Guilt: Christian Motivation or Spiritual Neurosis?
Ivan L Sell
We have all, at one time or another, experienced feelings of guilt. The intensity of these guilty feelings runs the gamut from a temporary pang of conscience over running a stop sign to an obsessive fear that we may have committed the "unpardonable sin" If But whatever degree of guilt we feel, the way we handle it can have a far-reaching effect on our Christian lives.
Must a Christian constantly carry around a burden of guilt? Is that what it takes to be properly "humble" before God? Is guilt necessary to be "meek"? Guilty feelings are basically negative. They often make us feel hopeless and despondent and we try the best we can to get rid of them. We remind ourselves that God is merciful, loving and willing to forgive. After all — there are multitudes of scriptures assuring us that is the case. But we also remember all those other verses exhorting us to perfection and warning of punishment for sin. Yet perfection seems so elusive. Although we strive to obey God's. will in our lives, it appears that we inevitably slip up somewhere, some time. And the old guilt feelings return again. What Is Guilt? Is there anything positive about feeling guilty? What is guilt, anyway? How does the Bible define it? There are three Greek words in the New Testament translated "guilt" in the English. These words are hupodikos ("liable to judgment"), opheilo ("to be obligated, to owe") and enochos ("guilty, deserving of punishment"). Interestingly enough, not one of them implies or refers to a feeling of guilt. They refer to legal, moral, or theological states or conditions, but not to emotions. Guilt is the "judicial verdict" by which God condemns the sins of every man and demands repentance of the sinner. Every person has sinned and come under the death penalty: "All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). We know that it is only through Jesus Christ that this state of guilt can be removed from us (Acts 13:38-39): "Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses." By His death in our stead we are "justified," or declared "not guilty" before God. Despite the fact that Christ's death frees us from the penalty of sin, from judgment and punishment, many people continue to suffer from feelings of guilt. This is an emotion we have all experienced. And we know what a devastating effect it can have — depressing, futilizing, paralyzing. It afflicts us in three ways: 1) loss of self-esteem; 2) fear of punishment; and 3) feeling of rejection. Guilt vs. Self-Esteem. Of course, we can cite many negative scriptures about the failings of human nature, "works of the flesh," etc. But let's look at some positive scriptures showing God's esteem for us although we are not now perfect. Let's look at a few scriptures which discuss the extreme worth of the individual Christian in God's eyes. Hebrews 2:6-8: "What is man, that thou [God] art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands: Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him." God didn't create us to be objects of contempt, the recipients of guilty verdicts, or guilty feelings. Rather, he created us out of love for a great purpose, a great destiny. He created us, works with us, forgives us, cherishes us because He wants us to become His sons — members of His family. This transcendent purpose is explained in our free booklet Why Were You Born? I John 3:1-2: "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God..." As a potential son of God, a Christian can certainly walk humbly before God and still have a clear realization of his great worth to God, for true humility is not a matter of seeing how worthless we can feel, but realizing how much greater God is. True humility is God-oriented and positive ("God is greater than me"). False humility, on the other hand, is self-centered and negative ("I am worthless"). It overlooks our God-ordained purpose for existing. Yes, we do fall short; we do sin. But even then God doesn't discount or depreciate our individual worth and potential. He doesn't write us off as a total loss. Neither should we! Is God Out To Get You? Country-music stations in the United States have been playing a tune called "God's Gonna Get You for That." And, unfortunately, that title reflects the common concept most people possess about God's nature. However, as the apostle Paul explains, it is a totally unbalanced outlook. After describing his daily battle with "the flesh" and admitting his frequent defeats, Paul went on to say in Romans 8:1-2: "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." Naturally, we should fear the consequences of disobeying God and falling away from His truth. But when we repent of our mistakes, we need not fear divine retribution. God isn't out to "get even" for our sins. He doesn't plan to "settle the score." The score was settled by the sacrifice of Christ: God forgives by forgetting — not by planning revenge! Yet how many of us, because of false inbred societal concepts, sometimes fear God as a cruel, vengeful Being, waiting to strike out at us for our slightest weakness? I have heard people say: "I hope God won't kill my child for what I did." They are