May 12, 2023

Can Guilt Be a Good Thing?

R.C. Sproul
Can Guilt Be a Good Thing?

When we violate God’s law, an uncomfortable feeling of guilt creeps up. Today, R.C. Sproul helps us understand that the pain of guilt acts as a warning sign that can help prevent us from becoming numb to sinning against God.


I remember meeting with a college co-ed, a senior in college, when I was teaching on a university campus, and this young lady asked to have an appointment for counseling. And she came to me, and she was very distressed. And she explained that she had recently been engaged and that she and her fiancé were involved in premarital sexual activity.

And she said to me, “And I feel so guilty.” She said: “I went to see the chaplain of the school, and I explained to him how guilty I was feeling. And he told me that the reason I was feeling guilty was because I was a victim of an outmoded Victorian or puritanical ethic that had a tendency to oppress us in our sexual freedom and in our right to express ourselves as mature adults. And so he counseled me to that end,” she said, “but Professor Sproul, I still feel guilty.”

And I said, “Well, you’re very fortunate.” And she said, “What do you mean fortunate?” I said: “Well, it’s a wonderful thing when you feel guilty if you are guilty. The problem is when we are guilty and don’t feel it.” I said, “The reason you feel guilty is not because of something the Puritans did or because of the legacy of Queen Victoria. The reason why you feel guilty is because you are guilty. You have violated the law of God by your own admission and by your own testimony. And all of the attempts to psychoanalyze and rationalize this guilt away, fortunately for you, have not been effective. The pain of guilt feeling is a marvelous, curative thing. Imagine what would happen to us as human beings if our physical bodies suddenly lost the capacity to feel pain. We would never be alerted to the presence of an invasive disease that could be life-threatening. As uncomfortable as the pain is, it is a warning sign, an alert to us that something is wrong.” And I said, “So you’re fortunate that you still at least have the capacity to feel guilty, because the guilt feeling is one of the things that we have become masters of eliminating.”

Think back in your own life and how you have dealt with guilt—how, if you commit a sin once, you may be overwhelmed with sickness in the pit of your stomach, a sense of personal revulsion because of what you have done. You’re sick about it literally because the weight of your guilt feelings is so enormous. But then you do it again, and the second time it’s not quite as uncomfortable.

Then you do it a third time and fourth time and a fifth time and a sixth time. And pretty soon, you can cruise along in this behavioral pattern without any feelings of guilt whatsoever. You have acquired the status that Jeremiah described when he spoke to the hardheartedness of the people of Israel when he said to them, because of their repeated transgressions of the law of God, “You have acquired the forehead of the harlot” (see Jer. 3:3). That is, you have lost your ability to blush. You have become recalcitrant. You’ve become calloused, so that now you can violate the law of God and not think anything of it. And there is where the absence of guilt feelings becomes a license to continue to sin, and to sin with the assumption that you can do so with impunity.