Dealing With Guilt
DO YOU EVER STRUGGLE with feelings of guilt? Are you haunted by guilt-ridden moments in your life and wish you could undo the past? Have you found that the more you try to ignore your guilty conscience, the stronger it grows? Wrestling with guilt can be a paralyzing, life-consuming battle that never seems to end. However, the bible gives real answers about guilt that speak right to the heart of this struggle.
What is Guilt?
In Leviticus 5:17, God speaks of guilt in this way: “And if a soul sin, and commit any of these things which are forbidden to be done by the commandments of the LORD; though he wist it not, yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity.” According to this passage, guilt is a state of being before God based on a violation of His law. Therefore, guilt is not primarily a feeling; it is a fact. This passage reveals to us that God considers us guilty even if we are not aware of our guilt. The feelings of guilt arise as individuals become aware of their actual sin before God, but guilt exists whether the law-breaker feels guilty or not.
This biblical view of guilt is very different from the secular view, which promotes the idea that we create our own reality, and if we would simply lower self-expectations, our struggle with guilt would vanish. But guilt is not rooted in self-perception; it is rooted in our rebellion against God. Attempting to forget or ignore a guilty conscience will never have lasting results, because it will never change the reality that we are guilty before God.
In Psalm 38, David gives a vivid description of his personal experience with unresolved guilt. You may be surprised to learn that the “man after God’s own heart” experienced guilt-ridden struggles, but you must remember that guilt is a penalty for sin and God is not a respecter of persons (Deuteronomy 10:19). Whether in a position of authority or a common individual, all will experience guilt when one of God’s standards is violated. In Psalm 38, David mentions fifteen struggles that he experienced when dealing with unresolved guilt:
Isn’t it amazing that these symptoms result from unresolved guilt? David was struggling with anxiety attacks, depression, physical weakness, paranoia, and intense sadness. While I want to make clear that these struggles are not always a result of guilt, they definitely can be. David spun a web of sin, and it was more than he could manage. The result of his cover-up was devastating, and it wasn’t until David began to resolve his guilt that he found peace and comfort from his suffering.
How do we resolve guilt? We must remember what has already been stated: guilt is not just a feeling; it is a state-of-being that we find ourselves in when we have violated one of God’s standards. As stated earlier, one way people try to resolve guilt is to remove or lower the standard that was violated. For example, people may convince themselves that lying, cheating, or any other sin is okay under certain circumstances. The problem with this mentality is that it doesn’t really resolve the problem; it actually compounds it. A Christian cannot find lasting relief trying to change one of God’s standards in order to avoid violating it.
In Psalm 32, we are shown a different aspect of David’s experience with guilt. Rather than struggles and sorrows, we find David speaking of blessings, joy, gladness, mercy, guidance, and deliverance. What changed? David is no longer carrying the burden of guilt; it has been resolved. What does it mean for his guilt to be resolved? Let’s look at verse one: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” David’s guilt is resolved because rather than trying to manage or hide his sins, he has given his sin to God through confession. No longer is David under the weight of condemnation for violating God’s law. In a very real sense, he is free. What did he do to get there? Verse five says that he acknowledged and confessed his sin before God, and he was forgiven.
In the Gospel of Mark, we read that John the Baptist was baptizing people with the baptism of repentance for the remission (forgiveness) of sin (Mark 1:4). In this passage, we find that the people were confessing their sins as they were being baptized. This is how we deal with our guilt—confession and repentance. We cannot undo what we have done in the past, but we can own our sin and choose a different course of action in the future.
Confession and Repentance
1 John 1:9 states, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” What does it mean to confess our sins? The word “confess” comes from a combination of two Greek words: homos, which means the same, and lego, which means to speak. To confess literally means to speak the same as another. In this case, it means to say the same thing about your sin that God says. To confess is to come down hard on sin just as God does. A general confession of sin is not what the bible has in mind. Confession is specific and concrete. In other words, “I acknowledge that I am a sinner” is not the kind of confession that John is speaking about. “God, I acknowledge that the reason I lost my temper was that I am self-centered” is more along the lines of biblical confession. After we have confessed our sin to God, we are ready to confess and seek forgiveness from the one we have offended or sinned against (Matthew 5:23). Again, confession here should be specific and concrete. “I am sorry if I offended you” falls short of a God honoring confession. It is neither specific nor concrete. “I am sorry because I know I offended you when I ____________,” is more in line with the biblical model.
Proverbs 28:13 says, “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” After we have confessed, we must repent. This means we stop doing whatever it was that caused the offense which lead to our guilt. Repentance happens when we replace ungodly thoughts and actions with godly thinking and behavior. When you are living in such a way that does not habitually and intentionally violate God’s law or standard, you will not feel constant guilt. That is not to say that we are no longer sinners but in a place where we are dealing with our sin in a God-prescribed way.
What about false guilt?
What about when we have confessed and repented but still feel guilty? When we feel guilty and there is no biblical reason, the issue is either biblical ignorance, or holding self to a higher standard than God does. Either of these two scenarios requires confession and repentance. For instance, there are many women who drive themselves crazy with guilt because they are not the perfect wife, raising perfect children, cooking perfect meals in a perfectly kept home. The standard that these women have set for themselves is beyond their abilities. There is not a single person in the human race that could meet these expectations. We are flawed sinners who are in need of grace on a daily basis even in fulfilling daily duties.
All individuals are in need of the freedom that is found in the gospel of grace. Faith in the gospel allows us to live our lives in light of the truth that there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Romans 8:1). What a promise! This truth frees us from the bondage of trying to meet impossible standards of perfection. God is not angry when His children are imperfect; He’s gracious.
Coming face to face with the fact that we do not “have it all together” should drive us to Jesus Christ, and not to despair. As we confess our sin and shortcomings to Him, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Just as guilt is not primarily a feeling but a fact, so is forgiveness and cleansing. The fact that you do not feel clean or forgiven does not change the fact that you are, because God is faithful to His promises. You will have to fight daily in order to exercise faith in this reality.
While none of these ways of dealing with guilt are quick fixes, they do address the root of the problem. Biblical obedience and the renewal of your mind will eventually lead to joy and blessings rather than guilt and misery. If you are a Christian, your guilt has been laid on Jesus Christ. As we live like redeemed children of God, we are able to experience the freedom that accompanies our salvation and delivers us from the burden of guilt.
And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men. (Acts 24:16)