Can adherence to a biblical lifestyle cure guilt?

Ever feel guilty? This emotion seems to afflict most of us at least intermittently. Non-Christians think Christianity causes guilt. Is this true? Amazingly, Christian practice recently has been associated with enhanced wellbeing. Further, increasing adherence to biblical lifestyle principles such as praise, prayer, fellowship, church attendance, service and Bible study have been associated with improved wellbeing.1,2 Guilt, in contrast, is linked with diminished wellbeing3,4 No surprise there!

Unfortunately, little information is available that examines the effects of guilt in a healthy Christian population and how to minimize it. Teleios recently examined the influence of guilt on the wellbeing of evangelical Christians especially associated with their adherence and knowledge of their faith. We defined evangelicals as those who accepted the free gift of salvation through faith in Christ’s death on the cross for forgiveness of their sins (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 3:21-26).

Our study (complete results found here) showed that wellbeing scores appeared generally healthy among our evangelical subjects. However, of those who felt no guilt there was greater wellbeing reported with each question (see table) except ‘God cares about me’ than the in those who felt some level of guilt. This finding indicates that the presence of guilt may degrade wellbeing in a generally healthy population.

The overwhelming cause for those who indicated they felt some guilt was although they had confidence in their salvation, they “feared that they had not performed enough good works to gain God’s ongoing satisfaction.” The most common reaction to guilt by participant was anxiety, followed closely by a desire for complete acceptance by God.

Importantly, when the eight wellbeing rankings were compared to the scores for adherence to the Christian faith, those who indicated they held to the activities or beliefs noted above showed statistically greater scores compared to less adherent participants! This was especially true among those who most often studied the Bible study or praised God.

How do we explain this? Studying the Bible may be important because it reinforces scriptural principles that salvation is achieved only by God’s grace, not human efforts, and thus removes guilt as a factor in a Christian’s life. Those less willing to embrace scriptural lessons may demonstrate more guilt because they may imagine God’s wrath and rejection based on their own contrived system of works.

Praise also may help alleviate guilt as it demonstrates an expression of the believer’s view of God’s authority and power to save them and helps maintain a correct mental attitude of humility towards God. Humility has been shown in prior work to have psychosocial benefits.5

This study suggests that Christians who conform to basic activities and beliefs of their faith are likely to demonstrate improved wellbeing and less guilt then those who are less adherent.

  1. MacIlvaine, et al. (2013). Association of strength of religious adherence to quality of life measures. Complement Ther Clin Pract, 19:251-255. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2013.05.001.
  2. MacIlvaine, et al. (2014). Association of strength of community service to personal well-being. Community Ment Health J, 50:577-582. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10597-013-9660-0.
  3. Piderman, et al. (2011). Spiritual well-being and spiritual practices in elderly depressed psychiatric inpatients. J Pastoral Care Counsel, 65:1-11. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/154230501106500103.
  4. Satterly, L. (2001). Guilt, shame, and religious and spiritual pain. Holist Nurs Pract, 15:30-39. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12119916
  5. Krause, N. (2010). Religious Involvement, Humility, and Self-Rated Health. Soc Indic Res, 98:23-39. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11205-009-9514-x