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I don’t know why I lied. There was no reason for it. I just did. And a year later my conscience was still beating me up. The guilt felt like a noose around my neck.

It started on the way home from summer camp when I was 12 years old. I discovered, on the bus, that I was a dollar short on the money my parents had given me to spend at camp. I knew they’d ask me if I’d spent it all, so I looked everywhere for that dollar. Alas! It was nowhere to be found.

Sure enough, after a hug-filled reunion with my parents, my mom asked whether I had spent all the money they had given me. I panicked. I didn’t want to confess that I had lost part of it. Fear of punishment blurred my judgment, and before I knew what I was doing, I heard the word Yes coming from my mouth.

I had lied to my mother! However bad it was to lose money, I had just compounded the crime by lying about it. In my family, lying was the ultimate crime. You might get by with other sins, but you never lied! As the weeks and months went by, the guilt got heavier and heavier. Though my parents were blissfully unaware of my deceit, my secret sin was stealing my joy.

Guilt. How do we deal with it? Allow me to suggest five ways.

1 Distinguish between true and false guilt.

Both the Lord and the devil use guilt. That’s right. The difference is in how they use it.

When God uses guilt, it’s for the purpose of conviction—to persuade us of the wrongness of our actions so we will come to Him for forgiveness and cleansing. The Holy Spirit is the One who does this work of conviction. Describing the Spirit’s role, Jesus said, “ ‘When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment’ ” (John 16:8).

At first, this may sound negative. But remember, the Holy Spirit is also called the Comforter. He doesn’t expose our guilt to drive us to despair. Rather, “ ‘he will guide you into all truth’ ” (John 16:13). He helps to move us to where we can see our need of God—the God who “ ‘did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ ” (John 3:17).

Satan, on the other hand, uses guilt as a sledgehammer of condemnation. He is “the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night” (Revelation 12:10). He intends to make us feel cut off from Christ and to convince us that we don’t deserve forgiveness.

Here’s how to tell if you’re experiencing true or false guilt. If you’ve actually done something wrong, you feel your relationship with God has suffered a blow, and you want to restore that relationship soon, that’s the Holy Spirit convicting you— showing you the truth.

If, on the other hand, you feel too unworthy to come to Christ and that you might as well give up, that’s the Accuser using false guilt to bring condemnation.

Christ brings conviction; Satan brings condemnation.

2 Make it right with God.

King David knew that his sin with Bathsheba (see 2 Samuel 11) was first of all a sin against God. He prayed, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). He made no attempt to sugarcoat what he’d done. He confessed the sin and asked God for mercy, forgiveness, and cleansing.

The surest way to deal with guilt is to go to God and honestly confess what you have done. We have God’s word that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

3 Make it right with the offended party.

If your sin is against another person, the next step is to seek forgiveness from that person. According to Jesus, making things right with an offended brother or sister is even more important than worship! (See Matthew 5:23, 24.)

I remember one day when I was in a foul mood and snapped at my wife. The moment I did, I knew I was wrong and needed to apologize. But it was so hard to admit that I had been acting like a jerk! My pride was taking a beating (a good thing!), and I wrestled with my guilt. Finally, I went to my bride and confessed that I had been a jerk (no news to her!) and that I was sorry for snapping at her. “Please forgive me,” I said, feeling very ashamed and very exposed. Instantly, the tension between us dissolved, and she eagerly accepted my apology. Our relationship was restored, and my guilt evaporated.

When you hurt someone, confess it and make a sincere apology as quickly as possible. Don’t let resentments fester unresolved. “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26), continues to be good advice.

4 If possible, make restitution.

If you can repair the damage your action caused, do it. Restitution may mean making good on missed alimony payments or replacing items that you’ve lost, damaged, or stolen.

Damaged emotions are harder to deal with. How, for instance, do you make restitution for the emotional wounds you may have inflicted on a child or spouse by psychological or physical abuse? Only God can heal the resulting scars on the soul. In extreme situations, for example, after making things right with God and the person or persons you’ve hurt, offering to cover the cost of professional help may be the next best thing to making restitution.

5 Repent, release, and rejoice.

Repentance is more than just feeling sorry you’ve sinned. It’s a deliberate choice to change your actions. Literally, it means to “turn around” and go in another direction. The Bible says, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer” (Ephesians 4:28). True repentance is sorrow followed by a change of mind, heart, and actions.

Once you’ve repented of your sin and confessed it, release the guilt to God. He says that He casts our sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19), so don’t go deep-sea diving for them! Accept God’s forgiveness and don’t look back.

One other thing: I finally confessed to my mom that I’d lied about the spending money. No punishment could be worse than the daily torment my guilt was giving me. My mom hugged me close and told me how happy she was that I’d told the truth.

Forgiveness! Instant relief! Goodbye to guilt!

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!

Five Ways to Deal With Guilt

by Randy Maxwell
From the June 2009 Signs