Getting a Grip on Guilt
James C. Denison
On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, an armistice ending hostilities with Germany went into effect. Its result was the eventual end of World War I. As a consequence, “Armistice Day” was observed each November 11. In 1954, following the end of World War II and the Korean conflict, legislation was signed changing this annual observance to Veterans Day.
Whereas Memorial Day honors those who died in the service of our country. Veterans Day honors the veterans of all American wars.
Nearly 2.7 million men and women are currently serving in the military or in the reserves. There are 23.7 million veterans living in America today. Each and every one deserves our gratitude on this day and every day. You were willing to serve and even to die so that we could live free.
On this Veterans Day, it seems especially appropriate that we consider our topic. Our Savior died at Calvary so that each of us could live free from spiritual slavery and guilt. We can celebrate total victory over temptation and sin this morning. We can be completely free from guilt and shame.
Why, then, is guilt such a pervasive problem for Christians? Why is it is hard for us to make peace with our past? Why do we all have secret sins and failures which plague our souls? How can we get a grip on guilt today?
Why guilt? (5)
Let’s begin by understanding our spiritual disease. “What’s wrong with me?” our series has asked. The answer is your sin nature, your desire to be your own God. It has affected every part of you. Guilt is the inevitable result.
Here’s the background of Psalm 51. King David had an affair with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. She became pregnant. To cover his sin, eventually he had Uriah killed and took the widow as his wife. But God knew what he had done, and sent the prophet Nathan to expose his sin.
In this one event David broke nine of God’s Ten Commandments. He broke in order the tenth, coveting his neighbor’s wife; the seventh, by committing adultery; the eighth by stealing her for himself; the sixth by murdering her husband; the ninth, by lying about his sin; the fifth, by dishonoring his parents; the second, by making an idol of Bathsheba; and the first and third, by shaming God and his name. At least he didn’t break the Sabbath, that we know of.
Why did he do this, knowing how wrong these sins would be? Why do we sin, even when we know that guilt and shame will be the result? “The church is full of hypocrites,” our critics allege. If we are the children of God, why do we still struggle with temptation and sin? Let’s apply some of the facts we’ve learned so far in our series.
First, sin is still real. Verse 5 is clear: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” This verse does not mean that babies or fetuses sin; it means that we have all inherited a sin nature, a propensity to sin.
Romans 5:12 says, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all have sinned.” We have each inherited a tendency toward sin and the guilt it produces.
Even when we become the children of God, sin is still real. Paul admitted that what he wanted to do he did not do, and what he did not want to do, that he did (Romans 7:14-20). An illustration from Roman law may help: when a victim was crucified, he was considered dead in the eyes of the law from the moment he was nailed to the cross. His execution was recorded on the day he was crucified, not on the day his body actually died. It might take hours or even days for him to die physically, but he was already dead legally.
So it is with your salvation–you became the legal “saint” of God at the moment you invited the Spirit into your life, but the sin nature is still real. It won’t leave you forever until you step from this fallen world into God’s perfect paradise.
Second, Satan is still real. He is a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8), looking for you. You are his enemy. Jesus said in John 8:44 that the devil is a “murderer from the beginning,” and “a liar and the father of lies.” He only left Jesus after his wilderness defeat “until an opportune time” (Luke 4:18). He tempts and deceives every one of us. He is better at tempting than you are at resisting.
He is sly and subtle, never tempting us to do what he knows we will not do. As when lights are dimmed slowly and our eyes adjust to the darkness, so he seeks to lead us by steps from sin to its devastating results. David had no idea that adultery would lead to murder, but Satan did.
As a result, we each think that we are the one person in all of human history who can sin without consequences. No one will know about us; we can do this and be OK.; no one will be hurt. Every person in sin thinks it’s so. But that’s a lie.
Third, free will is still real. God does not remove our freedom when we become Christians. My sons will always be my sons, but they don’t have to act like it. “The devil made me do it” is a cop-out. Our family backgrounds and circumstances are often contributing factors, but the choice is ours. We choose to sin, even know the shame it will produce.
Listen to James 1:14-15: “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
Why do we sin, even when we know that guilt and shame will result? Because we have a sin nature, and we choose to sin; we are deceived into thinking we can do so without consequence. The results and guilt which come from our sin are disastrous and devastating.
I read once about a terrible work of modern art: a loaded shotgun affixed to a chair. It was to be viewed by sitting in the chair and looking directly into the gun barrel. The gun was set on a timer to fire at an undetermined moment within the next hundred years. And people waited in line to sit and stare into the gun!
Get out of that line, now.
What do we do when we sin?
Our second question: what do we do when we sin? Our psalm is very clear.
