We easily confuse satanic condemnation with godly conviction.
Conviction is a necessary feeling that we should cultivate; condemnation is a lie that we should throw off. Conviction comes from the Holy Spirit, whom we grieve with our sin (John 16:8; Ephesians 4:30); condemnation comes from the devil, who will do anything to drive a wedge between people and God (Revelation 12:10). Conviction is like a pain signal that leads us away from danger; condemnation is like an anesthetic that leaves us feeling numb.
But as different as these two experiences are, we often confuse them. One reason we do so is because both condemnation and conviction make people grieve over their sin. Even though one leads to death and the other leads to life (2 Corinthians 7:8–10), the grief can look and feel so similar, especially in the earliest stages.
So how do we tell the difference between the two?
What Is Condemnation?
Condemnation is hazy, hateful, and hopeless.
First, condemnation is hazy. Sometimes condemnation can initially feel specific, but often Satan brings feelings of condemnation that are vague. We can simply feel like something is wrong with me! Adam and Eve knew something was wrong in the garden after they sinned, and they immediately sought to cover themselves up. Satan can subtly make Christians feel the same way. He can fill us with a low-grade fever of ongoing shame that we can’t exactly pinpoint.
We primarily feel this haziness when it comes to what we should do with our grief. Condemnation doesn’t point us to Christ and the gospel; rather, it just keeps pointing us back to myself and my sin. We feel strongly that something must change, but we have no helpful ideas about what to do. Adam and Eve were helpless and clueless, hiding in the garden until God pursued them and called them to repentance.
Second, condemnation is hateful. Satan can’t steal your salvation, but he’ll steal your joy. He will hurt you, not help you; burden you, not bless you. Condemnation is like spiritual waterboarding, where Satan tries to smother any glimpse of God’s goodness and love for you. He’s trying to drown you in your sins, as he tried with Joshua the high priest in Zechariah 3:1.
Third, condemnation is hopeless. It makes us think, I’m a lost cause. I’ll be chained to my sins forever. I’ll never change. God doesn’t care about me. He has cast me off eternally. Satan used Job’s wife to influence Job to just die: “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9). There was no hope in the grief Satan brought.
Condemnation is always a lie for Christians.
What Is Conviction?
Conviction is mostly the opposite of condemnation. First, conviction is high-definition clarity. Condemnation can feel like a cloud of shame hanging over your whole being that you can’t even explain, but conviction is usually very specific. Conviction may bring a precise thought to your mind, such as, I need to quit watching that show with immodest or sexual content. Conviction is clear enough to give you a path to move toward repentance, as when David’s conscience smote him for cutting Saul’s robe, which was like an attack on God’s anointed (1 Samuel 24:5).
Second, conviction is helpful and loving. God wants the best for you. He convicts to convince you of a better way; he is getting your attention to protect and bless you. When I spank my child for running into traffic, my discipline is driven by my delight in him. Praise God for his correction! As with David in Psalm 32, God convicts us so that we can experience forgiveness (Psalm 32:3–5).
Third, conviction is hopeful. It doesn’t leave you in the doldrums. It brings an atmosphere that says, Trust God. Repent and run to a merciful Savior. Godly grief over sin is the waiting room leading to repentance. Rejoice in it! Christ reminded Peter of his three denials in John 21:15–17, but the goal was to restore him, not to condemn him.
Conviction is always a gift for Christians.
Road to Joy
What happens when we refuse to listen to the Holy Spirit’s conviction? Consider David after he committed adultery. When conviction came to him, he tried to handle it on his own. He didn’t let godly grief initially drive him to repentance. Instead, David lost his joy and fell headlong into deeper sin (Psalm 51:12). He started with adultery and ended with murder (2 Samuel 11).
When we try to handle our sin on our own, we inevitably begin to traffic in feelings of condemnation. There is no joy there. And if we aren’t able to return to joy through repentance, we will ultimately end up sinning more in failed attempts to find joy apart from God. When we ignore God’s conviction and instead turn to ourselves, it’s just a matter of time until we sin again.
Later, God brought conviction and godly grief to David through Nathan, bringing the king to repentance. From David’s story and the rest of Scripture, we can summarize this process with the following equation: conviction + godly grief + repentance = joy and worship. Soon, David was worshiping his Savior and enjoying life (Psalm 32:10–11; 2 Samuel 12:20–24).
How do you respond after you sin? This may be the greatest test of your spiritual maturity. Do you feel godly grief that you sinned against your Father? Do you repent? Do you run back to Christ and ask for mercy rather than wallowing in condemning thoughts? Can you receive mercy and cleansing and move on in obedience? This is godly conviction that leads to joy.