June 26, 2001
We were at a funeral when we heard someone say that they seldom go to funerals or church because “the preacher always makes me feel guilty.”
No one likes guilt. It steals both peace and sleep. Yet guilt is as vital to our well-being as pain. Pain tells us our body is injured or sick. Guilt tells us to stop and consider our actions.
Both are built in signals that protect us from physical and moral danger yet they can malfunction. My oldest son lost two fingers in a sawmill accident. Sometimes he feels pain in those fingers yet they are gone. This “phantom pain” is not legitimate.
Sometimes guilt is not legitimate either. When my nephew died on a trip away from home, my brother said, “I should have driven him there myself.” As we talked about it, he realized that he had no reason to feel guilty. He knew his son was dying, regardless of the trip. Taking that trip or having his dad with him on it would not have changed the inevitable.
Also, we can be trained to think our actions are wrong but they are neither illegal or immoral. A friend has huge pangs of guilt over spilled food. He admits that when he was little, his mother scolded him at the slightest accident, making him feel that spilling food was deliberate bad behavior. While his head says this guilt is silly, his emotions poke his conscience.
Illegitimate or false guilt makes us beat ourselves with regret over things that are simple mistakes, or unavoidable and out of our control. True guilt is different. It relates to moral choices we make and things we can change.
True guilt convicts us when we do things that are against an outside standard such as civil law and God’s moral laws. Whether we rob a bank or say unkind, careless words, or neglect to do something we knew we should have done, we can feel pangs of conscience. These feelings are supposed to direct us toward change and help us to think, talk, and live upright, moral lives.
Real guilt comes in two varieties. The Bible talks about the remorse we feel when we do wrong and get caught. We may be sad, mad, or otherwise upset but that is as far as this kind of guilt goes. It creates an uproar but we do not change.
The other kind of guilt is a “sorrow that leads to repentance” or a turn away from whatever we did toward changed behavior. This guilt is different from simply being sorry we got caught because with it we realize we have displeased God — and we did not want to do that. We are sorry because we are hurting ourselves and our relationship with Him, so we take steps to live differently.
This makes sense. If we get a painful sliver under our skin, we don’t take painkillers but look for ways to remove the sliver. Yet some people who feel true guilt avoid tackling the real issues. They try to get rid of the law or God (and say He is dead). They try to eradicate those guilty feelings with excuses, rationalizing and denial. This may numb their conscience but it does not set them free.
God’s solution for guilt is confession, forgiveness and cleansing. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
Running away from guilt makes as much sense as trying to cure a broken leg with pills. While we might be able to cover some kinds of pain for a while, covering guilt never works. It builds life-limiting scar tissue and blocks our relationship with God and others.
Lord, repentance is never a one-time activity. Even the godliest of Your people must constantly listen to their conscience. Help me then, to always hear what guilt is saying to me. If it is true guilt, may I never try to cover or excuse it but bring it to You for forgiveness so You can change my life. Amen.