When You're Feeling Guilty

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Micah 7:18-19

Guilt can be a funny thing. Sometimes we don’t feel guilty when we should. Other times we do feel guilty when we needn’t. Let’s think about that.

FEELING GUILTY

It’s painful, isn’t it, to feel guilty? A sense of blame, of personal responsibility, can be a crushing load. It’s so distressing, in fact, that we’ll do almost anything to avoid it or get rid of it.

The children in a home are fighting and Father comes to break up the quarrel. Each one insists almost frantically, “It’s not my fault, Daddy! I didn’t start it!” We adults are no different. When something has gone wrong and a culprit is being sought, how quick we are to say, “Don’t look at me; I’m not responsible!” We fear blame; we shrink from guilt. We can hardly bear to have it assigned to us.

Think of the last time you were accused of something. How did you react? If you’re like I am, you probably got all your defenses together – fast. You started by denying that the accusation was true, maybe with some heat and indignation. If it was a question of motives, you maintained that yours were pure. Perhaps you launched a counteroffensive, bringing up some accusations of your own. “You’ve got a nerve to charge me with that, especially after what you’ve done. You haven’t been such a shining light yourself.”

In some ways, those vigorous reactions are signs of strength. If a person simply collapses under criticism, swiftly admits the worst that can be said about him, he may have very little self-respect, very little sense of personhood. It’s no sign of health or of piety to be a kind of doormat, simply to absorb accusation.

But the problem with our defensive reactions, our protests and countercharges, is that they tend to distort our thinking and to deaden our moral conscience. I may know very well that I have failed badly in some area, that I have acted shamefully. But let me be charged with that or with something else and immediately I become insensitive to anything wrong about me. All I can think about, it seems, is clearing myself, proving my accuser to be out of line. And when I do that, any real feelings of guilt I may have get repressed. I push them down and refuse to acknowledge them.

You can see that happening in other people, can’t you? Every now and then you read about someone who has committed a brutal, sordid crime but who shows no evidence of guilt feelings or remorse. We can’t believe it. “The man’s not human,” we say. “He must be some kind of monster.” But think of how he is feeling the weight of society’s blame. Policemen have arrested him. Detectives may have cross-examined him. The newspapers advertise his misdeeds. He’s almost universally despised for what he’s done. And all of that may confirm in a devastating way what his own heart tells him. Who can bear that? Who can sustain that kind of a burden? He has to repress it somehow, to push it from consciousness, and so he does. So now he appears to us heartless, unfeeling.

The very thing we have witnessed in him may be going on every day in you and me. I’m not talking about lurid crimes – what we are charged with may seem trifling. But we try to get rid of our guilt feelings in some of the same ways. We’ll plead extenuating circumstances. We’ll find someone else to blame. We’ll insist we’re innocent. Or, failing in all that, we’ll banish the whole thing from mind and refuse to look at it. Anything to get off the hook, to ease the stabbing pain of guilt. But it takes powerful measures to quiet such pain. We may drug our consciences in the process. And, as a trade-off for those banished feelings of guilt, we may experience apathy, fear or strong anger.

FACING OUR RESPONSIBILITY

So sometimes, even though guilt feelings are painful, it’s a good thing to listen to them, to face our responsibility. I’m not talking now about the petty guilt feelings that are imposed on us by others, by parental scolding or by social constraints. We may be pressured to feel guilty about many trifling things. And there’s little benefit in that kind of discomfort.

But I’m talking about violations of our deeply held values, about those wrongs in our lives over which our own hearts reproach us. It’s striking to see how in every culture, among every people, some kind of moral standard is taken with great seriousness. And without exception, people in all of those groups are conscious that they have fallen short of their own accepted norms. Hence all the systems of sacrifice, all the efforts at appeasement. All of us fail to be true to some kind of law that is written on our hearts. That’s why feelings of guilt are universal and point to a pervasive need in all of us.

Some, as we have seen, are quite successful in repressing their guilt feelings. Perhaps they project them onto others. Perhaps they redirect them from serious evils to minor flaws that are more manageable. Maybe they try to calm them by acts of self-denial, by submitting to strenuous disciplines. They succeed in keeping at bay those deep feelings of guilt.

But that success, strangely, can be a notable handicap. It may even be a blessing in disguise when we are disturbed by feelings of guilt. They may be harbingers of hope. Only those who mourn can finally be comforted, only the guilty can find pardon.

To appreciate the dynamics of that, listen to these words of the prophet Micah, written many years ago:

Who is a God like thee, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger for ever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. Thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

Micah 7:18-19

What’s your reaction to thoughts like those? Suppose now that you have succeeded in repressing your guilt feelings. You’ve put that load of personal responsibility somewhere else. The thought that you have sinned, that you have rebelled against God’s will, is offensive to you. You don’t take it seriously. That may be true of murderers and child molesters, you reason, but it hardly describes you. You consider yourself reasonably upright, perhaps even favorably inclined toward religion. But you feel no need of forgiveness. You have no sense of guilt weighing you down. What will the announcement of a pardoning God mean to you? Very little. Something within you may respond, “Big deal! Who needs that?”

