What Should I Do When I Feel Guilty?

Today, I spent some time looking at the passages in the Book of Mormon that talk about guilt. Here is what I learned:

  1. There is a human tendency to suppress feelings of guilt. We know intuitively when we have done something wrong, but because feelings of guilt are unpleasant, we often ignore or deny them (2 Nephi 28:8, Mosiah 12:14).
  2. As a result, it can be painful when other people draw attention to our sins. “The guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center” (1 Nephi 16:2). It rips apart our rationalizations and forces us to confront the pain we had hoped to avoid.
  3. Parents and other leaders sometimes have a duty to tell other people what they are doing wrong, even when they know that the message will not be well-received (Alma 39:7).
  4. We have a tendency to surround ourselves with people who tell us what we want to hear. Taken to the extreme, this had led people throughout history to make agreements to hide one another’s bad behavior (Helaman 7:5, 3 Nephi 6:29).
  5. But no matter how hard we try to hide guilt from ourselves and from others, we will one day have to face it. At the final judgment, we will have “a perfect knowledge of all our guilt” (2 Nephi 9:14), “a bright recollection of all our guilt” (Alma 11:43, 2 Nephi 9:46), and a “lively sense of [our] own guilt” (Mosiah 2:38), which will fill us with pain and make us unhappy in God’s presence (Mormon 9:3, Alma 5:18, 22-23, Mosiah 3:25). But even though we would rather not face God in our sins, “the power of the redemption and the resurrection, which is in Christ, will bring [us] to stand with shame and awful guilt before the bar of God” (Jacob 6:9).
  6. Fortunately, God has provided a way for us to avoid that outcome. If we can achieve a “consciousness of our guilt” today (Alma 12:1, Alma 14:6-7), and if as a result, we choose to repent, to be baptized, and to endure to the end, then we will be guiltless at the final judgment (3 Nephi 27:16). We will then have the privilege of dwelling in God’s presence in a state of never-ending happiness (Mormon 7:7).
  7. When we repent, our guilt can be “swept away” because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ (Enos 1:6, Alma 24:10). Thereafter, we can “retain a remission of [our] sins” and “walk guiltless before God” by serving other people and giving to those in need (Mosiah 4:25-26).

So the pattern is simple:

  1. Recognize and acknowledge the guilt we feel. Don’t try to hide it.
  2. Repent, be baptized, and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.
  3. He will eliminate our guilt and make us ready to return to our Father in Heaven.

I like Elder David A. Bednar’s insight that guilt serves the same function as physical pain:

Guilt is to our spirit what pain is to our body—a warning of danger and a protection from additional damage. From the Atonement of the Savior flows the soothing salve that can heal our spiritual wounds and remove guilt. However, this salve can only be applied through the principles of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repentance, and consistent obedience. The results of sincere repentance are peace of conscience, comfort, and spiritual healing and renewal (“We Believe in Being Chaste,” General Conference, April 2013).

So, just like we should not ignore pain in our body, we must not ignore guilt. It is a warning that we should take action to prevent further spiritual damage.

But what if I still feel guilty after I have repented?

Elder Tad R. Callister taught that a memory of our sins, and even a memory of the pain we have experienced as a result can function as a kind of spiritual “stop sign.” That memory can protect us from falling into the same trap a second time. It is possible (and useful) to remember prior pain without feeling that pain today (“The Atonement of Jesus Christ,” General Conference, April 2019).

But as Elder Richard G. Scott taught, it is not wise to dwell upon past mistakes after we have repented and received forgiveness from God:

When memory of prior mistakes encroached upon Ammon’s mind, he turned his thoughts to Jesus Christ and the miracle of forgiveness. Then his suffering was replaced with joy, gratitude, and thanksgiving for the Savior’s love and forgiveness. Please, go and do likewise. Do it now so that you can enjoy peace of conscience and peace of mind with all their attendant blessings (“Peace of Conscience and Peace of Mind,” General Conference, October 2004).

Like Enos and like Ammon, we need to trust God, so that, after repentance, we can let feelings of guilt be “swept away” (Enos 1:6, Alma 26:17-20).

Today, I will remember the important function of guilt in God’s plan for my salvation and happiness. I will avoid the tendency to ignore or suppress feelings of guilt. Instead, I will see them as opportunities to identify areas for improvement, areas where I need to repent. When I have repented and received the assurance that I am forgiven, I will avoid dwelling on past mistakes but will allow God’s grace to give me “peace of conscience and peace of mind.”

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