Conviction and condemnation are distant cousins. I wouldn’t call them siblings, but they do belong in the same family. They both have to do with the way we deal with our mistakes or, as the Bible puts it, our sin. They are universal feelings, yet they don’t always stem from universal actions. Some may feel conviction from one thing and condemnation from another. Each situation is different depending on the person and the personality. What may condemn one person may only convict another.
Both emotions are common to humanity. Conviction is the more positive one, and condemnation is the more negative. What separates them is not necessarily how they make us feel but where they lead. Both of them cause us some sadness or sorrow, but they lead to two different places or final destinations.
Conviction is something that comes from the knowledge of our sin. One of the biblical definitions of sin is to “miss the mark” or target. Conviction is an acknowledgment that we have not hit the mark of God’s righteousness. That being said, conviction doesn’t leave us there to wallow in our imperfection, it motivates us to hit the mark. Conviction is the inner drive to do what is right. Conviction is what makes a liar stop lying. Conviction is what makes an adulterer become faithful. Conviction is what makes a thief become generous.
Conviction turns us toward God. It brings us back to the place where we made the wrong turn so we can be set on the right path again. In 2 Corinthians 7:10 (NIV), Paul talks about how “godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” Godly sorrow doesn’t leave us in sorrow but moves us to live righteously. It is sorrow for a purpose. It causes us to realize the true depth of what we have done. Conviction causes us to realize, not only what we have done to ourselves or to others, but also what we have done against God.
Condemnation is another thing altogether (Matthew 23:33, John 3:18). Where conviction motivates us to do what is right, Condemnation doesn’t motivate us at all or at least it motivates us to stay where we are. Condemnation makes us immobile. It is ungodly sorrow. It is the sorrow that doesn’t motivate us to do right but motivates us to stay away from God. It motivates us to stay away from community. It leads us into darkness.
Condemnation makes us regret what we have done but doesn’t move us to take action to do the right thing. It is the dark cloud over our head. Condemnation is the sign of punishment that hangs over us whenever we do something wrong. It is the judgment of God on our sins without the righteousness of Christ in our place.
This is our natural human default when we do something wrong—run and hide. This is when we feel condemnation. Condemnation is what Adam and Eve felt when they first sinned in the garden. It is what Cain felt after he murdered Abel in cold blood and responded to God by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9, b, NIV) Condemnation has been with us since the dawn of time.
We fall prey to condemnation when we do not turn to Christ. We would rather use our own means to avoid judgment, and then we realize judgment is still on us. Our ways and means to get rid of the judgment are not sufficient. We drift towards condemnation when we attempt to work our way out of judgment instead of relying on the righteousness of Christ.
Even followers of Jesus fall into this trap all the time. Knowing that we are not condemned by our sins and experiencing that same freedom from condemnation are two different things. You can know it in your intellect but not embrace it with your heart and your emotions. For many the concept of being free from condemnation is just words on a page. This is because our sinful nature prompts us to run and hide just like Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8-11). We believe we are excluded from God’s presence and marked just like Cain after he killed Abel (Genesis 4:13-16). This is totally contrary to the gospel that we have been called to embrace (Romans 8:1).
The truth is sometimes churches preach a gospel of condemnation. This is because it is easier to control people through external means of behavior modification instead of the internal conviction that comes from a right understanding of the gospel. In order to control people and get them to behave a certain way, they use sin and law in the absence of forgiveness and grace. After hearing this type of message and participating in this type of culture, many find it hard to live free from condemnation.
This is legalistic or a law-driven Christianity which is an oxymoron. Many people who adhere to this type of spirituality go through a cycle of law, sin, and condemnation. They may continue to do all of the religious rituals and jump through all of the church hoops, but in their hearts they don’t understand that Jesus has paid their debt on the cross. Folks who are caught in this cycle continue to try to earn their way into heaven. At it’s worst, this type of Christianity causes people to wallow in what they have done and even abandon their faith in Christ.
Falling into the trap of condemnation is also a matter of personality type. Some personalities are much more melancholy and tend towards the negative. It is mostly because they are seeking perfection and, when it comes to spiritual things, they seek a moral perfection on par with Jesus. The sorrow they feel distorts reality, especially the truth of the gospel. A person with this sort of personality needs to be constantly fed God’s word, encouraged, and supported—so he or she will allow Christ to embrace them with all of their faults.
Condemnation and conviction are distant step cousins, but they can still seem a lot alike. God wants us to experience conviction. This is because God is all about relationship, and conviction draws us closer to him. Condemnation does the opposite. Even if we are not drawn away from him, condemnation can make it hard to even believe that God loves us. Conviction brings us closer to a loving Father. Condemnation steers us toward a perception of God as a stern, harsh judge.
They both cause us sorrow, but only one leads to daylight. The other leads to darkness. The key is in knowing which one you are experiencing. It’s quite simple really. All you have to do is look at the direction you are taking. If you find yourself going after God and turning away from your sin, then you are experiencing conviction. If you find yourself staying away from God and turning toward sin and doubt, then you are experiencing condemnation. It’s all about direction. I encourage you to let God be your navigator and your refuge.