Wasn’t that the situation of many whom Jesus encountered during his ministry? He came offering God’s forgiveness and calling sinners to repentance. But to many, that message was not exciting in the least. As far as they were concerned, he was speaking to someone else, not to them. They were managing their lives quite well, thank you. They were doing everything that could be expected of them. What use had such fine, moral, religious people as they for forgiveness? What need had they to repent? They found it downright annoying to be classed with sinners. They greeted Jesus’ message with scorn, even hostility.

Have you ever reflected on this, that the gospel is good news only to those who know they need it? The people who get the most joy from reports of a newly discovered cure are those who have the disease. It’s great to hear about amnesty if you’re one of the deserters, or about a pardon from the governor if you are on Death Row. But if you are not in those categories, you may not be at all happy to hear such news. In fact, it may bother you that society is being so easy on such offenders. As for you, you don’t need kindness of that sort because you haven’t gone wrong. You haven’t let your country down or broken its laws. You don’t need any favors from the government. You’re okay.

But suppose this now: you know that things are not right between you and God. You realize that you have gone your own way and largely left him out of your life. You know his commands – we are to love him with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. You’re aware that you fall far short of that. In your honest moments, you have to acknowledge that the main concern of your life has been “looking out for Number 1.” Maybe you’re thinking right now of people you have hurt, of promises you may have broken, of times when you were indifferent to another’s need or pain. You wish you could blot out those scenes from the past, that you could forget the way you’ve lived. But somehow you can’t. You have a hard time liking yourself, respecting yourself, living with yourself, because you feel so guilty.

FINDING MERCY

What will it do for you to be told that God “pardons iniquity” and “passes over transgressions” (Micah 7:18)? Won’t it be music to your ears to learn that he will “tread our iniquities under foot” and “cast all our sins in the depths of the sea” (v. 19)? A pardoning God is great good news to you, because you feel a need to be forgiven.

Suppose you were one of those Jewish tax collectors in first-century Palestine, despised by all your countrymen. You’ve sold yourself to the Roman overlords. You’re making big profits at the expense of your own people. You put up a good front, you hold your head high. You’ll give anybody who criticizes you “as good as you get.” But in your quiet moments, you’re sometimes deeply troubled, secretly ashamed of what you’re doing.

You’ve heard about this Jesus and how he has a reputation for seeking out people like you, coming to their houses, eating at their tables. They call him the “friend of sinners” (Matt. 11:19). One day he’s to pass through your town, Jericho. As he walks down Main Street, you climb a tree to get a good look at him. When he passes by, he sees you and says, “Zacchaeus, come down. I have to stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). You don’t know what to make of that. Here’s a teacher come from God! And he calls you by name! You scramble down out of that tree, overcome with joy. You lead him to your house. On that day, you find forgiveness. You become a new man. In gratitude, you decide to change yours ways and right the wrongs you’ve done. Jesus was good news to you because you felt the need of a Savior. A sense of guilt can be a precious thing if it opens our lives to God’s grace.

What if the differences among us are not as significant as we like to think? What if all of us stand on the same ground before God? What if, regardless of our reputation or our moral record, each of us shares the same fallenness? What if we’re all sinners, all guilty, all lost? That’s the way the Bible puts it. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) . . . There is none righteous, no not one.” (Romans 3:10). Then, friends, this promise of a pardoning God would be glad tidings for all of us, wouldn’t it?

Yes, what if you and I and others are among the sinful ones whom Jesus came to call, the lost sheep he wanted to seek? What if God can “pass over” our sins, can extend us forgiveness and eternal life because Christ died for all, because he bore the sins of the whole world when he offered up his life? Why then, the message of Christ crucified and risen would be the most glorious good news any of us has ever heard. And all can sing to the God made known in Jesus, “Who is a pardoning God like Thee, and who has grace so rich and free?”

You see, I deeply believe that what we’ve just supposed is the real truth about all of us. We are fellow-sinners. We stand together under judgment. And though we may repress it, hide it from view, we can’t by our own effort banish guilt. But God through the sacrifice of his Son has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. He has buried them, as the prophet says, “in the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). The free gift of forgiveness is now offered in the gospel. It can be yours if you will confess your sin, acknowledge your guilt and receive Jesus with a believing heart. You may live to thank God for those feelings of guilt you’ve struggled with, for there is unimaginable release and joy in being forgiven.

If you say, “I have no guilt, I need no forgiveness,” it’s not for me to contradict you. I’ll not be your accuser. But if ever in the quietness of recollection you begin to feel the twinge of guilt or hear the whisper of a troubled conscience, don’t ignore it. Don’t push it away. It could be the voice of God to your heart. It could be an invitation to remember Jesus Christ, crucified for you.