Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD.  And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,  maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. …
Exodus 34:5-7 NIV
One of the first ways that God describes himself is “gracious.”
Grace is a big part of God’s character, but I have misunderstood it for a long time. I’ve always thought “gracious” simply means God is forgiving, but I was wrong—well, partly wrong.
Forgiveness is an aspect of God’s gracious heart, but there is even more to it:
When God describes his own personal character as gracious toward all human beings, he’s saying he sees us as treasures, he delights in us, and he is giving good life to everyone.
The Bible Project Team, “What’s the Meaning of God’s Grace in the Bible?”
Stop right there.
I certainly don’t see myself as a “treasure,” nor do I believe God feels that way about me. I am constantly bombarded by reminders of my failures. Just this morning, when I slowed down to try to get in touch with my emotions, all I could think about was how many things I did wrong yesterday:
- I shouldn’t have snapped at my husband, and I really shouldn’t have done it in front of someone else. But I also shouldn’t be so concerned about what other people think.
- I should have stopped sooner when my daughter needed help instead of making her wait.
- I should have been nicer to my friend as she was telling me that story.
- I shouldn’t have eaten so much.
- I should have gone to bed earlier.
All of these thoughts make me feel guilty. Some of this guilt is appropriate, caused by a sinful decision (i.e. snapping at my husband), while some of it isn’t. It’s not necessarily sinful that I didn’t drop everything to help my daughter right when she wanted it, but it still made me feel guilty.
Guilt—whether appropriate or not—fills me with shame and makes me want to hide from God because I think he’s going to be disappointed or even angry. I know that God promises to forgive my sins because of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, but I fear that he feels like a weary parent, sighing as he bails me out yet again.
This is the nature of guilt. It swirls around us like a dark stormcloud, battering us with negative thoughts about ourselves and God.
Even though our inner thoughts may condemn us with storms of guilt and constant reminders of our failures, we can know in our hearts that in His presence God Himself is greater than any accusation. He knows all things.
1 John 3:19-20 Voice
Luckily, God is greater than any accusation in our heads. In his grace, he loves to give out the free gift of forgiveness and freedom from guilt:
… all have sinned and continually fall short of the glory of God,  and are being justified [declared free of the guilt of sin, made acceptable to God, and granted eternal life] as a gift by His [precious, undeserved] grace, through the redemption [the payment for our sin] which is [provided] in Christ Jesus,
Romans 3:23-24 AMP
When I was a kid, my grandpa would take my sisters and me to K-Mart every time we visited him so that we could pick out any toy we wanted. There was never any question in my mind as to whether we deserved these gifts. Even as kids, we knew we hadn’t earned anything. My grandpa took us because of who he was and who we were to him—he treasured us, and he loved to give us gifts no matter what we did. His love for us was completely free and completely unearned.
This picture of my grandpa helps me understand God’s grace. God showers grace on us freely because he delights in us. Forgiveness and freedom are two of the gifts he wants to give us because of his gracious heart. To experience them, I am learning that I need to rethink four key things about guilt, grace, and God:
- Guilt isn’t always obvious.
- God is bigger than my guilty conscience.
- Guilt revealed is guilt that can be healed.
- Grace turns guilt into gratitude.
In this devotional, we’ll touch on each of these four truths so that we can read the Bible with a greater understanding of the grace of God and experience the freedom and forgiveness he wants to give us.
Guilt isn’t always obvious
I don’t feel I have done anything wrong. But that doesn’t mean I’m not guilty. The Lord judges me.
1 Corinthians 4:4 NIrV
Sometimes, I have missed out on the freedom and forgiveness of God because I didn’t realize I was feeling guilty. Some emotions, like anger and fear, are obvious to us right away. But guilt is considered a “complex emotion,” meaning it takes self-reflection to know we are feeling it. We might be weighed down by guilt without even realizing what’s happening.
