Guilt and Repentance: The Healthy Way to Deal with Remorse

As sinful human beings we are all guilty of violating God’s commands and the good harmony He created for us to enjoy.  Romans 3:23 says: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

After we sin and realize the harm we have inflicted upon ourselves or others we often feel guilty about what we have done. Feelings of guilt can be a sign of a healthy conscience. They are often our first indicators that we have done something wrong. Sometimes this recognition of our guilt can be devastating to us as we realize a measure of what we’ve lost or destroyed through our sin.

Such overwhelming and crushing guilt can be experienced by unbelievers and believers in Jesus alike.

For unbelievers who are dealing with crippling feelings of guilt, we offer scriptures that affirm God’s love for you in the Gift of His son Jesus. If you are an unbeliever who is struggling with guilt, know that there is no sin so terrible or prolific that it could ever place you out of the reach of God’s everlasting mercy and omnipotent grace:

“Behold, the LORD’s hand is not so short
That it cannot save;
Nor is His ear so dull
That it cannot hear…

…‘A Redeemer will come to Zion,
And to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,’ declares the LORD.”
(Isaiah 59:1, 20)

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
(John 3:16-17)

We urge unbelievers who are dealing with guilt to believe in Jesus and receive the Gift of eternal life. To learn more about the Gift of Eternal Life please see: “What is Eternal Life? How to Gain the Gift of Eternal Life.

For believers who are dealing with feelings of guilt we offer the following thoughts, encouragements, and exhortations from the Bible.

The Greek word the New Testament uses to describe feeling guilty is μεταμέλομαι (G3338 – pronounced: “met-am-el’-lom-ai”). It is best translated as “remorse.” “Metamelomai” describes a change of emotions from feeling something positive or neutral about one’s own actions to feeling something negative about them. “Metamelomai” is feeling sorry for what you have done.

Feeling remorse/“metamelomai” about our sin is overall a good thing. But sometimes these feelings can devastating—which, believe it or not, can still be a good thing—recall Jesus’s words in the first two Beatitudes:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
(Matthew 5:3-4)

But if our feelings of guilt and remorse are dealt with in an unhealthy way they can quickly lead to deep depression and despair.

This is what happened to Judas once he realized the wrong he had done by betraying Jesus after the Lord was condemned to death,

“Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? See to that yourself!’ And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself.”
(Matthew 27:3-5)

The feelings of guilt Judas experienced are similar to the pattern we often experience whenever we give our hearts over to Satan and his lies. Satan tempts us to sin. We succumb to temptation and are deployed by him to inflict harm. Once we see, as Judas saw, the horrible consequences of our sinful behavior, we feel remorse/“metamelomai.” But feeling good or bad about our sin does not vindicate us. And just because we feel remorse for wrong we have done, it does not make us healthy or righteous (i.e. in harmony with God).

Judas felt so terrible that he tried to do something to make the awful feelings go away. This was a natural reaction. No one enjoys feeling guilty or rotten.

We too naturally desire and try to make our terrible feelings go way. We can try to make our guilty feelings disappear in an unhealthy way as Judas did to no avail, or we can seek God’s mercy and help and be healed.

Dealing with feelings of guilt in an unhealthy way can look like:

  • Ignoring or suppressing them
  • Drowning them with alcohol or other substances
  • Distracting ourselves from them with pleasures or ambitions
  • Justifying ourselves through self-affirming thoughts
  • Proving ourselves with self-righteous behavior
  • Judging others for their shortcomings

None of these methods provide the relief we need. At best they can numb and sear our conscience, by blinding us to reality, but they do not restore our soul to life.

The healthy way to respond to feeling remorse/“metamelomai” is as follows:

  1. Take it Captive.
  2. Confess it.
  3. Repent of it.
  4. Receive God’s Mercy.
  5. Make Restitution (when possible)
  1. Take it Captive

“We are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”
(2 Corinthians 10:5b)

Remorse is an emotion. Like any emotion, it is an unreliable indicator about reality that should be investigated according to God’s Word and Spirit. We can feel guilt for any number of reasons—some of which are legitimate and because of our sin; some of which may be false-guilt that the devil uses to keep us in bondage. By taking our feelings of remorse captive to the obedience of Christ in prayer and measuring it according to God’s word, we can discern if it is legitimate guilt to be confessed and repented of, or if it is false guilt to be dismissed.

