Does the feeling of guilt serve a purpose? If so, what is it?
Dictionary.com defines guilt as a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined. Does the feeling of guilt serve a purpose? Of course it does. Actually, the feeling of guilt can serve two purposes. One is productive and good, while the other is unproductive and damaging.
God gives each of us a conscience, which is a part of our heart and soul. “Even when Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, instinctively follow what the law says, they show that in their hearts they know right from wrong. They demonstrate that God’s law is written within them, for their own consciences either accuse them or tell them they are doing what is right.” (Romans 2:14-15 NLT)
It’s our conscience that cries out, giving us that “guilty feeling”, and preventing us from doing wrong. This is a good thing, because if we didn’t have a conscience, which creates that feeling of guilt, there would be nothing to stop us from lying, cheating, stealing or killing.
It also serves a good purpose after we have committed a sin or crime, because that feeling of guilt is hard to live with. Guilt won’t allow us to rest after we’ve committed a sin or a crime, until we confess and try to right the wrong we’ve done. And that same “guilty feeling” exists to hopefully prevent us from repeating that sin.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “Not everybody feels guilt. What about a sociopath?” And you’re right, but scripture explains this as well. You see, the truth about God is written on everyone’s heart, and they instinctively know the truth, but many deny this. They choose to exchange the truth of God for a lie, and God doesn’t force anyone to serve Him, so He has given those who have hardened their hearts over to whatever shameful deeds they come up with in their minds and their hearts. These people feel no guilt for their actions, because they have become hardened to that feeling.
The other purpose for guilt comes not from God, but from the devil himself. You see, while God uses that “guilty feeling” to prevent us from doing wrong, the devil perverts that feeling and turns it into condemnation. I’m sure we’ve all experienced that at one time or another in our lives. As I said before, that “guilty feeling” is good when it prevents us from doing wrong, but what about when that guilt turns into condemnation? What about when you’ve repented of your sin and asked God for forgiveness, but you just can’t forgive yourself?
This is not of God, and it serves no good purpose. Rather, the purpose of this kind of guilt is to destroy you. One of my favorite scriptures is, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1 NKJV) After I’ve confessed my sins to God, and turned away from them, and if I’ve gone to the person that I’ve harmed and asked for his/her forgiveness, I should feel no more “guilt.” If I do feel that “guilty feeling” still, I can be sure that it’s not guilt I’m feeling, but condemnation, or false guilt, and that isn’t from God.
Therefore, in conclusion, yes, the feeling of guilt does serve a purpose, and that purpose is to prevent us from sinning against God, thereby harming others and ourselves. The feeling of false guilt also serves a purpose, designed by the devil, to condemn us and weigh us down.