The Bible tells us that we can be unaware of our guilt for a few key reasons. First, sin is deceitful (Hebrews 3:13). It lies to us, telling us we have done nothing wrong and therefore have nothing to feel guilty about. Second, we can sear our conscience by ignoring it so much that it stops nagging us (1 Timothy 4:2). Third, guilt can be so overwhelming that we hide it even from ourselves. We harden our hearts so that we don’t have to feel its weight. We become what the Bible describes as “bold and unfeeling,” trying not to let anything affect us.
A wicked man puts on the bold, unfeeling face [of guilt] …
Proverbs 21:29 AMPC
It’s important to note that some of the guilt we hide could be false guilt. Feeling guilty doesn’t necessarily mean we did anything wrong (more on that later). We could be blaming ourselves for things that aren’t our fault, or we could be holding onto a mistake we should have let go of a long time ago, but we’ll never know if we keep our guilt buried under the surface.
Here are a few signs and symptoms that we might be carrying guilt without realizing it:
1. We have a quick temper.
An angry person causes arguments, and someone who is quick-tempered is guilty of many sins.
Proverbs 29:22 ERV
2. We feel burdened.
For my guilty deeds have gone over my head; Like a heavy burden they weigh too much for me.
Psalm 38:4 NASB
3. We deny our mistakes.
But still, you say, ‘I am innocent. God is not angry with me.’ So I will also judge you guilty of lying, because you say, ‘I have done nothing wrong.’
Jeremiah 2:35 ERV
4. We can see other people’s faults but not our own.
“Do not judge [others self-righteously], and you will not be judged; do not condemn [others when you are guilty and unrepentant], and you will not be condemned [for your hypocrisy].
Luke 6:37 AMP
5. We have low faith.
Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked.
1 Timothy 1:19 NLT
6. We live for pleasure and ignore deeper pain.
With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. They have no sense of shame. They live for lustful pleasure and eagerly practice every kind of impurity.
Ephesians 4:17-19 NLT
These symptoms don’t always mean we are carrying guilt, but they could. God wants to give us freedom and forgiveness from any guilt that is weighing us down, so it’s better to look for it than to deny the possibility it could be there.
One area in which my guilt isn’t obvious to me is in my marriage. After we had been married for a few years, my husband and I felt incredibly distant, and we didn’t know why. I could see his faults clearly; he seemed moody and unmotivated, and nothing would cheer him up.
I felt everything in the list above. I was irritated easily, burdened by not knowing what was wrong, unaware of any faults on my part yet clear on my husband’s issues, low in faith, and living for pleasure. My husband and I planned all kinds of fun trips to try to find the happiness that was evading us, but nothing worked. The weight of our distance and unhappiness followed us like a black cloud.
Finally, God led us to some spiritual friends who helped us see truths about our marriage that we weren’t aware of. My husband felt hurt because I valued my job performance and people’s approval much more than anything else in my life, including him. I would ignore him, and if something went wrong at work, it controlled the mood of our house. My husband couldn’t get through to me even when he tried; he was resentful, angry, and discouraged, and that’s why he seemed “moody.”
I hadn’t felt guilty in this situation, but I was guilty of selfish ambition and unfaithfulness. Becoming aware of these sins helped me see that I had been treating God the same way I was treating my husband. I cared much more about other people than God, and I realized that this must be hurtful to him because he cared so much about me. I remember taking walks and talking to God about this, apologizing for my sins, and then finding freedom from my guilt in his promises of forgiveness.
Taking responsibility for my sins and turning to God helped me find closeness with my husband too. Instead of ignoring or denying my own guilt in our relationship, I was able to own it and appreciate forgiveness both from him and God.
It may be tempting to avoid the self-reflection needed to identify guilt in our lives, but guilt will affect us whether we choose to be aware of it or not. When we recognize our guilt and let it lead us to God, he can free us from it and heal our relationships with him and others.
Pause and reflect
- How do I handle guilt in my life? Why?
God is bigger than my guilty conscience.
Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.
1 John 3:20 NLT
God is greater than our feelings, and guilt is a feeling. That means we can’t always trust that our feelings of guilt (or lack thereof, see the last point) are telling us the truth.
