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The Difference Between Conviction and Guilt – Insights from Psalm 51

Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

What’s the difference between guilt and conviction? Here we explore the differences using Psalm 51 and include some ways we can use this knowledge in parenting.

Most of us know the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11). David lusted, took what wasn’t his and even went one step further to cover it up. It almost worked. Except God knew and He used Nathan to tell David He knew.

Psalm 51 gives us an insight into the conviction that David felt over his sin. We can use this psalm as a springboard for a discussion with our kids on the differences between guilt and conviction.

Sources of Conviction

There are several sources of conviction that God can use to expose our sins such as wise counsel, our conscience, the Holy Spirit and God’s Word.

God used the wise counsel of the prophet Nathan to awaken David’s conscience by telling him a hypothetical story (read 2 Samuel 12 to learn more). The Holy Spirit spoke to David’s heart and spurred him on to repentance, agreement over his sin and subsequent submission to God’s will. In Psalm 51:3-4 we read, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.”

Today, we have the added benefit of the Bible as a source of conviction as well. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

The Bible is a great tool God can use to convict our children of sin. But He can’t use it if they don’t know what it says. Commit to reading the Bible with your children and memorizing passages about behavior and the heart. Here’s a great printable to use with your kids about what God has to say about some common childhood behavior issues.

God may use us as the wise counsel in our children’s lives to convict them of sin. But to be used by God in this way, we need to listen to God first and speak to our kids second. Maybe God will give us a creative way, like he did with Nathan, to expose the sin in our children’s hearts.

If you want to help your children understand the difference between the role of the conscience and the Holy Spirit, here is a good, basic explanation that may help.

Sources of Guilt

Guilt does not come from the Lord. Guilt comes from our own flesh or from Satan himself.

Because guilt can be so crippling, the enemy would like to have us operate under a spirit of guilt rather than conviction. Guilt cannot and does not lead to change. Satan uses guilt to keep us right where we are: broken.

On the other hand, sometimes our own flesh can cause us to feel guilty. When we are completely focused on self, we can become so absorbed with our own experience of our sin that we are unable to let go of it. At the core, this is really pride. When we only look inward, instead of upward to our Forgiving Father, we have no option but to wallow in our guilt.

So how can we know if our children are feeling convicted or guilty?

By looking at their response to their sin.

Response to Conviction

When we are convicted, we feel sorry for our sin. We can feel David’s sorrow over his sin all throughout Psalm 51. When your kids are humbly sorry over what they have done, that is conviction, not guilt. The key word here is “humbly.” When we are willing to submit to God’s authority, we can then see that ultimately we have sinned against Him (see verse 4).

Conviction also brings about a desire to pray. Thanks to David’s transparency, we get a window into his private relationship with God as he pours out his heart to the Lord in prayer. If your kids ask for prayer, you can be assured that this is the result of conviction.

David had a desire to be forgiven. We read in verses 2, 7 and 10 that he wanted to be forgiven and made clean. Conviction motivates us to come to the Father to be made new. Conviction brings about a desire to cast off the old and put on the new. There is a longing for forgiveness and moving on. Here are some tips on how to help your child seek forgiveness from others.

Conviction leads to action in a desire to make things right. In verses 13 through 15, David asks God to help him lead others in the ways of the Lord. He wanted to move forward and advance God’s kingdom by sharing the saving power of God with others. If your child is experiencing conviction, they will have a desire to make it right.

In verses 18 and 19, David is looking to the future with hope. He sees that God is bigger than any mistake he could make, no matter how big it might be. God can work through or around any sin we may commit.

Response to guilt

Guilt on the other hand results in self- loathing, shame, apathy or withdrawal. All of these are self-focused and ineffectual. There is no submission, repentance or desire to change.

A Caution to Parents

The caution here to parents is to make sure that what we really want from our children is conviction rather than guilt.

Have you ever found yourself lecturing to your child about something they did, stepping up the seriousness of our words until you get a response? We all want to feel like we are getting through to our kids. We want our words to have an impact. But we can sometimes go too far in that quest. We need to make sure that we are exhorting our children towards conviction rather than lecturing them into guilt.

Let’s ask God to help us be a Nathan to our children and then let the Holy Spirit work in conjunction with their conscience to bring about righteousness.

[Image credit: KellyP42 from]

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed clinical social worker who offers individual therapy to women and parents. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of her favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She is happily married with a young adult son and a teenage daughter.

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