From the Director’s Chair: Good Guilt

We are wired to maximize good feelings and minimize the bad ones.  Guilt is a case in point.  But guilt can be a good thing — if what it does is draw us into deeper communion with God.  Psalm 32 provides an excellent sketch of the experience:

1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,

whose sin is covered.

2 Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,

and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away

through my groaning all day long.

4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

my strength was dried up* as by the heat of summer.


5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you,

and I did not hide my iniquity;

I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’,

and you forgave the guilt of my sin.


6 Therefore let all who are faithful

offer prayer to you;

at a time of distress,* the rush of mighty waters

shall not reach them.

7 You are a hiding-place for me;

you preserve me from trouble;

you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.


Good guilt is emotionally unpleasant.  The Psalmist doesn’t describe it “head on,” but the emotions are here in vivid imagery: “my body wasted away through my groaning all day long…your hand was heavy upon me…my strength was dried up.”

Good guilt isn’t just about what we feel.  It is about:

  • the misuse of the freedom we have been given,
  • the violation of what we know to be the will of God
  • and about the need for confession and the amendment of life (i.e., repentance)

It has an objective character that isn’t just about the emotions we experience, but about the “fact” of the distance between the lives we live, and God’s will for us.  That’s an important corrective in a culture where we are wired to maximize good feelings and minimize the bad ones.

The goal of the spiritual life is intimacy with God. And when we live in intimacy with God, we learn that God loves us better than we love ourselves and we are meant for glory.  Good guilt alerts us to the fact that our choices have put that intimacy at risk — or, put another way, the lives we are living lead to a counterfeit glory that will rob us of the genuine article.

God is not “laying a guilt on us.”

It is not the nature of God to traffic in guilt.

Guilt isn’t even God’s doing, it’s ours.

And it isn’t a place where God wants us to live perpetually.

It is temporary.

It is meant to alert us to danger.

And with confession and amendment of life, it gives way to freedom and peace.

That’s a good thing.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.