As I mentioned earlier, some guilt we carry is false; we haven’t actually done anything wrong, but our conscience can’t always tell the difference between real and false guilt. Both types of guilt feel the same.
Should we ignore our conscience then? No. False guilt will hurt our spiritual and emotional lives in the same way that true guilt does, and God wants to free us from it. It will fill us with shame and make us want to hide from God and others.
I usually assume that any feelings of guilt mean I did something wrong, but that’s not always true. For example, during the pandemic, I felt guilty for letting my daughter watch a lot more TV than I otherwise would have. In that situation, my feelings of guilt were false; I was trying to care for my daughter and work my job the best I could. Talking through my feelings with friends helped me see that the guilty feelings I had were based on unrealistic expectations for myself rather than actual harm.
It’s important to understand that God is bigger than our conscience so that we still come close to him when we feel guilty. Guilt makes me feel like a failure who is unworthy of love. I lose any desire to pray because I’m afraid of rejection and I know I don’t deserve an audience with God.
In these moments, I need to remember that God’s voice is not the same as the voice of my guilty conscience.
Whenever our hearts make us feel guilty and remind us of our failures, we know that God is much greater and more merciful than our conscience, and he knows everything there is to know about us.
1 John 3:20 TPT
Even when my guilt comes from things I legitimately did wrong, God is greater and more merciful than my own conscience. He created a plan to send Jesus to take that guilt away.
In addition to our own guilty consciences, the Bible tells us that spiritual forces of evil accuse us day and night, constantly reminding us of our wrongdoing. Satan, the name given to the devil in the Bible, literally means “Accuser.” One of the key ways he attacks our faith in God is accusing us (Job 1:6 NLT), reminding us of our failures (Revelation 12:10 NIV), and making us doubt God’s love and forgiveness:
Then the angel showed me Jeshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD. The Accuser, Satan, was there at the angel’s right hand, making accusations against Jeshua.  And the LORD said to Satan, “I, the LORD, reject your accusations, Satan. Yes, the LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebukes you. This man is like a burning stick that has been snatched from the fire.”  Jeshua’s clothing was filthy as he stood there before the angel.  So the angel said to the others standing there, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And turning to Jeshua he said, “See, I have taken away your sins, and now I am giving you these fine new clothes.”
Zechariah 3:1-4 NLT
Satan’s goal in these accusations is to isolate us from God and others. He wants us to feel ashamed so that we keep a distance from God (Genesis 3:4-10).
Regardless of whether Satan’s accusations are true or not, we need to know that God rejects them. Even if we do have the “filthy clothes” of sin covering us, God can make us clean. The key is not even to decide whether or not we should be guilty, but to take that guilt to God so he can free us from it.
Turning to the truth of the Bible and talking with spiritual friends about our guilt allows us to get an accurate perspective and let go of the guilt that has been weighing on us.
Pause and reflect
- What accusations have been loudest for me lately?
- Whose voice do I listen to most—the voice of God, or the voice of my guilty conscience?
- What would it look like for me to reject Satan’s accusations the way God does?
Guilt revealed is guilt that can be healed
Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.
James 5:16 NLT
God wants us to reveal our guilt to him and each other so that we can be healed! I usually think that admitting my sins to people will be a painful and embarrassing process. In fact, as soon as I realize I have done something wrong, I immediately dread anyone finding out about it.
It can be uncomfortable to reveal our guilt, especially when it involves harm to another person, but any sin we reveal is a sin that we (and others) can find healing from. Confessing our sins to others brings more prayer into our lives, which in turn leads to healing from God.
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
1 John 1:7 NIV
As difficult as it may be to believe, walking in the light is what brings close fellowship into our lives and purifies us from sin through the blood of Jesus. Hiding a sin in the darkness only makes us lonely, distances our relationships, and keeps our guilt alive.
Fools make fun of guilt, but the godly acknowledge it and seek reconciliation.
