John’s statements about hate and love in 3:11 – 18 have potential to unsettle Christians with sensitive hearts, and Christians with high levels of honesty.

If we were all sensitive, or if we were all very honest, not be one of us would claim that we loved our fellow believers as Jesus Christ loved us. His great, self-denying, sacrificial love exposes the limited nature of our love. And in addition to sensitivity and honesty, our increasing knowledge of God and his love continually reveals the poverty of our love. The more we know him, the more we know ourselves, and the more we realize the discrepancy between his love for us and our love for others. We are constantly challenged by Jesus’ command ‘Love one another as I have loved you’. The more we understand the ‘I have loved you’ the more we realize how difficult it is for us to obey the ‘as ...’ in our relationships with our fellow Christians.

And so ‘our hearts condemn us’ – 3:20. [Notice that John includes himself in this – he refers to ‘our’ and ‘us’.] There are times, many times, when our hearts will accuse us, telling us that we have not loved ‘with actions and in truth’ (v.18). There is not one of us whose heart never condemns us. The word translated ‘condemn’ is kataginosko (ginosko – know + kata – against). We all know that we do not love as we ought. We all know something against ourselves. We all know that we are sinners who sin. As we have seen earlier, in 1:8 & 10, John outlawed any claims to sinlessness. So when John says ‘if our hearts condemn us’ he is not referring to something that excludes us from salvation, but to an honest self-knowledge that is consistent with the truth of the gospel: that we are sinners who sin, sinners who at every moment need the Saviour and at every moment need his saving work. Sinners who have such a high perception of the love of Christ for us that we feel ourselves unable to ever love anyone just like that.

In 1:7 – 2:2 John gave us strong reassurance in the presence of our real sin and sinfulness: that even though we should not sin, when we do sin there is forgiveness (1:7, 9) through the advocacy of Jesus Christ (2:1) and his atoning sacrifice (2:2).

Now in 3:19 – 24 John similarly encourages us to apply the gospel to our self-condemning hearts and to live in the freedom from condemnation that is ours in Jesus Christ. There is something that will ‘set our hearts at rest’ – that is, reassure us, give us confidence – when our hearts condemn us.

John has just said: ‘We know that we have passed from life to death, because we love our brothers’ and that ‘anyone who does not love remains in death’ (3:14), and these words have unsettled us because we know we have not loved our brothers with the kind of love he has described. But then he relieves us of our fear:

‘This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything’ (2:19, 20 – 2011 NIV).

There are three distinct sources of self-condemnation or guilt feelings:

There is our honest awareness of our real sin and sinfulness. We know we have done things worthy of blame and condemnation. This generates true guilt.

There is self-blame that comes from an over-sensitive conscience. Our conscience may be over-sensitive for a range of reasons, making us blame ourselves for things that are not actually sins in God’s sight. For example, our sensitive personality, our negative self-image, our state of physical or mental ill-health, our difficult or dysfunctional relationships, our upbringing and past experiences, pressure from our peer group, our church culture and expectations – all of these and more can condition our hearts and our consciences to condemn ourselves and to carry a heavy burden of false guilt.

The evil one, whose name, Satan, means ‘the accuser’, plays with all of the above – both our real guilt and our false guilt – in his efforts to deceive and destroy us. He is called ‘the accuser of our brothers and sisters’ (Revelation 12:19). He may not always directly confront us with his accusations, but corrupts the thoughts of our hearts and minds, making us focus on ourselves and our sins (and supposed sins), luring us away from confidence in Christ and his cross.

But into the turmoil of our self-condemning hearts comes the glad and liberating message of God’s grace:

‘Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has already crossed over from death to life’ – John 5:24.

'Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death’ – Romans 8:1, 2.
God, the God of unlimited grace, the God who is greater than our hearts, greater than our peers, greater than the evil one, has acquitted us. No accusation, not even from our own hearts, has the legal authority to condemn us. (Read Romans 8:31 – 34.)

© Rosemary Bardsley 2022