An effective way to deal with emotions is to follow the acronym L.I.D.D. This stands for:

  • Listen: hear what your emotions are saying. They are telling you “action is needed.”  Do not take action yet though. Emotions are reliable “sentries” but they are reactive, and are not reliable to suggest the best actions.
  • Investigate: reflect on what is causing your emotions to trigger—what value is being violated, and what is the cause of the violation? Taking time to reflect allows the emotions to die down, and prevents you from making a poor, reactive choice.
  • Decide: make a decision of what action to take based on your values. Be true to what is true.
  • Dismiss: thank your emotions for doing their “sentry job” and release them from “deciding-what-to-do” duty.

Taking our emotions captive to the obedience of Christ encapsulates both the “L”-Listen and “I”-Investigate of L.I.D.D.

  1. Confession

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
(1 John 1:9)

Whenever we realize we have guilt (i.e. feel remorse/“metamelomai” and verify it according to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), confession is the next step towards true healing. Confession is getting into factual reality.

Everyone has sin. “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). If you sin, you are not alone—in fact you are in the company of every other person in the world.

The Greek word the New Testament most often uses for “confess” is ὁμολογέω (G3670 – pronounced: “hom-ol-og-eh’-ō”). This word literally means to “speak the same” or “agree.” Confession of sin is our personal agreeing with God about the wrong we have done. The type of confession in regard to guilt is our agreement with God’s perspective that we are guilty—that what we have been doing is sinful and wrong.

  1. Repentance

“If… My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
(2 Chronicles 7:13-14)

The third step towards true healing from guilt is repentance. The Greek word the New Testament most often uses for “repentance” is μετάνοια (G3341 – pronounced “met-ahn-oy-ah”). “Metanoia” is a change of mind or perspective, which leads to a change of direction or behavior described in 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 and Matthew 3:8.

“Metanoia” (repentance) goes beyond “metamelomai” (remorse). Remorse is an undirected change of feeling. Repentance is a conscious and deliberate decision to change one’s perspective and behavior. Stated succinctly: remorse is felt, repentance is decided.

Repentance encapsulates the “D”-Decide of L.I.D.D.

“Metanoia” (repentance) goes beyond “homologehō” (confession). Confession rightly agrees with God that what we have done was sinful and bad. Repentance exchanges our old way of thinking about what was good with God’s true perspective about what is good. Confession deals in thoughts and words. Repentance deals in thoughts, words, and behavior.

We repent (change our mind and our behavior) so that we might participate in life with God (Luke 13:3; John 10:10) instead of remaining a slave to our sin which always leads to death (Romans 6:23).

God designed moral cause-effect into His creation, just as He designed physical cause-effect. We can try to defy gravity, but we will still hit the ground. In the same way, we can try to defy moral gravity, but we will still feel the effects. We want to make choices that are consistent with God’s direction because He marks out the way for us that leads us to actual fulfillment. The world promises life/fulfillment, but delivers death, which is separation from God’s good design.

  1. Receive God’s Mercy

“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.”

After we have taken our feelings of guilt and remorse captive to the obedience of Christ, confessed our sin, and repented of it, we are forgiven and “cleansed of all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We are restored to intimacy and fellowship with God. We are now free from the hinderances of sin between us and Jesus. We are free from carrying the heavy burdens of guilt and remorse. We are free to live as He has called us to live. God’s mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).

Receiving God’s Mercy encapsulates the “D-Dismiss” in L.I.D.D.

Note: Being forgiven does not mean that we are absolved of facing the other consequences of our sin—being forgiven by God means that our sin is no longer a barrier hindering our fellowship with Him (Matthew 6:14-15).

  1. Restitution (when possible)

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”
(Romans 12:18)

The effects of our sin often harm other people. It is good to acknowledge the harm we have done, take responsibility for it, and seek to make amends when possible. This could mean confessing and repenting to any people you have wronged whenever they are ready to hear and receive your repentance. Sometimes they may not be in a place where they are able to hear this from you. In such situations, we should respect the reality that we can only make choices for ourselves, not for others.

This also could mean restoring or “paying back” any damages your sin may have caused. The repentant tax-collector Zacchaeus sought to make restitution (Luke 19:8). Sometimes there is nothing in your power to make these kinds of amends.

The restitution principle is to offer and/or do what you are able to do to make things right.

If we follow these five Biblical steps whenever we feel guilty, God promises us that He will be faithful to restore us into a harmony of fellowship with Him and His kingdom (1 John 1:7).

Finally, we recommend David’s Psalm 51 as a scripture to meditate upon for anyone who is struggling with devastating feelings of guilt. David composed this psalm in the depths of remorse after his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah was exposed.

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