After last Sunday’s sermon, I received a great question about the difference between mourning over our sin and feeling guilty because of our sin. The question arose specifically in reference to Matt 5:4, where Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I made the point that it isn’t enough to know that you are a sinner, but you also must feel the weight of your sin. The mourning that Jesus says is a characteristic of those blessed by God is an emotional affection in light of the reality of our sin, or, to use his words, in light of our being “poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3).
A few days later, I received an email from a member of our congregation here at Capitol City. Her (excellent) question was this:
After relistening to Sunday’s sermon I am coming back to the mourning over our sins. What is the difference in mourning over sin vs. feeling guilty? Without attempting to add to grace, I struggle with knowing if I’ve mourned adequately, or do I just “feel” bad about it.
Before I answer the question, I’ll offer a word of encouragement to its writer, and to all who share her sentiments: If you’re asking this kind of question, that’s a sign of God’s grace working in you. We don’t care about this kind of thing unless Christ’s Kingdom is born in our hearts. So we must begin by praising him for his work in this regard.
Now for an answer: I think the fundamental difference between mourning over sin and feeling guilty over sin is that one points you to yourself, while the other points you to God.
Guilt is ultimately a manifestation of our pride: we feel bad about our sin because we think that we should have done better or been better. Its about us. We think we are the solution, and that if we had simply been a better version of us, we would have done better in the first place. We don’t really need God in order to feel guilty over our sin, because guilt is personal disappointment with ourselves. It isn’t a recognition of how we fall short of our holy and righteous God.
Mourning over sin, on the other hand, ultimately points us to God. It is an issue of grieving over how our sin has offended the majestic and glorious creator of the universe. God’s perfect holiness is its reference point, meaning that mourning doesn’t fuel pride, it actually fuels humility. When we mourn over our sin, we realize how truly depraved we are apart from God’s grace, leading us to cry out to God for grace.
That’s really the key issue: guilt leads you to try harder, whereas mourning over your sin leads you to greater dependence on the gospel. Those who feel guilty regret their sin, resolve to try harder, and ultimately look to themselves for the resources to do better. Those who mourn feel the weight of their sin, know that they could never do better, that they could never merit God’s favor, and consequently cling to his grace. That’s what we see in Romans 7, at least. The apostle Paul, frustrated by his ongoing struggles with sin, cries out: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25). Notice the progression: Paul despairs of his sinfulness, he acknowledges his need for rescue, and finally he clings to the grace of the gospel. Mourning over our sin always drives us to the gospel.