You have become guilty by the blood that you have shed, and defiled by the idols that you have made, and you have brought your days near, the appointed time of your years has come. Therefore I have made you a reproach to the nations, and a mockery to all the countries. (Eze 22:4)
And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (Isa 6:7)
We live in a world racked with guilt. It is so prevalent that most people feel guilty all the time. The non-Christian world does not have the ability to handle guilt, and they have no way of coping with the feelings that accompany guilt. They simply try to help people either live with the feelings or ignore them. Because they don’t understand guilt or who guilt is against, they can only deal with symptoms, effects, and feelings of guilt. This is because they don’t understand that they are guilty before God already.
Non-Christian Way of Addressing and Dealing with Guilt
I’ve attached an example of how non-Christians deal with sin. At the end of the day, their view is that there are a variety of reasons that guilt exists. It could be due to genes, chemicals in the brain, mental illness, victimization, wrong thinking, or related to bad self-image. They observe feelings and symptoms of guilt, but because they don’t have a real understanding of God and justice, they are unable to deal with guilt in a way that actually does anything about it. They try to make past wrongs right by doing good things in the future—a cosmic yin-yang, or karmic sort of thing. All the while they attempt to ignore the feelings that accompany guilt, pretending that nothing wrong really happened. Or they manipulate and twist things around so that they become victims rather than wrong doers.
Biblical View of Guilt
When we talk about guilt, it is important to remember what we’ve already said about covenantal relationships. The Bible teaches that when Adam produced offspring, those offspring were members of his covenant family. Therefore, all that he did, we did, because we were and are in him. We were/are in him in two different ways: physically, and covenantally. So, before we did anything ourselves, we were sinners because we were in Adam when he sinned (Heb 7:9-10). The Bible says all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Therefore, even before we did anything ourselves, we were guilty of sin, dead in our sins, and in need of salvation (1 Cor. 15:22).
In addition, the fact that we were in Adam when he sinned, covenantally, we were also born as sinners. He sinned and we sinned. But he became a sinner because of his sin, and we became sinners because of his sin. This means that the only reason we don’t sin when we are first born is because we lack opportunity and physical ability. As soon as we are able and have the opportunity, we all sin—by nature. Our nature is to sin from the beginning. As Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” So, we not only sinned because we were in Adam, but also because we sinned on our own as soon as we were able.
All this is to say that we feel guilty because we are guilty. We sinned against a holy God and deserve judgment and condemnation. Exodus 34:6, 7 says, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” So, we feel guilty because we are guilty. Getting rid of feelings of guilt is not possible without removing actual guilt. The world does not have a solution to this problem, but the Bible does.
God’s Solution to the Problem of Guilt
We need to remember that God wants a pure and holy relationship with us far more than we want one with him. This is why, even before we knew anything about it, God sent Jesus to die on our behalf. God loves the world and so he sent his only son to die for us. 1 Timothy 1:15 says, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners….” Jesus saved sinners by becoming sin (2 Cor. 5:21), dying on our behalf (Rom 5:6), in our place (Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3), as a sacrifice for sin (Heb 2:26), taking away the wrath of God from us and cleansing us from all sin and guilt resulting from our sin (1 Jn. 2:2).
What happens when we cry out to God acknowledging our sin? Like Isaiah, we cry to God acknowledging that we are sinners and deserve only death for our sinning (Isa. 6:1-5). God sees us only through the death and resurrection of Christ (we are the aroma of Christ to God—2 Cor. 2:15). This means that when we die with Christ and acknowledge our helplessness, God raises us up with Christ and seats us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. Whereas we used to be in Adam, we are now in Christ. Remember that covenant thing? Well here it is again. We were in Adam, but God has transferred us from the kingdom of Adam —man— to the kingdom of his beloved Son — whole man (Col. 1:13). And in Christ he no longer holds our sins against us, we are no longer guilty (2 Cor. 5:19).
Another aspect of this that should be discussed is the concept of forgiveness. We’ve already noted that God no longer holds our sin against us. Jesus took the penalty/punishment that was due us and suffered and died in our place. With that in mind, God only sees us through the lens of Jesus. We are in Christ and thus God sees only Christ when he looks at us. This is why he is able to say, And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (Heb 10:15-18).
