The word emotion literally means “to evoke motion” (e-motion). Thus, emotions are feelings that exert a force on the heart and the mind. They’re a combination of internal pressures that pull the levers and press the buttons of human volition. When someone feels “emotional,” a particular internal force has been set in motion.
Among the emotions, guilt is definitely one of the most powerful. Guilt can produce some serious action: building and destroying; uniting and dividing; purifying and corrupting; liberating and incarcerating.
Peter and Judas provide a helpful case study from the Bible on the two main responses to emotional guilt. Peter experienced the building, purifying, and liberating effects of godly emotional guilt, whereas Judas suffered the destroying, dividing and incarcerating consequences of worldly emotional guilt.
Two sinners, two responses, two different lives
Both Peter and Judas sinned against the Lord Jesus by betraying him, even on the same night. Peter denied that he was a follower of Jesus (Luke 22:61-62); and Judas turned Jesus over to the chief priests and elders for 30 pieces of silver (Luke 22:6). Although they both betrayed Christ in similar ways, their responses are completely opposite.
At root, Peter looked outward and Judas looked inward.
First, see Peter in the moment of his third denial of Jesus.
The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” (Luke 22:61)
This had to be an absolutely dreadful moment for Peter: caught red-handed by the Messiah. His guilt had to be off the charts! His response makes perfect sense:
And he went outside and wept bitterly. (22:62)
Peter’s tears are contrasted with Judas’ attempt to justify himself.
When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:3-5)
When he felt guilt, Judas immediately tried to right his wrong by paying back the money he took. He tried to absolve his guilt with his own hands; he even physically threw the money back into the temple. But it wasn’t enough, and in despair Judas took his life with his own hands.
Peter’s tears seem less active, more helpless than Judas’ effort to pay his prize back; but paradoxically, those helpless tears put his heart in the right place. Realizing that there was no way to “pay for” what he’d done opened Peter up for repentance and restoration, while Judas’ attempted self-justification led to his ruin. Guilt prepared Peter to receive forgiveness, but propelled Judas toward suicide. 2 Corinthians 7:10 summarizes the contrast of these two types of emotional guilt well: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
Where we take our guilt
Judas makes me really uncomfortable because my natural inclination is to do what he did and “pay back” any sense of guilt I get. Judas shows the logical conclusion of trying to make yourself righteous when you experience guilt.
Guilt has both an objective and a subjective meaning. Objectively, guilt is the fact of having committed an offense. This is essentially a legal definition, and is primarily the way that the word is used in Scripture. It’s like a courtroom where the judge will render a final verdict of either “innocent” or “guilty.” Just as a light switch is either on or off, in the legal sense I either am or am not guilty.
This is distinct from the subjective experience of guilt, emotional guilt. Subjective guilt is not the fact of having committing an offense, but rather the feeling of committing an offense. The majority of the Bible covers legal guilt directly and emotional guilt by implication.
The fact of legal guilt can and should generate the feeling of emotional guilt. The conscience is God’s bounty hunter that reclaims what is rightfully His. He makes people aware of our true identity through an internal conviction that we are guilty before God and in need of a Savior. All of us are by nature guilty before God; and when we experience specific instances of emotional guilt, we should confess those to others.
But, like Peter, the experience of guilt isn’t the end of the story for us. Guilt should drive us to look to Jesus in faith: when we do this, he takes our legal guilt and gives us his legal innocence (“righteousness” is a common biblical term for this). No matter what we’ve done to incur guilt, he has paid for it for us.
If we believe that, we can begin sorting through any emotional guilt we feel to see where it might be leading us. Is there sin I need to repent of - not pay God back for, but just abandon? Am I feeling guilty over something I shouldn’t be, maybe by comparison to someone else? Or do I just need to be reminded that, like Peter, I have received a forgiveness I can never deserve? Hashing out our emotions, including emotional guilt, with God or with someone else can ultimately lead us to deeper faith and joy in our justifier, Jesus Christ.
Image: Caravaggio, "The Denial of St. Peter"