It's normal (and healthy) to feel guilty at times. That's part of the human experience; none of us are perfect, and when we've done something wrong, we should feel a certain amount of guilt. Contrary to what some psychologists might say, guilt can be a very positive thing, if it helps motivate us to change our behavior, or correct a mistake, or make restitution when we've wronged someone. That's conscience, and it's one of the greatest gifts God ever gave to man: it's our moral compass.
But, in the life of a Christian, there are other factors that can cause us to feel horribly guilty ... or cause us to realize that we're on the wrong track. Because every Christian is perpetually hearing two voices, in addition to his or her own: the voice of the Holy Spirit, and the voice of the enemy of our souls, Satan. But sometimes we don't know which is which.
When the Holy Spirit speaks to us about a sin we've committed, or a mistake we've made, we say that we feel "convicted," or that we're "under conviction." The Spirit of Jesus Christ is whispering in our heart, "Don't do that; do this!" And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left (Isaiah 30:21).
But there's another voice, and it's the voice of the Enemy. He doesn't convict us: he beats us over the head, and besets us with unhealthy guilt (often when we've done nothing wrong): he condemns us. He makes us feel like we've blown it irreparably, or that we're worthless.
But how can we tell which voice we're hearing? The Enemy is the great imposter, and he can pretend to be God ... he can even use scripture to do it. (That's one reason why we need to constantly study the scriptures: so that when the Enemy misuses a verse or a passage, we'll recognize that something doesn't ring true.) This is one of the Enemy's favorite games.
There are several ways, when we feel that things aren't right, to tell the difference between God's conviction, and the Enemy's condemnation. We'll look at three of them.
First of all, when the Enemy is condemning us, or placing us under "false conviction," he always centers our attention on ourselves. "Look what a mess you've made of things! Look at you, committing the same old sin again and again. What a miserable excuse for a Christian you are! Why don't you just give up?" That's the pronoun he prefers: you. And as long as we're looking at ourselves, he has us right where he wants us. Because there's no hope in us, even if we're believers: For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing, Paul says in Romans 7:18.
But conviction, coming from God the Holy Spirit, doesn't work that way. Remember what Jesus said, when He promised the disciples that the Spirit would come? Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak ... He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you (John 16:13, 14). The Spirit doesn't point the finger at us; in fact, He doesn't even point the finger at Himself. The Spirit always points the finger to Jesus Christ. And, when He convicts us of something, He doesn't focus on "you;" He focuses on Jesus Christ, and all the hope and power and forgiveness that are available in Christ. Condemnation places the attention on us; true conviction places the attention on Jesus Christ.
Second, the Enemy's condemnation always discourages us. We feel defeated; we feel hopeless; we feel like we'll never have victory or joy in our lives again. Once more, the Enemy is trying to demoralize and defeat us, so that we won't even try to follow Christ any farther, or talk about Him (or to Him) any more. This can have tragic consequences. It can affect our mental health, leading to self-destructive behaviors, whether drinking, overeating, or even self-mutilation. How the Enemy enjoys seeing us in that state! If we're saved, he can't get our souls; but if he can just make us miserable, and cause us to give up, he'll be overjoyed.
But God's conviction is just the opposite. Yes, He tells us we're doing wrong, or making a mistake: but He offers us hope and encouragement, as well. I say it reverently: when we're sincerely trying to please God, and are trying to maintain fellowship with Him, and reading His word ... the Holy Spirit is our greatest cheerleader. He doesn't say, "You've blown it. Give up!" He says, "Okay, a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again (Proverbs 24:16), so get up, let's keep moving. The future is straight ahead, and I'm with you!" True conviction offers hope, not just guilt.
Finally, the condemnation of the Enemy paralyzes us. It renders us ineffective and useless, to ourselves and others, by plunging us into a gloom of unhealthy introspection. He reminds us of all the things we've failed to do, and convinces us that we can't live as we should - - - so, for a time, we quit trying. He convinces us to drop out of the race. And we quench the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19), not because we've rejected Christ, but because we're only listening to the Enemy. In terms of living the joyous, fruitful Christian life, we might as well be frozen in amber.
But God's conviction doesn't paralyze us; it motivates and empowers us. If nothing else, it assures us that God is still speaking to us, and that He's still interested in us. But it's very practical, too. When our lives are cluttered with sins or mistakes, God's conviction shows us what needs to be done. It helps us clear the decks. God's mercies are new every morning, and one of these mercies is giving us a clean slate at the beginning of each day (assuming that we've responded to His conviction). Instead of paralyzing us in self-loathing or self-pity, God's conviction gets our eyes back on Christ, and reminds us of the staggering possibilities that lie ahead for any committed Christian. Because the Holy Spirit does something that the Enemy can't do: He doesn't just talk. He acts through us. He gives us the power to bear His fruit, and fulfill our purpose here on earth.
The Enemy has a thousand ways of discouraging us, or slowing us down, or making us quit. But if that's so, then God has a thousand and one ways of giving us the power and the joy and the motivation to stay in the race ... and to join Him in His victory!
What a Christ!