Getting Rid of Guilt
1 John 1
James C. Denison
A teacher gave her fourth-grade class a list of famous sayings and asked them to complete each one. Here are some of the results:
Better be safe than . . . punch a 5th grader.
Don’t bite the hand that . . . looks dirty.
You can’t teach an old dog new . . . math.
A penny saved is . . . not worth much.
When the blind leadeth the blind . . . get out of the way.
Where there’s smoke, there’s . . . pollution.
Children should be seen and not . . . spanked or grounded.
A bird in the hand is . . . a real mess.
Early to bed and early to rise . . . is first in the bathroom.
None are so blind as . . . Helen Keller.
Laugh and the whole world laughs with you. Cry and . . . you have to blow your nose.
We’re going to try to do better with some of the famous sayings of Scripture. Together we’ll examine four of the most commonly quoted passages in all the word of God. None of them means what most people think it means. There’s more to the story for each and every one. And yet every one of these passages, these promises, is crucial to living in the joy, the victory, the celebration of life which Jesus wants us to experience every day. For the next few weeks we’re going to open four invitations to the party of God, and learn how to make them our own.
We start with one of the most frustrating problems plaguing Christians today–guilt. Guilt over mistakes we’ve made, failures we’ve experienced, sins we’ve committed. Skeletons in the closets of our souls.
We all have things in our past we don’t want anyone to know about. I do, and so do you. Where does guilt live in your mind or heart? What past failures haunt you? What secrets from your past still shame you? Where does your past afflict your present?
Are you living with failure and wondering if you’re forgiven? Are you facing tough times and wondering if you’re being punished? Does your past poison your present?
A psychologist recently said he could dismiss 90 percent of his clients if they could heal their guilt over failing in the past or fear about failing in the future.
Someone has said that living with guilt is like being stung to death by a single bee. How do we remove that stinger today?
Why do we struggle with guilt?
Our text is clear and plain: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
To “confess” is to admit and repent. God is “faithful and just”–he always keeps his promises, here to forgive. So he will “forgive” our sins. And he will “purify us from all unrighteousness.” He wipes the slate clean, no matter what was written on it.
This is the plain and clear promise of God: he forgives every sin we have confessed to him in genuine repentance. So why do we all struggle with guilt over these sins?
Some of us grew up with a God of anger and wrath, more like Zeus throwing thunderbolts than a Father sending his Son to die for us. We picture God with gigantic scales, judging all we do. We hear that he forgives sins in general, but we’re not sure he has forgiven ours.
Some of us grew up with a deep sense of personal inadequacy, a low self image, and we don’t think we truly deserve to be forgiven.
I struggled with this issue for many years. My parents were very loving and supportive, but had very high expectations for me. When I failed them I felt that I was a failure. And so I grew up with a very low self image, a sense that I was inadequate, that nothing I could do would be good enough.
I learned to compensate, as people with this problem do. I created what psychologists call an “idealized self,” the person I wanted you to think I was, and I worked hard to become that person. I had many masks in the closet–one for church, one for school, one for work. Always trying to be the person I thought you wanted me to be.
But deep inside me I knew it wasn’t really true. I didn’t want you to know who I really was, because I was afraid you wouldn’t like me very much. And when I became a Christian, I struggled for years to believe that God had really forgiven my sins. Because I didn’t think I deserved to be forgiven.
Some of you know exactly what I mean.
And some of us practice “Baptist penance.” We’re self-made people, and cannot accept grace from people or from God. We must pay it back, for we don’t want to owe anyone, even the Lord. If God won’t punish us, we’ll punish ourselves. We’ll hold onto our guilt, our pain, our failure, until we think we’ve paid our debt.
How do we break this cycle of grief and guilt?
What do we do with our guilt?
Understand the consequences of sin. Like holes left by nails in wood, the results of sin remain even when the sin is confessed and forgiven.
When we lie to others, they may forgive us but they’ll always wonder if they can trust our words. If we are unfaithful, our spouse may never be able to trust our commitment. If we steal or embezzle, our colleagues may never be able to trust our character. Virginity lost cannot be regained. Pornographic images take years to leave the mind. Substance abuse can affect our health until we die.
