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.