Distinguishing Between Healthy and Unhealthy Guilt

One of the trickier terrains to navigate in the moral world is the experience of guilt, in its sense of sorrow for sin.

On the one hand, we should experience an appropriate for sorrow, but on the other there are types of guilt that are self-destructive and inauthentic; these come either from our flesh or from the devil. Some forms of guilt can cause great harm and actually increase the frequency of sin due to the way they engender discouragement and self-disparagement rather than a chastened attitude confident of mercy, healing, and help. It is valuable to make some distinctions so that we can discern what sort of guilt is healthy and what sort is not.

St. Paul makes an important initial distinction in the Second Letter to the Corinthians. Paul had rebuked the Corinthians in an earlier letter (esp. 1 Cor 5) both for sinning and for tolerating sin their midst. Evidently his rebuke stung many of them and caused them significant sorrow. Paul writes,

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done (2 Cor 7:8-11).

Notice how Paul distinguishes between “Godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow.” The way we can distinguish them, according to Paul, is by their fruits.

Godly sorrow has these fruits:

  1. Repentance
  2. Earnestness to do what is right – the Greek word used is σπουδή (spoude), which refers also to a kind of swiftness rooted in enthusiasm.
  3. Longing for what is right – the Greek text speaks of how this Godly sorrow gave them ἐπιπόθησις (epipothesis), which is not just an eager longing but also a strong affection for what is good and just.
  4. Indignation for sin
  5. Holy fear of sin

It’s not a bad harvest, to be sure! Godly sorrow brings forth good things and will be known by its fruits. Paul goes on to say that Godly sorrow is a sorrow that God intends and that does not harm us in any way. Further, it leaves no regrets.

We might also add that Godly sorrow is rooted in love: love for God and others and our experience of God’s love for us. The sorrow is real and often quite sharp, but since it is rooted in love, it makes us run to the beloved whom we have offended, rather than from Him (as we sulk).

“Godly sorrow” would also seem to be related to perfect contrition, to which we refer in the Act of Contrition when we say, I detest all of my sins, not only because I fear the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all, because I have offended Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. Perfect contrition regards love whereas imperfect contrition is related to fear of punishment. Hence Godly sorrow would also seem to assist and increasingly to perfect contrition.

What of “worldly sorrow,” as Paul calls it? He says only that it “brings death.” Here we must surmise that whereas Godly sorrow gives life and restores relationship and love, worldly sorrow and guilt sever these things. When we have this kind of guilt or “worldly sorrow” it is not our sins that we hate so much as our own self.

In worldly sorrow, Satan has us where he wants us. Indeed, worldly sorrow is most often a fraud, for though it masquerades as humility it is often really pride, wherein a person thinks, in effect, how could I have done such a thing?

If we can know something by its fruits, then we should note that worldly sorrow often makes us run from God in avoidance rather than to Him in love. Further, it often provokes anger in us, making us resentful of God’s law and of the fact that we should have to seek mercy and humble ourselves to God or to a person whom we have offended. Rather than making us eager to repent, it often causes us to delay repentance out of embarrassment or resentment. Further, these sorts of attitudes can lead us to rationalizing our sin and minimizing its significance.

Other people go in a very different direction, one of self-loathing and despair. They may magnify what they have done or overcorrect by descending into an unhealthy scrupulosity, rooted in fear of punishment more than in the love of God.

These negative fruits, though they often masquerade as piety, tend to make sin even more frequent. If a person is self-loathing, despairing of his capacity to live in God’s love and experience His correction, then he has little strength upon which to draw. He sees only weakness and guilt, missing the love and the splendor of grace. Perceiving no basis from which to get better, he descends deeper into sin, running further from God in unholy fear; the cycle just gets deeper and darker. Thus St. Paul describes worldly sorrow as bringing death.

When one starts to see “fruits” of this sort, it is increasingly likely that it is worldly sorry, which produces all these death-directed drives. A confessor or spiritual director will often have to work long and hard to break these negative cycles and help the person to find and experience Godly sorrow, which brings with it real progress. Godly sorrow is a sorrow to be sure, but one rooted in love.

Discernment in regard to guilt, to sorrow for sin, is essential. St. Paul gives us some good principles by which to distinguish the very different sorrows, Godly and worldly: by their fruits. Satan loves cheap imitations. Wolf that he is, he loves to masquerade in sheep’s clothing. Learn to recognize Satan’s cheap, “imitation sorrow” by its fruits, which are death-directed rather than God-directed.