Have you ever felt guilty but did not know why? A mother tells her daughter who lives in another state and works full time, "You don't visit me as often as you should." The daughter feels guilty but sees no way she can take additional time off from her daily responsibilities to see her mother more frequently. A church member tells a new Christian who is working two jobs and getting far too little sleep, "You need to spend more time praying and reading the Bible each day." Good advice, but it creates unnecessary guilt.
Some people are skilled at creating false guilt and then exploiting it as real guilt. The Bible speaks to this issue: "This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God." (1 John 3:19-21)
Richard Howard addresses this verse in his book, Bible Gems for Busy People (Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1996). Howard distinguishes between conviction and condemnation. If we merely feel guilty without knowing why, we can be reasonably sure this guilt is not from God. Satan works through well-meaning people to defeat us by exploiting our self-condemnation.
But when the Holy Spirit convicts us of some wrong, it is for our good. The Spirit will be specific, showing us exactly why we feel this guilt and urging our obedience. The God who knows our hearts will not leave us in the dark.
By contrast, the devil will keep the guilt feelings vague and undefined. "We have confidence before God," John tells us, when "our heart does not condemn us." But what about the times when our heart does condemn us?
In that case, John says, the God who knows all things also knows our heart. John wants us to find assurance in that fact. The psalmist, who found such assurance, said, "You discern my thoughts from far away . . . Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely" (Psalm 139:2-4, NRSV). The truth that God knows our very thoughts is not meant to frighten or discourage us. Peter did not so regard it when on the shore of the Galilean Sea he said: "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you" (John 21:17, NRSV).
Although Peter had recently denied Jesus, he knew he was loved by the Lord who could see the penitence in his heart. If our guilt is real - if the Spirit is convicting us - He will clearly show us what the issue is. We must then correct it in repentance. But if the feeling is a vague uncertainty, with no clear basis in fact, God knows our hearts, and we can rest assured before Him.
Rob L. Staples is professor of theology emeritus at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City.