I often feel defeated over things the Bible never even says I need to do. Though I believe that God’s Word is completely sufficient, “that the man of God be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17), I find that I don’t always act that way. I often “feel” as though certain things must be sinful or as though I am failing in some way when, through the lens of Scripture, these feelings are not actually valid. I hear statements that sound seemingly holy from other Christians and find myself frustrated when I don’t live up to them. We all fall prey to this kind of wrong thinking, sometimes, but here are six ways we carry false guilt and why we shouldn’t:
1. I feel guilty for merely being tempted, even when I don’t give in.
So many people beat themselves up, not for actually committing a sin but for the mere temptation to commit a sin. However, temptation is not sin. If I am tempted to cheat on my wife and resist that temptation, I have acted in a way that is pleasing to God. Merely being tempted cannot be sinful; Jesus Himself was tempted as we are—yet He lived a life without sin (Heb. 4:15).
You may not like that you have a wicked heart that produces temptations. And perhaps you think you would no longer be tempted if only your heart were better. But do all temptations come from a wicked heart? When Jesus was tempted, was it because He had a wicked heart? Continuing to dwell on an impure thought is sin, but being tempted to sin and saying “no” because of your love for Jesus is a righteous act. To quote Martin Luther, “You can’t keep a bird from landing on your head but you can keep it from making a nest in your hair.”
2. Sometimes I do the right actions without the right feelings or motives.
We are a mixed bag of motivations. Even our good actions are often tainted with selfishness or sin. However, that doesn’t mean that we should only pursue right actions when our hearts are in the right place. Yes, doing the right actions with the right heart is the goal. But if you have to choose between doing the wrong actions with the wrong heart or doing the right actions with the wrong heart, do the latter. Part of righteousness is resisting sin even when we don’t feel like it. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” We can’t only be obedient when we feel like it. We must obey God, serve others, pursue our loved ones, get in community and do the right actions while we wait for our hearts to catch up.
3. I don’t “hear from God” like I should.
Many people feel something must be wrong if they don’t “hear from God” in their hearts like other people claim to do. We hear from God by reading the Bible. Sometimes people say that the Spirit leads them throughout the day, and I absolutely affirm this. However, if you don’t experience this particular leading, don’t worry. God does not give binding commands or additional revelation about Himself through our hearts. He has given us everything we need to know, love and obey Him fully in the Bible. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” As Justin Peters notes, “If you want to hear God speak, read your Bible. If you want to hear God speak audibly, read it out loud.”
4. I don’t “feel” like I love God.
There are times when you won’t feel love for God. We change. We are fickle. Our love for God will change day to day. However, the good news is: God is unchanging, and His love for us is unchanging. God’s love for you is not influenced by your daily feelings toward Him. We sometimes define “loving God” in a way the Bible doesn’t, emphasizing how much emotion we feel.
Loving God is not evidenced by squishy feelings and euphoria but by obeying His Word, serving others and holding to correct doctrine. John 14:23 says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” We can actually sin by elevating the importance of our feelings over the importance of our obedience. What’s more significant than measuring our feelings moment to moment is our continuing walk in obedience, demonstrating our love through action.
5. I’m not growing fast enough. I’m a failure at sanctification.
Many Christians are constantly frustrated because they still sin. Sanctification is slow. In fact, it is so slow that it takes an entire lifetime, and you never fully get there. Learn to be OK with the journey. God has already declared you to be perfect in Christ, so you are already loved. He intends for you to spend the rest of your life learning to live in that love. You will never “arrive” while on this side of eternity. You will not fully conquer your sinful tendencies in this life. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t progress in holiness. A runner knows he can’t run forever but, if he trains to run every day, he can run further and further with time. Philippians 1:6 says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Look for long-term progress, not perfection.
6. I still have doubts.
To most of us, doubt seems like the hallmark of a terrible Christian. It seems like the opposite of faith—a special category of moral failure. However, the opposite of faith is not doubt but disobedience. God requires that we have only a mustard seed of faith, not the whole tree. You, too, can be honest like the father who cried out to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). It’s OK to truly believe and still lack certainty. According to Sinclair Ferguson, “Weak faith still gets the same strong Christ as does the strongest faith.”
True or False
Know the difference between actual conviction over actual sin and false guilt over false expectations. Temptation, doubt, the absence of “correct” emotions and the slow pace of sanctification can all masquerade as reasons to feel like a failure. Be encouraged that Christ will complete the good work He began in you. Rest in grace. Strive for holiness, but let it be a grace-motivated effort. May God give you the grace to see yourself the way He does.