Proverbs 14:9 NLT
Guilt can be so painful that it’s very tempting to make light of it, dismiss it, or otherwise “make fun” of it. But the wiser and more godly response is to acknowledge it and let it lead us to relationships that will help us reconcile it. People can’t remove our guilt—only God can (see Psalm 32:5)—but spiritual friends can help us turn to God to find the freedom and forgiveness we are looking for.
This applies to healing from not only sin but also false guilt that plagues us. Putting our guilt into the light – regardless of whether we should feel it or not – is what sets us on the path toward healing.
Pause and reflect
- How do I feel about revealing my sins? Why?
- What are some relationships that need healing in my life? How could taking responsibility for my sins in those relationships help?
Grace turns guilt into gratitude.
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.  Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.
Romans 3:23-24 NLT
Sometimes, I can accept that God is merciful, but I think he might be a little tired of extending that forgiveness to me. I worry that as I come to him with a guilty heart, he thinks, “Again??” God will forgive me, but I feel so inadequate that I think he must not like me very much.
This is where grace comes in. Grace is a big topic to cover, but it’s key to understanding God’s desire to set us free from guilt and have a close relationship with us:
In Exodus 34, God has set the Israelites free from slavery, and in that freedom, he also made an agreement with them. But the people violate the terms of this agreement almost immediately. Subverting our expectations, God responds to this rebellion with grace — big time. He describes himself as kind, compassionate, slow to anger, and gracious. In this moment, God is telling his people that he favors them, even still. When we rebel and choose our ways over God’s, he is for us, and the grace of God compels him to love without end.
The Bible celebrates this attribute of God, his graciousness, the consistent favor he shows toward humanity. We can trust God’s grace toward us, and we can feel empowered to ask it of him.
The Bible Project Team, “What Is God’s Grace? Explore Its Hebrew Meaning in the Bible.”
There’s a lot said here, but there are two main takeaways for me:
- Grace means that God is for me, even when I rebel.
- Grace compels us to love God without end. It draws us close to him and makes our sinful temptations less appealing.
Let us praise God for his glorious grace, for the free gift he gave us in his dear Son!  For by the blood of Christ we are set free, that is, our sins are forgiven. How great is the grace of God,  which he gave to us in such large measure!
Ephesians 1:6-8 GNT
When we feel guilty, we can draw near to God by remembering that he wants to give us the gift of grace. It’s not something we can earn, no matter how hard we try. He loves us so much that he desires to be close to us more than anything, and to fill our lives with good things.
Grace and gratitude
Although God is for us even when we rebel against him, grace should not be used as a free pass to do whatever we want. A true understanding of God’s grace motivates us to say no to sin before we do it. When we see God’s generous heart and his desire to fill our lives with good things, we won’t take his grace for granted. His grace will draw us closer to him, reassuring us that he wants to fill our lives with good things and giving us the power to say “No” to sinful temptations.
Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace?  Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?  Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death?  For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.
Romans 6:1-4 NLT
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.  It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,
Titus 2:11-12 NIV
Our gratitude will motivate us to be close to him and help other people experience this same grace:
She has been forgiven of all her many sins. This is why she has shown me such extravagant love. But those who assume they have very little to be forgiven will love me very little.”
Luke 7:47 TPT
A guilt-driven heart—whether it’s driven to avoid guilt or to fixate on it—can never love the way this woman loved. She had a lot of reasons to be held back by guilt, but she was able to let go of it because her focus was on God’s grace rather than her own sin. This led to extravagant love. An understanding of how deeply God loves us and delights in us is crucial to loving others with the same depth.
God’s grace is an incredible part of who he is; it reveals his heart to treasure us no matter how we behave or perform. Understanding God’s grace is key to understanding and drawing close to him. It helps us resolve feelings of guilt—both true and false—that plague us and make us want to distance ourselves from him. When storms of guilt surround us, we can find freedom and forgiveness by remembering that God is bigger than our guilty conscience, guilt revealed is guilt that can be healed, and grace turns guilt into gratitude.