This means: First, that God doesn’t hold this wrong against you. Second, He will not remember this event again (Heb. 10:16-18). Third, He will not talk to others about this incident. Fourth, He will let this event go and not cling to it or become bitter about it (Eph. 4:31). Finally, God will aggressively love you from here on out (Eph. 4:32).
The Omniscient God says that he will remember our sins no more. When Satan, the accuser comes to God and points out our sinful past, God’s response is to say, “I don’t know what you are talking about. All I see is Jesus. I refuse to remember George’s sin. It is as if he never committed it.” God is committed to not remembering our sins.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians says that we are to be like God, “imitators of God” (5:1). With regard to the topic of forgiveness, we need to glory in the fact that God does not remember our sin. We need to believe this fact and trust that it is true. Then we need to imitate him. We don’t need to forgive ourselves, we didn’t sin against ourselves, we sinned against God. So, when the accuser comes to us and says, “remember that sin? You’ve done that a thousand times. You’re so terrible.” Remember what God says about the same accusation: “I don’t remember what you are talking about. All I see is Jesus.” Its all about believing God; having faith in God; trusting God. Do you believe that God has forgiven you because of what Jesus did on the cross? Believe also that you have been forgiven and that God does not remember your sin anymore. Let your faith work itself out in your imitation of God.
Finally, we need to constantly remember that God saves us, convicts us, forgives us, and transforms us because he loves us. You might ask yourself, who wants this relationship (between God and us) more: “God or you?” This question might help clear things up, “What have you done to create or sustain the relationship?” God sent his son to die a horrible death so that he could relate to you in a loving way. God wants this relationship more than you ever could. So, go with that. Let God pour his love out on you. Accept his love, his salvation, his forgiveness. Imitate him in loving others, in not holding other’s sins against them, in not remembering their sins. Love from the heart.
This is what God has done on our behalf. This is the good news—the Gospel, but how do we incorporate this into our lives? The first step is that we should believe it; every bit of it, from top to bottom, inside to out. Second, we should throw ourselves on the mercy of God and beg him to accept us into his life (Mt. 11:28-29). Third, we should accept or receive his forgiveness and new life and live accordingly. We should throw off our sin and strive to live for righteousness. Study to know what walking with God looks like and then walk with God (2 Cor. 6:14-18).
If There’s Time
What about guilt feelings? Some people feel guilty for things that happen to them. They think they may have done things to earn or warrant what has happened to them or to others in their lives. They may live or have grown up in a culture of shame or guilt manipulation. These people need to think about the difference between real guilt and false guilt. Guilt is only valid when we have sinned against God (Psa 51:4) or against others. If you were three years old and treated horribly by your father, you didn’t do anything wrong, you were actually a victim of his sin. In this case you need to trust God about your forgiveness for the things you actually did do, and imitate God by forgiving your father. Distinguish between your sin and sin done against you. If you aren’t sure, go ahead and confess it as your sin and accept God’s forgiveness by faith and live in faith (Rom. 6:11; 1 Cor. 6:11). We’ll talk more about giving away sin done against you when we talk about anger and shame next month.
What about continued guilt feelings? I just don’t feel forgiven. We need to know that feelings follow thoughts. Our feelings come from what we have previously thought. Ultimately, feelings of guilt come because we think we are guilty. If we are, we need to confess it and believe that we have been forgiven and imitate God in not remembering our sin. If you never were guilty, but still suffer the thoughts of guilt and shame, we need to believe God about who we are in Christ and pray that God would give us his mind about who we are in Christ. As we grow in our imitation of God we will begin to think right thoughts. As we do this more and more consistently, those things that we beat ourselves up with from our past will drift away until we think rightly about every area of our lives. We should begin by rejoicing in God because he rejoices to know us (Zeph. 3:14-17).
