Guilt is a terrible motivator for any behavior, except repentance. We cannot sustain ongoing spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, from a sense of guilt. That’s not what guilt is designed to achieve, and it’s why feeling bad over not praying enough will never turn us into men and women who “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians [5:17]).
Technically, guilt is a legal status. Emotionally, guilt is a burdened conscience, our response to an awareness of real or perceived failure. Therefore, guilt is something to get rid of, not something to harness as a motivation to develop and persist in a habit. Its intended purpose is to push us toward one primary action: repentance. Repentance is God’s designed means to free us from the burden of guilt.
This is why Jesus’s gospel is such good news for us! Through faith-fueled repentance, Jesus grants us forgiveness for all our sins (Luke [24:47]) by taking them upon himself on the cross (2 Corinthians [5:21]). And when we come to Jesus in this way, he frees us weary, heavy-ladened sinners from the burden of our guilt and gives us rest (Matthew [11:28]). But more than that, he gives us the ability then to lay aside our sin-weight so we can run the race of faith, looking to him, who himself is the great Reward set before us, along with all God promises us in him forever (Hebrews 12:1–2).
When Jesus wants to motivate us to be free from guilt, he offers us rest in him through repentance. When Jesus wants to motivate us to follow him in the hard way of discipleship (Matthew [7:14]), he offers us the reward of treasures in heaven (Mark [10:21]).
That’s why functional legalism — our efforts to get rid of guilt and find acceptance with God by trying harder in our own strength to live up to his (or someone else’s) standard — doesn’t work in the Christian life (or any other life). We can never meet the standards of external behavior and heart motives that alleviate our sense of guilt. The best we can achieve are occasional, brief moments of guilt reprieve.
Why Don’t We Pray More?
We need to keep this in mind when we read radical exhortations to pray in the New Testament, such as,