Real Guilt Doesn’t Feel Like Guilt

By Sam Jolman | June 2, 2014

“Don’t you realize that it is God’s kindness that is trying to lead you to him and change the way you think and act?” Romans 2:4

“Those who look to him are radiant. There faces are never covered in shame.” Psalm 34:5

Did this happen to you as a kid? You got caught doing something to your sibling or another playmate. You know, like stealing a toy or hitting them. Or in my case, throwing a rock at your brothers head.

And you got caught. Busted.

Some kind of reprimand or lecture or time out usually followed. Which you endured. But the punishment wasn’t usually over with that. Then came the proverbial request, “Now tell him you’re sorry.” So you say it… sort of. The trick was to do it out of the side of your mouth real quickly on the sly. Kind of say it but not really. Because you’re still pissed at your brother for taking your toy and you felt like the slap on his face was deserved.

But its not enough for your mom or dad. “Say it like you mean it.” they say. And maybe even, “Look at him when you say it.”

For the love of God, anything but this. And how do you even try and mean it more? Surely it was some attempt to get your heart into the matter and get you to apologize sincerely. To actually feel remorse for your actions. And now that I’m a parent, I get it. How do you move your child to empathy for wrongs committed? Its a hard task.

But I doubt the whole say it like you mean it thing ever helped anyone of us feel more remorse. And worse, it definitely made this whole guilt process some big chore, some life sucking experience. Drudgery. It perpetuates the idea that guilt is about making yourself feel bad, about some painful posture we must force ourselves into.

I don’t think guilt was meant to feel this terrible. In fact, I think real guilt does not feel like guilt at all.

It has nothing to do with putting on a pouty face for what we’ve done. Or learning to say we are sorry. Its not a little boy with his head hanging low kicking the dirt because he’s been scolded. It doesn’t look like your dog with his tail between his legs. It has nothing to do with stewing in regret over what you’ve done either. Honestly, it really doesn’t resemble very many pictures we have of a penitent person.

I think guilt was meant to be an empowering experience, a life giving one.

Seriously, I think real guilt is meant to be a good experience. Its meant to sober us up to what is true and even more to what we care about. Its meant to open our eyes and expand our view of the world and ourselves. Its meant to compel us to action on behalf of those we love. Its mean to reconnect us with the ones we love.

Not buying it? Okay well then take Paul’s word for it. Here’s what he describes as the fruit of genuine guilt. “You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible” (2 Corinthians 7:11). Yes there’s the stuff you’d expect, things like reverence, responsibility, concern. But did you hear the rest? Life and passion, a restoration of your humanity, and a heart that’s sensitive, tender again. Sounds pretty good to me.
Who ever knew guilt was supposed to make us feel this good?

For most of us, it doesn’t. Which tells me the guilty feeling most of us struggle with isn’t guilt at all. If your guilt feels like guilt its not guilt. Its shame. Shame is the deadening stuff you can’t shake. We call it hanging your head in shame for a reason. It burdens us, not to mention numbs us and deadens us too. It usually leads to beating ourselves up in some way. Shame is the place Satan would love for you to stay a very long time. Because shame always leads to hating ourselves and beating ourselves up

Yeah, that’s not what God wants from you.

A few weeks back, my wife and I got into a fight when I got home from work. I ran over my son’s bike in the garage after a tiring day. And that was that. I walked in and barked at her for not picking up the garage after our son, because it certainly couldn’t be my fault for not seeing the bike.

I started the fight. But we both continued it for awhile. We ate dinner in relative silence. A few hours later, as I gave my son a bath, it just hit me that I was being really insensitive and really exasperating with her. And I suddenly felt alive again to my love for her. I didn’t feel awesome, but I felt moved, sober, awakened.

And I went right then and there and apologized. She didn’t exactly swoon with gratitude. But her face softened and she thanked me. I felt a ton better.

Does guilt always feel good? Not necessarily. It may actually feel pretty painful. In my experience, real guilt feels more like sorrow than it does like guilt. And that sort of makes sense when you think of it. Sorry and sorrow have very close roots with each other. To be sorry is to sorrow. It means grieving with the person you’ve hurt. It means letting yourself dream of being a better person and being disappointed with how things have gone.

A man who’s confessing an affair to his wife will probably not feel awesome. But if his wrong leads to sorrow instead of shame, he’s going to be feeling a whole lot more alive and human again. Grief awakens passion and desire.

The other night my son ran in the house with a loaded squirt gun. I attempted a drive by reminder, “No squirt guns in the house, Brandt!” but to no avail. He blazed past me on his way upstairs. It was bath time and this was his last stand. I followed and found him in our bedroom. When I entered the door, I came face to face with the outlaw, guns drawn. And I got a face full of water.

I grabbed the gun and picked him up to bring him into the bathroom. A few minutes later, as we sat in the tub talking, Brandt said, “Daddy, your face was angry.” “Oh yeah, bud? When was I mad?” “When you grabbed my gun.” I remembered now the force I used to grab his gun. I was pissed but I didn’t think he’d notice.

My heart sank.

“Bud, you’re right. Daddy was mad. That was wrong for daddy to grab your gun in anger. Will you forgive me?” “Yeah,” he said. But my heart wasn’t any better. I felt terrible about myself as a dad. My shame was saying, You’re a monster. You’ve just damaged your son and you may not get his heart back, Jerk!

So a little bit later I brought it up again. And then during book reading before bed I brought it up again. My son looked at me, said he remembered, but then turned back to the book, a gesture announcing he wanted to move on. He didn’t need anything more from me.

His body snuggled up against mine should have told me all I needed to know. He had forgiven me. And I wasn’t some big monster or he wouldn’t be in my lap right now. All this carrying on with apologies was foolish. I realized that the best thing for me to do in that moment would be to get back to enjoying the book we were reading. So I did.

And the freedom of doing guilt well made all the difference.

Next time that guilty feeling strikes with full force, remember God doesn’t want you miserable. He wants you alive again. Real guilt will get you there. The other stuff isn’t from God.



  • “The freedom of doing guilt well”– ah, I see the enemy grimacing as you wrote those words. How gloriously you bring life to us and us to life, thank you, brother.

  • A few weeks ago, three teens (perhaps on drugs), cut in front of me at blazing speed to cross a solid white line to get into a turn lane, last minute, in front of me…there was plenty of room. They proceeded to flip ME off. All of them. The driver then slammed on the brakes at highway speed to get me to ram into them…I stopped inches short, and the gloves were off.
    Let’s just say that all my work with young men went out the window, and I had visions of driving my old pickup truck (long retired from duty) into the side of their car as they threw something out the window at my Xterra, before exiting the highway with a final middle-finger salute.
    I wanted revenge, but the Spirit simply led me (over the course of a week) to understand that I didn’t handle it very well. I wondered why I was upset at the injustice, and why my hair-trigger anger took the best of me. Mercy and forgiveness is something I am still learning at 55 years of age. Thank God He is not finished with any of us.
    By the way, you’re a good daddy and a good husband. Forgiveness after a good “I’m sorry” speaks well of you.

    • Oh, what a story! Yes, God is good at getting to the heart of our issues fast. Good for me to know there is mercy at 55. And thanks for the encouragement!

  • Thank you for the reminder of the difference between guilt and shame, and for using your story as a platform. I appreciate your vulnerability and insight!

    • Joel, you are so welcome. Yeah, that difference between guilt and shame is so hard to figure out some times. Glad this helped and thanks for reading.


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