Many people struggle with guilt on a daily basis.
They feel guilty for not spending more time with their kids and for not calling their parents.
They feel guilty for working too hard, not working hard enough, and not working at all.
They feel guilty for getting up too late, giving into cravings, taking meds, not taking meds, not doing the laundry, not recycling, and for scoffing an entire packet of Oreos while watching What We Do in the Shadows.
If you have been raised with rules or high expectations, or if you have an idealized picture of marriage and home life, chances are you are familiar with guilt.
Guilt is what you get when you don’t measure up, and most of us don’t measure up.
But did you know it’s possible not to have a guilty conscience? Maybe you don’t believe me, but there was this guy in the Bible who said this:
Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day. (Acts 23:1)
And before you go, “Well that was Paul the superstar church-planter,” remember that this was also Saul the persecutor of Christians. If anyone should have had regrets and a guilty conscience, surely it should be the chief of sinners.
Yet Paul frequently spoke about having a good and clear conscience.
We are sure that we have a good conscience. (Hebrews 13:18)
If Paul could have a perfectly good and clear conscience, you can too. But first, you need a proper definition of conscience.
What is your conscience?
Perhaps you imagine your conscience to be a judge inside your head who accuses you when you break the rules. Or maybe you hear a Jiminy Cricket-voice scolding you when you mess up. But these are caricatures and not the real thing.
Your conscience is that inner voice that lets you know whether you are walking in the will of God or whether you have departed from it.
The word conscience loosely means “with knowledge.” Your conscience knows when you have crossed the line and missed the mark.
How does it know?
For some, this knowledge is defined by cultural norms. For others, it may come from some religious code such as the Law of Moses.
But ultimately any definition of right and wrong is grounded in the character of God.
How to have a healthy conscience
A healthy conscience is not one that hammers you with the law or one that is subject to society’s definitions of right and wrong. A healthy conscience is one that is in tune with the Holy Spirit.
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 9:1)
The conscience makes judgments based on knowledge, and the most reliable source of knowledge is the Spirit of Truth.
When the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirits that this is the way to go, and your conscience heeds this instruction, you will be convinced and it will not matter what anybody says.
This is why Paul could stand before the Sanhedrin and talk about having a perfectly good conscience. He knew his conscience was submitted to the Holy Spirit, and no teacher of law could convince him otherwise.
We are exhorted to keep the faith and hold onto a good conscience, and these two things are connected. If you reject or cast away a good conscience your faith will be shipwrecked (1 Tim. 1:18–19). A good conscience is something to protect, and that means knowing how to handle condemnation.
How to silence the inner critic
Sometimes we battle condemnation in the form of self-criticism or self-doubt. “I’m a failure. I’ve messed up. God will never accept me.” When that happens, we need to remind ourselves that:
God is greater than our heart and knows all things. (1 John 3:20)
Your heavenly Father knows every dumb thing you’ve done and every dumb thing you’re going to do, and knowing all this he still loves you and calls you “Beloved” (1 John 2:7). There is nothing you can do to make the Father love you any more, and nothing you can do to make him love you any less. Knowing this fills you with confidence and helps to silence the inner critic.
But God does more than just love you; he justifies you and makes you righteous.
In the eyes of the world, you may not measure up. You may fall short again and again. But God himself is for you! Who can be against you?
What to do when you mess up
We all make mistakes and when we do it’s easy to cower before the voice of condemnation. But there is another voice. When you sin, Jesus doesn’t accuse you; he defends you (1 John 2:1). And then he gently guides you back onto the right path.
This is why we need to listen to the Spirit of Truth when we sin. The Holy Spirit tells you the true facts: God still loves you. Yes, you screwed up but your Father’s got this. Now eyes back on Jesus.
The way to a perfectly good conscience is to walk in step with the Spirit and to believe all the good things that God says about you.
Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God. (1 John 3:21)
You don’t have to feel guilty all the time. You have a choice. You can choose to live under condemnation or confidence. You can live under guilt or you can live submitted to God.
The way to be free from a condemning conscience is to assure your heart that God justifies you, he is for you, and he loves you no matter what.