Conviction Vs. Condemnation
I was in an accident when I was eight years old that broke my femur. I don't know if you know this, but when you break your femur, you can't move your hip at all because of how the joint is connected. If you move your hip, you move the femur, and the bone can't set. So I was put into a body cast for a few months in the middle of the school year. Naturally, I had to have a home tutor so I didn't fall behind in my class.
Enter Ms. Benson.
She was a lovely woman from what I can remember. She did her best with a kid who had a poor hand dealt to him. I don't remember much about our tutoring sessions, but I do remember one day I cracked. I had spent so much time in a body cast, unable to move or do normal things on my own. I just had enough. I yelled at her and screamed until she ran out of the house without even saying goodbye to my mom. Ms. Benson never came back to tutor me.
When I was in my 20s, I had been thinking about the accident and its effects on me when I remembered Ms. Benson and how I treated her. I asked my mom if she knew how I could get in touch with her so I could apologize. Thankfully, my mom had already apologized profusely, and Ms. Benson understood the things I was going through had just overflowed onto her.
This thing I did as a child caused me to feel guilty a decade and a half later. Erma Bombeck once wrote in a newspaper article that
guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.
Guilt is a weird emotion because it's not a one-time deal. If you receive an excellent gift for Christmas, the feeling may last the day, but eventually, it will fade. If you're mad at someone for cutting you off in traffic, you'll probably yell some curse words, but the anger fizzles out. Guilt isn't like that. It's a serial emotion that keeps returning to the scene of the crime to give you the exact torment as when you first felt it.
Christians are no exception to this rule. We do things to try to mitigate our guilty conscious, like running from God or trying to cover it with other good things, but there is no escape from guilt.
Why is that?
The Bible says that "the wages of sin is death," and humans have a conscious to understand what is right and wrong because of what Adam and Eve did in the garden. We cannot escape our guilt because we cannot escape our sin or our knowledge that we have sinned. For Christians, guilt is the mechanism to show the Holy Spirit working in us to point out our sins.
But guilt is just a pathway to something more. When we commit a sin or neglect to do something holy we know we ought to do, we feel guilt. Guilt then takes our hands and our thoughts to lead us to one of two places: condemnation and conviction.
Conviction is the Holy Spirit working in you to bring you closer to God by addressing your sins, learning from them, and letting go of them. After Peter's sermon at Pentecost, a spiritual fire started. This was the first message people had heard after Jesus' Resurrection. The first time they could depend wholly on him. The Bible states that as Peter wrapped up his sermon, "they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?'" Peter tells them to repent and be baptized so that their sins can be forgiven. This is conviction. It acknowledges our shortcomings, shows us the path forward and draws us closer to God. It is a good thing.
The prophet Hosea told Israel, "Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up." This is how conviction looks in Christians. If you are in your thoughts about your sin and your thought isn't to turn to the one who is the very reason for that feeling of guilt, then that isn't conviction. It's condemnation. Paul puts it this way "For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Let your conviction be a godly cry for repentance, not a mourning song for death.
Condemnation is the action of condemning someone to punishment. It's sentencing; a final verdict to hang on the gallows of your mind. Peter felt this many times. When Jesus first called the disciples, he told them to let down their nets after a day of catching nothing. Peter tells them that they are tired but sarcastically says, "but I'll do it anyway just to show you." The nets fill up, and when Simon Peter sees it, he fell and said: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." Peter saw that he doubted the one true lord and sentenced himself to a life without Jesus' presence. Jesus looks down at his doubting disciple and says that Peter will be "a fisher of men." Peter doubts when Jesus is at trial and denies Jesus three times. As the roster crowed, Jesus looked at Peter, and Peter realized what had just happened, "and he went out and wept bitterly." Whether it was on the boat or in the courtyard, Peter tried to put distance between the savior and himself because he was seeking condemnation for his guilt.
Maybe you're not at the level of denying Christ, but you're sinning, and you can't seem to stop sinning. Your heart is breaking because you just want Jesus, but you can't overwrite the guilt in your heart that you are an unworthy child. "How can God love me," you ask? You condemn yourself based on your judgment, but the Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
If you are holding yourself accountable for an action that God forgave you for, then you are binding yourself with an authority that God did not give to you.
If you confess, then you are free. That is that, and that is all that it needs to be. You are not God; stop acting like it. You keep your guilt and condemnation inside of you. You let it fester and boil until it eats away at your soul. That is not the life God wants for you. God doesn't want it in. He wants it out.
Out of sight: "You have put all my sins behind your back" (Isa. 38:17).
Out of mind: "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more" (Jer. 31:34).
Out of reach: "You will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea"
Out of existence: "I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more" (Isaiah 43:25)
For this, we are eternally grateful.
Now for the practical side. We know what we feel and that what we feel will lead us to conviction or condemnation. So what do you do when you feel condemned and not convicted? You have to practice the art of letting it go and accepting forgiveness. The hardest person to forgive is yourself, so this isn't a quick process.
When you confess your sins to God and talk to him about the things you feel guilty for, pray, "I accept your forgiveness." This isn't presumptuous because the Bible states over and over that God gives it freely to those who ask. Accept it. Then move on from it. When your thoughts try to take hold of you and tell you that you aren't good enough or aren't worthy enough or you aren't holy enough, remind them that that is exactly why Jesus died and overwrote your sins. You are not just cleansed of your sins. Jesus has put HIS righteousness on you. Those condemnations about your sin don't apply to you.
The Bible states, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us." The funny thing about that analogy is that if I put you in a spot on earth, and tell you to go north, eventually you will go south because we know north and south are decided by magnetic poles. But if I put you in a spot on earth and tell you to go east, you will still be going east infinitely. You will never go west.
How far is the east from the west? As far apart as you and your guilt.