A young co-worker has been very open about his struggles with drug use. He knows he should stop, but he gets lured back into using drugs. He is angry with himself, but that’s not a conviction of sin. It looks more like self-hatred, self-judgment. How does one know the difference?
Conviction is more than awareness. Sometimes, our friends’ or family’s comments, something our boss says, or the Sunday sermon might activate a movement in our hearts. We weigh up what we are doing, thinking, saying, or those things we fail to do, think, or say.
If there is real sin, awareness is only part one: conviction comes next. Jesus sent the Helper to his disciples, saying “and when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment because the ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:8-11). The Helper will convict.
When someone is convicted of a crime, he is tried in court and exonerated or convicted. He is responsible for the crime, or he is not responsible. A judge says, “You committed this crime, you must take responsibility.”
When I’m convicted by the Spirit, Christ has brought my sin to light, and I am responsible, but when it comes to sentencing, the worldly paradigm reminds us of how much Christ has done for us.
Why Does Conviction Cause Grief?
How will I know if I am truly convicted? Conviction causes grief because we realize what it cost the Lord to pay for our sin. Sentencing came down for our treason, and Christ stepped in to take it for us.
Conviction of sin should mean we hate our sin, and this leads to repentance. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
I read something by one of the Puritan writers that said we need to truly sit at the cross for a while, not self-indulgently, or self-pityingly, but humbly, and think about its implications. Not just at Easter, but every time we face our sin.
It’s important to let it sink in that Christ paid for us with his life, enduring a death unlike any that the Christian will ever experience. Yes, we might be tortured for our faith or, at the very least, ridiculed, and ostracized, but God will never forsake us. The point at which he cried out against his suffering was this: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
John Piper described sin this way: it is “a mindset that prefers other things more than God, and therefore sin exchanges God for created things. And therefore, sin belittles God, demeans God, is rebellious against God.” This should bring us to our knees in a posture of real grief for what he went through, but we must not stay there. If we stay there, we don’t understand the gospel.
What Is Guilt?
Sometimes we feel guilty because we were caught doing something, not because the thing was bad in itself. We still like doing that thing and would have continued if not for the penalty: being fired; going to bed without supper; losing a relationship; jail time.
The behavior doesn’t grieve us. We aren’t saddened by the potential cost of what we did wrong or failed to do right. Even if we decide to be “good” and change our ways, we only change our behaviors — our hearts don’t change at all.
Feeling guilty is not a suitable offering to God. It’s a slap in the face.
Guilt replaces the truth of God’s Word with Satan’s lies. We’re not good enough (true) but Christ is enough, full stop, and he loves us fully where we are. Guilt sends us plummeting backward where shame dwells under the dark waters of our past, like a many-tentacled monster waiting to devour us. Guilt is poison.
Guilt does not invite change, leaves no room for mercy, and yearns for unaffordable, unattainable love, acceptance, perfection based on constantly shifting human standards. It’s slavery.
In that case, why not continue to find temporary solace in that guilt-inducing habit you feel so bad about? The hopelessness of guilt sucks us back into our sin unless we fill that vacuum with something better.
Us Vs. Christ
The only liberating option, which also acknowledges what Jesus did for us is to follow the unchanging, risen Christ. Conviction leads us to our resurrected Savior whereas guilt would see us buried alive.
Conviction leads to repentance, which means we hate our sin and turn away from it, at least for a time. At least we know we can try because Christ has gone ahead and invites us to follow him. If we fall down, he waits for us to get up, pick the stones out of our knees, and keep moving. If we have to stop and cry a little, take a sip of water, he’ll wait.
Romans 3:22-23 assures us of “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We can’t get it right and we are not expected to. All of us — even the kindest person you know, today or in history — is/was a sinner just like you and me.
Thinking about how to be a better person in one’s own right leads to self-focus and self-salvation — even self-glorification in a twisted way, especially when we hate ourselves so much that others make an idol out of saving us.
We know we can’t save ourselves or others. Guilt and shame are reminders that we’re riddled with holes only Jesus can fill. Satan loves it when we take our eyes off of Jesus and look at our holes instead; or at someone else’s holes and try to save people with affirmation and kind words that don’t point them to Jesus.
Like that guy on the suspension bridge who’s doing just fine until someone says “don’t look down. You can do it!” Now, instead of focusing on the direction in front of him, and getting across the bridge (positive movement), this bridge-walker is fixated on the chasm beneath him and on not falling into it (negative, stalled).
Self-Hatred Is Also Sin
Paul wrote, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Yet, we insist on torturing ourselves with self-hatred. This says that God’s opinion isn’t as good as mine.
It’s not as truthful, not as reliable, not as worthy as mine. It says that I don’t trust and obey God. He said that I am his own child, co-heir, and friend, but I spit in his face when I argue “you don’t know how bad I am!”
If you have slipped back into a pattern of sin from which the Lord wants to free you, self-hatred is not a worthy sacrifice. Self-hatred is a rejection of the price already paid by Christ. The Lord loves us in spite of our best-hidden sins.
Let that sink in, not to cause guilt, but to convict you of persistent doubt regarding Christ’s love. He saved you once. He saved you for all time. He wants you to rest in and follow Him. Don’t look down, or you’ll fall down. Move forward.
Self-Hatred Won’t Change Anything
James 1:17 declares that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” The most treasured gift is Christ himself, who hates our sin, and we should hate it too, but he never hates the sinner, so why should we?
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.