First, we turn to God (vs. 1-2). We ask for his “mercy,” which is not getting the punishment we deserve. We ask for his “unfailing love,” the Old Testament word for “grace,” which is getting the love and forgiveness we don’t deserve. We ask him to “blot out” our transgressions, a Hebrew phrase which means to wash the garment until it is clean and the stain is gone.
Our tendency when we sin is to run from God and his church, to hide from him as Adam and Eve did in the Garden, when we need to do the opposite. The sick need a doctor; the sinner needs God.
Second, we admit our sin to him (vs. 3-4). Our human reaction is to excuse our sin, to transfer blame to others, or to rationalize what we have done. A lawyer once said he never met a guilty defendant. Every one had justified his or her behavior somehow. We judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.
But David didn’t do that–he admitted his “transgressions,” which means to cross the boundaries of what is right. He acknowledged his “sin,” his moral failure.
And he stated correct theology: “Against you only have I sinned” (v. 4). We hurt other people, sometimes in horrible ways; but by theological definition we “sin” against God.
Third, we claim God’s cleansing (vs. 7-12). When we confess our sin God does truly forgive and cleanse us. Hyssop was used by a priest to sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice over the sinner. So God cleanses us by the blood of his Son, Jesus Christ, who paid for all our sins.
God can wash us and make us whiter than snow; he can blot out all our iniquities; he can recreate a pure heart and spirit in our lives. He can restore to us the joy of our salvation (v. 12). He can make us new people. This is the miracle of his grace.
1 John 1:9 is clear: if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sin, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Every time.
Last, we make restitution to those we have hurt (vs. 13-19). David vowed to “teach transgressors your ways,” from his personal experience, so that “sinners will turn back to you” (v. 13).
He would “sing of your righteousness” and “declare your praise” in worship (vs. 14-15). He would lead the entire nation to “righteous sacrifices” as their godly king (v. 19).
In other words, he would make restitution to the nation he has so injured. In fact, David wrote this psalm for public use by the people, not just private use in his worship. So that all would know of his sin, his repentance, and God’s grace.
We make restitution–not so that we can earn God’s forgiveness, but in gratitude for it; not so that others will forgive us, but so that we can help those we have hurt. By grace, as God has been gracious to us.
How do we deal with guilt?
Now, what guilt is plaguing your soul this morning? Where do you need to make peace with your past? Let’s assume that you’ve done what David did. You have turned to God, admitted your sin to him, claimed his forgiveness, and made restitution. But still you are bothered by the shame which sin brings to your soul. How do you deal with it?
Know that guilt is never of God. Jesus condemns sin, never sinners. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our transgressions, but never condemns us for them. When Jesus had to call the Pharisees and Sadducees “hypocrites” (cf. Matthew 25), he was describing their actions as a means of bringing them to repentance. He was willing to forgive all who would be forgiven and restore all who wanted to be restored.
Whatever guilt you are feeling today, know that it is not from the Lord. It is not how he punishes. It is not how the God who is love relates to his children.
Know that guilt is often of Satan. He uses it to anesthetize you spiritually so that your spirit grows dull and sin is easier for you to commit. And he uses guilt to defeat you and steal your victory in Christ. So refuse it, this moment. Stop listening to the voice which tells you that you’ll never win over this sin so you might as well stop resisting. Refuse to hear that whisper which condemns you for your failures and tries to take away your joy in Christ.
And know that guilt is how we pay for sins God has forgiven. If he will not punish us, we’ll punish ourselves. We’ll feel guilty enough for long enough to believe that we have somehow paid our debt. All the while the One who died to pay that debt is grieved that we will not accept his grace and celebrate his victory.
Instead, take your guilt to the grace of God. If you have followed David’s example, claim your Father’s forgiveness for your sin. Then the next time guilt attacks, return to this moment when you confessed that failure and were forgiven. Tell your guilt that you have been set free by grace. The next time the guilt returns, do the same thing.
You may have to respond to guilt a hundred times today and 90 times tomorrow, but eventually guilt will die in the presence of grace and you’ll be set free. Start today.
I read this week about Shannon Ethridge, a 16-year-old who was driving to school when she ran over Marjorie Jarstfar, a woman riding her bicycle along a country road. Mrs. Jarstfar died from her injuries, and Ethridge was found completely at fault.
She was consumed by guilt and considered suicide several times. She never took her life because of one person: Marjorie Jarstfar’s husband, Gary. He forgave the teenager and asked his attorney to drop all charges against her. Instead, he asked her to continue in the pattern his wife had lived. “God wants to strengthen you through this,” he told her. “In fact, I am passing Marjorie’s legacy on to you.”
Shannon Ethridge has since written bestselling books for girls and women. She writes to help people overcome guilt-ridden lives, sharing the grace which was shared with her.
You have probably not killed anyone or committed sin as public as hers. But your past is just as personal, your guilt just as real. Jesus has already forgiven every sin you’ve confessed to him. Now it’s your turn. Start today.