And sin will always take us further than we wanted to go, cost us more than we wanted to pay, and keep us longer than we wanted to stay.
Paul Harvey once told how an Eskimo kills a wolf. He coats his knife blade with blood and lets it freeze. He then buries the knife, blade up, in the frozen tundra. The wolf catches the scent of fresh blood and begins to lick the knife. He keeps on licking, harder and harder. Because of the cold, he never notices the pain of the blade on his tongue. His craving for blood is so great that he does not realize he is now lapping up his own blood. He licks the blade until he bleeds to death, swallowing his own life. So it is with the consequences of sin if we do not give it immediately to God. This is the reason we are not to sin and confess, sin and confess. God will forgive every sin we admit with repentant hearts, but the consequences may remain long after the sin is done.
Know that guilt is not from God. The consequences of sin are clear, and motivate us to refuse temptation. But know that guilt is not among them. Not once in Scripture does the Holy Spirit use guilt to accomplish his purposes. He condemns sin, not sinners. He convicts of failures, he does not call us failures. Not once does he use guilt in our lives.
Guilt comes from ourselves, our culture, or Satan himself. Realize that guilt is not from God.
Confess your sins, specifically and immediately to God. No generic confessions will do. Be specific and honest with God. And do this immediately, before the cancer can spread in your soul.
I recommend a moral inventory at least once a week. Get a piece of paper and a pen, get alone with God, and ask the Holy Spirit to show you anything which is wrong between you and the Father. Write down what he says, specifically. You’ll be amazed at what comes into your mind. Confess what you discover, honestly and genuinely. Then burn the paper, tear it up, throw it away. Know that you’ve dealt with these issues with God, and you’re done.
Start when the sin is small, before the cancer grows and the malignancy spreads. Otherwise, it will. For example, do you happen to know how a worm gets inside an apple? Most of us think the worm burrows in from the outside. In fact, an insect lays an egg in the apple blossom. The worm later hatches in the heart of the apple, then eats his way out, destroying the apple as he does so. It is the same with sin.
Accept the forgiveness of God. Remember and claim these scriptures–write these references down if that will help you remember them.
Psalm 103.3 promises that God “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” All of them.
Psalm 103.12: God will separate your sins from you as far as the east is from the west.
Micah 7.19: God will bury your sins in the depths of the sea.
Isaiah 43.25: God will remember them no more. The next time you confess a sin you’ve already confessed, God won’t know what you’re talking about.
Continue to claim God’s grace, every time guilt attacks. You may need to do this a hundred times today, or tomorrow, or all week long. But eventually the enemy will get the idea, and you’ll get the scriptural fact of God’s forgiveness deep into your soul, and you’ll find one day that the guilt is gone. All by the grace of God.
Are you being tempted to believe that nothing will come of your sin? Know that the consequences remain far after the sin is confessed. Give your temptation to God today, immediately. Claim the power he alone can provide.
On the other hand, are you a Christian who has been beaten up by guilt? Give that pain to the grace of God, right now. Trust it into his loving hands every time it attacks you. And eventually the abundant joy of Jesus will be yours.
A small boy was visiting his grandparents on their farm. He was given a slingshot to play with in the woods. Heading back to dinner, he saw Grandma’s pet duck. Out of impulse, he shot a rock at it, hit the duck in the head, and killed it. He was shocked and grieved. In panic, he hid the dead duck in the wood pile, only to see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing.
After lunch that day Grandma said, “Sally, let’s wash the dishes.” But Sally said, “Grandma, Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today, didn’t you Johnny?” Then she whispered to him, “Remember the duck?” So Johnny did the dishes.
Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing, and Grandma said, “I’m sorry but I need Sally to help make supper.” But Sally smiled and said, “But Johnny told me he wanted to help you.” And she whispered again, “Remember the duck?” So Sally went fishing and Johnny stayed.
After days of doing his and Sally’s chores, Johnny couldn’t stand it any longer. He came to Grandma and confessed that he had killed her duck. She knelt down, gave him a hug, and said, “I know. You see, I was standing at the window and I saw the whole thing. Because I love you, I forgave you. But I was just wondering how long you would let Sally make a slave of you.”
Your Father is wondering the same thing today.