to be asking the right question when it comes to marketing. Don’t ask: will this tactic or thing I want to try help me sell more books? Lots of things can help you sell more books. Ask instead: Will this help me sell more books than the next best alternative?
For that, again, you need to know what those alternatives are. Listening to the Novel Marketing Podcast is a great way to be informed about those options, which is why we recommend that show. You can find more book promotion and platform help by listening to Novel Marketing in your favorite podcast app or at NovelMarketing.com.
Thanks to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!
Thanks so much to our June sponsor of the month, K.D. Aster. She’s hard at work on her novel: Kingdom of Azur, and we’re excited to see how it turns out. K.D. Aster, thanks, and keep writing!
Many thanks also to the folks at Podcast P.S. for their fabulous sound editing!
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