mentally inflicting a most cruel punishment upon themselves because of guilt feelings, not realizing God's great capacity for compassion and forgiveness. "As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live..." (Ezek. 33:11). Feelings of Rejection. A third facet or result of guilt is the feeling of being rejected. Now, it is possible for sin to separate a person from God. "Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear," said the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel (Isa. 59:2). Those sins stood in the way because the people were unrepentant. Ancient Israel had no intention of changing her evil ways. The nation rejected God and His ways as a whole. Consequently, God was left with little choice but to eventually reject Israel — after centuries of longsuffering — and send her into captivity. But Christians are under a better covenant, a better relationship with God (Heb. 8:6). They have the blood of Christ to blot out past sins (Heb. 9:14) and the Spirit of Christ to enable them to do His will (Heb. 10:16). Christians may slip up — but they don't intend to make sin a way of life. They aren't rejecting God wholesale — and therefore God doesn't reject them. What are we to do if we sin in weakness and under temptation? "If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9). Reflecting on God's great mercy and compassion, the apostle Paul was moved to ask: "Who [or what] shall separate us from the love of Christ?" His answer: Nothing "shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:35-39). Not even the sin which "so easily besets us" (Heb.12:1). The Scriptures make it evident that a converted Christian doesn't need to continually experience the emotion of guilt with its attendant feelings of loss of self-esteem, punishment and rejection. Of course, we are not speaking here of those who would "turn grace into license, and continue in sin that grace might abound" (Jude 4; Rom. 6:1). We are referring to sincere Christians who are striving to mortify the deeds of the flesh and become a new person in Christ Jesus — those very ones who, even like the apostle Paul, will find themselves occasionally being overcome by the weaknesses of the flesh. What emotions, then, should we experience as Christians when we slip into sin? Worldly Sorrow. The apostle Paul, in II Corinthians 7, drew a clear distinction between "godly sorrow" and "the sorrow of the world." Upon closer analysis, we could safely say the "sorrow of the world" is indeed the masochistic emotion of guilt. We could contrast differing emotions in these different "sorrows" and realize just how destructive the "sorrow of the world" really is. It does indeed lead to death. A Christian can strangle himself to death spiritually with these wrong emotions. Godly sorrow leads to change, while the "sorrow of the world" consists of destructive guilt feelings which tear a person down but don't contribute to positive action or repentance. Worldly sorrow involves continually (even long after repentance and forgiveness) focusing concern onto yourself and your past mistakes. It involves a refusal or inability to forgive yourself. There comes a time when you've just got to dump your guilt. You can't carry it around like a cross all your life. "Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to. what lies ahead " (Phil. 3:13). Deep — sometimes neurotic — feelings of guilt are manifest in worldly sorrow, but real repentance is totally lacking. Some of the symptoms are superficial changes for the wrong reasons and spiritual stagnation due to guilt-paralysis. Godly Sorrow. On the other hand, godly sorrow leads to change or repentance because a person accepts God's forgiveness — and for gives himself. He doesn't feel compelled to consider himself worthless or rejected by God. Rather, he focuses on God, His grace and his own future "good works." His motivation for change is to do God's will, to love and help his fellowman, and in so doing to promote his own spiritual growth. The result is genuine repentance and a deep change of heart. King David of ancient Israel understood these principles when he prayed this prayer in Psalm 32: "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord'; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin" (verses 1-5). As Christians we must be extremely careful to avoid creating unnecessary and harmful emotions of guilt in ourselves or in others. We need to recognize guilt as a legal standing before God as a result of our shortcomings and sins, necessitating repentance and forgiveness. But it doesn't need to be an abiding emotion after God's grace has been extended. It is vital that we understand and appreciate God's great capacity for mercy and forgiveness, and learn to forgive ourselves as Christ forgives us. Paul cautioned the Corinthian Church to forgive and comfort a repentant sinner lest he be "swallowed up with overmuch sorrow" (II Cor. 2:7). Chronic feelings of guilt, instead of motivating us to overcome, can be like a boa constrictor — squeezing the life out of us. They can terrify and paralyze and futilize. So let's remember God's great mercy and be on guard against this destructive "sorrow of the world."