From Forgiven to Forgiving, Jay Adams
Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds, by Chris Brauns
When People are Big and God is Small, Ed Welch
How to Eliminate Guilt (Non-Christian)
Everyone experiences guilt at one time or another during their life. While some guilt can induce positive change, it can also become self-destructive, waste energy and add stress to your life. Read on for some tips on processing these feelings so that you can eliminate, or at least minimize, your guilt.
- Identify whether or not you should feel guilty. Remember that guilt is evidence of a troubled conscience and, in some circumstances, is appropriate. If, after careful thought, you conclude that your actions were wrong and that your guilt is justified, think of ways to make amends or make the situation “right.” Take action sooner rather than later to combat another emotion commonly associated with guilt: Shame.
- Engage in self-exploration to really get in touch with your feelings. Explore your feelings on a deeper level to ensure that it is indeed guilt you are feeling. When we feel guilty, we focus intently on events that have already happened. When we worry, it is about events that are presently happening or may happen in the future. If it is worry, find out how to eliminate worry.
- Affirm that the event has happened and that you feel guilty. Write it down if it helps. Here are some examples:
“I let Fido out and he got run over by a car. I feel guilty that Fido is now dead because I loved him and Mom and Dad loved him too.”
“I didn’t study for the test and I got an F. I feel guilty that I let my parents down who pay so much for me to go to school.”
“I broke up with Bobby. I feel guilty that he hurts so much.”
- Ask yourself, “Is there anything I can do to make this situation better right now?” Here are some examples:
“There is nothing I can do to bring Fido back, but I can apologize to Mom and Dad, and I can learn from my mistake.”
“I can talk to my professor and see if he will let me retake the exam. If not, I can drop the class so that the F will not appear on my transcript.”
“I could get back together with Bobby, but that would be a short-term solution, since I would not be happy and we would end up in the same place. I could console him, but that will probably make the situation worse. I have exhausted all possibilities and there is nothing I can do to make this situation better.”
- Modify your behavior so that it will not happen again. Write it down if it helps. Here are some examples:
“From now on, I will check to make sure the gate is locked every time I enter and exit the yard so that if we get another dog, he will not escape.”
“From now on, I will study as hard as I need to before my exams so that I do well.”
“Bobby is too clingy and sensitive. From now on, I will not date guys like that because it will end badly just like this relationship did.”
- If you still feel guilty, affirm that it is not necessary or productive. Say to yourself, “I have now done everything in my power to make this situation better. My guilt no longer serves any positive purpose.”
- Move on with your life. Don’t dwell on negative, guilty feelings; they lead to inappropriate levels of shame and self-loathing. Recognize that nobody’s perfect and we all make mistakes, and this is one you will not repeat. Engage in activities that are positive and affirming, and where you have opportunities to do good; allow yourself to see how the same mistake that made you feel guilty has now resulted in your being a better, more conscientious person.
How to Handle Guilt
What is guilt?
The fact of being responsible for an offense or wrongdoing….Remorseful awareness of having done something wrong. Comes from doing something wrong.
Where does it come from?
- From doing something wrong.
- From thinking you have done something wrong.
How do you know if you are guilty?
An authority (even if that authority is you) has set some standards that you have not lived up to. Romans 2:14
Can you be guilty without feeling guilty?
Yes! You can harden your heart to the standards that have been set and you can become callous to your feelings.
Can you feel guilty without being guilty?
You can doubt that God has really forgiven you and that in itself is sin, because you do not believe God.
What happens if you become guilty without dealing with it?
You will die. Rom 6:33 – The wages of sin is death.
How does one become guilty?
By breaking one of God’s laws. Eph 6:1 – Obey your parents. Rom 13:1 – Obey the governing authorities. Heb 13:1 – Obey your church leaders.
How does one become unguilty?
1 John 1:9 – Confess your sin to God
Acts 26:20 – Repent and follow Jesus.
Romans 10 – Call on the Name of the Lord Jesus.
What is the purpose of the conscience?
It is the vehicle the Holy Spirit uses to let us know how we are doing with God. If we are in fellowship with God our conscience is clear (1 Timothy 1:5; 3:9; Heb 9:9; 1 Peter 3:16).