Week 8: Guilt and Innocence


THE BOTTOM LINE – There are two types of guilt: true guilt and false guilt. When I am truly guilty of doing wrong, God's conviction will lead me to confession and repentance. And when I am trapped by the shame and pain of false guilt, God's truth will set me free.

Law enforcement officers are immersed in issues of guilt and innocence on a daily basis. The constant drumbeat of distinguishing between right and wrong is woven into the very fabric of their everyday lives. “Who’s the perp? Who’s the victim? Did this guy break the law or not? Who needs to go to jail?”

And it’s not often easy to figure out the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Some criminals are very good at deception and skillfully cloak their guilt, while others who are innocent can appear to be guilty simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Determining guilt is complicated. But this issue is not unique to law enforcement. All of us have to deal with the confusing contrast between guilt and innocence. Especially in the case of first responders, it’s an issue we often face within ourselves.

When something goes wrong on our watch, either professionally or personally, we usually feel the need to assign blame. And we dish out that blame in two ways: by blaming ourselves or by blaming others. Someone has to be held responsible, right?

No matter who is to blame, guilt is a powerful force that can have far-reaching implications. What kind of damage is done when a wrongdoer doesn’t take responsibility for his actions? Or, on the flip side, what kind of life is lived by a person who believes he is guilty when in fact he is innocent?

THE EFFECTS OF GUILT

Why did he die while I survived?”
“Why didn’t I respond faster?”
“How could I have done that?”

If left unchecked, these feelings of unresolved guilt can trap us in the past and lock us in an endless loop of questions, leading to self-abuse and disgust. We can’t bear to look at ourselves in the mirror – and when we do, we see someone who fell short. We feel like we didn’t live up to our commitments. We all make mistakes, and we all sin. But somehow our emotional responses to both end up in the same bucket, looking and feeling the same. Have you ever asked yourself where feelings of guilt come from?

What is the purpose of guilt? The roots of guilt in our lives will bear fruit, maybe good, maybe bad. Remember the tree illustration from Week 2? Our fruit depends on our roots. Sometimes the guilt we feel will lead to a better life, but other times it will lock us up in shame. An unhealthy guilt root often causes us to reject help from others because we believe we deserve to feel as terrible as we do. It’s almost as if we are self-imposing a sentence that punishes us with isolation and depression.

And guilt doesn’t travel alone. It usually carries with it self-criticism, shame, and regret, all designed to demoralize. These knots of complicated emotions are not easily untied. It’s why guilt is so dangerous if used for harm or manipulation. Satan uses the complexity of guilt to his advantage in order to deceive us into a life of condemnation.

The word “condemnation” literally means to be sentenced to punishment. 

Have you ever felt like you are being punished or are punishing yourself for your past? The key to unlocking your guilt is to identify which type of guilt you are experiencing. We experience one type when we have truly done something wrong – it’s called conviction. The other type is the counterfeit feeling we get when we haven’t done anything wrong, but we think we have – it’s called false guilt. Let’s examine these two types of guilt.

CONVICTION (TRUE GUILT)

God runs a tight ship. There are absolutes. There is right and wrong. There are laws that keep the universe and society running properly. If you break a law, it will break you. For example, one such law called gravity dictates that if you jump out of an airplane, you will go down fast, land hard, and hurt all over. Every time. That is, unless there is another law that supersedes it, such as the law of the parachute. This principle is true in our relationship with God, too.

Isaiah 59:2 tells us, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear.”

The big heaven-or-hell eternal separation issue is dealt with through the death and resurrection of Jesus when we put our faith in Him. In this case, the law of forgiveness supercedes the law of judgment. But for all of us – even Christians – we are still able to experience a level of anxiety when we sin. Every sin we commit produces some level of separation between us and God. That’s what true guilt is all about. God allows these feelings of guilt because He doesn’t want us to feel comfortable when you’re separated from Him.

Guilt is meant to make us feel uneasy and send us back to Him for forgiveness and reconciliation. As you look back over your experiences as a first responder, or even your life outside of your career, you may have done some things that were real, definite, no doubt about it sins. You may have broken some of the “Top Ten” – the Ten Commandments given to us by God, found in Exodus 20. And perhaps the memories of those experiences bother you a lot. If that’s the case, that’s good! Not good that you sinned, but good that you know you sinned – that you feel conviction. It means that God’s getting through to you and trying to motivate you to get things right with Him.

When we come to this point and are ready to do something about it, there are two steps we need to take: The first step is confession.

The word “confess” comes from a Greek word that means “to say the same thing as.” Through the Holy Spirit, God tells you what you have done wrong, as in, “John, you stole that money.” Your response is to confess by saying the same thing: “Yes, it’s true. I stole that money and I agree it was wrong. Please forgive me.” 1 John 1:9 gives us a great promise concerning this: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The second step is repentance, which means to stop, turn around, and go the opposite direction.

It’s like God’s internal alarm system telling us that we are out of bounds and that we need to do a 180. Just like a good watch commander is supremely focused on your safety and well-being, God wants the best for us. When we have wandered into danger and cut ourselves off from His backup, He takes action to alert us to our peril and persuade us to get back to safety.

Conviction leads to repentance, and repentance, in its truest form, is the absolute recognition that Jesus is Lord.1 It is a change of mind. It isn’t merely changing your actions. It’s changing your actions because of the new mindset you have about Jesus and His authority in your life. Sometimes, even when we feel convicted of sin, Satan tries to offer shortcuts to our actual repentance with substitute actions.

Have you ever experienced any of the following?

  • Feeling sorry about your sin (or sorry that you got caught)
  • Responding to a church altar call
  • Getting more “religious” and working hard to “make it up” to Jesus
  • ÏPartially surrendering a segment of your life until things settle down and you can resume control

The reason Satan uses these substitutes is because they are quite convincing. Feeling sorry can be a good thing, but tears alone don’t wash away sins. In fact, for some of us, the tears we shed are actually more of a sign of embarrassment or shame than they are of true guilt. Emotional moments aren’t bad, and they may make us feel better, but they don’t necessarily reestablish our trust and reliance on the Lord.

Repentance is an act of the will. It’s less about stopping the sin and more about starting to follow Jesus.

When you do that, He not only forgives you, but also works with you to stop the sin – which is what both you and God want. FALSE GUILT There’s a second type of guilt, though. 2 Corinthians 7:10 tells us, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”

Did you catch that? One type of guilt, “Godly sorrow,” or what we just called conviction, brings life. But there is another type, “worldly sorrow,” that brings death. This is known as false guilt. It’s important to know which kind of guilt you are feeling, because conviction requires repentance, but false guilt certainly does not. During this week’s session, we’re going to take a look at the traps of false guilt – the dead end feelings of anxiety and regret that come after a traumatic incident over which we had no control. In a situation where things went wrong and people were hurt, maybe you think, “Somebody’s got to take the blame, so I guess that person is me.” Satan loves when we give him this blank check of false guilt. It’s like we’re saying, “Yeah, there’s no legitimate evidence to convict me, but I’ll take the fall. I plead guilty, so go ahead and lock me up.”

There is no logic behind it, but we fall into that mindset so easily, don’t we? It’s especially tempting for those who have a strong sense of personal responsibility, like many first responders. What does false guilt look like, and how do we free ourselves from it? Let’s dig into it together.


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