Today we’re going to continue to talk about guilt, what it is, and why we experience it? We’ll look at how the world views it and the biblical perspective on it. Finally, we’ll talk about what God has to say about handling guilt biblically?
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Handling Guilt Biblically Part 2
We’re in a series on “Handling Emotions Biblically.” In previous posts we covered anger, depression, fear and worry. If you missed any of them, just click on the link.
Last week we looked in depth at Psalm 38 which was written by David as he struggled with guilt and depression.
Today we’ll look at how guilt and shame are tied to other negative emotions like fear and shame. We’ll also see how the culture has tried to remove all restrictions, including God’s law, to alleviate feelings of guilt, instead of dealing with the root issues. Then we’ll look at what guilt is biblically and how God says to deal with it.
An Unholy Trio: Guilt, Fear & Shame
A few weeks ago we looked at the first time fear showed up in the Bible. Adam and Eve had disobeyed God and eaten the fruit they had been forbidden to eat. When their eyes were opened and they realized what they had done, Genesis 3 says:
7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.
8 And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
That fear was triggered by guilt and shame. Their response was to hide and when confronted to shift the blame to someone else:
12 Then the man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”
13 And the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Since that day in the garden, human beings have perfected the art of blame-shifting and tried to cover our guilt with all kinds of fig leaves. We’ve blamed our parents, our economic situations, society, cultural demands, and religion just to name a few.
The World’s Fig Leaves
- The Psychology Fig Leaf
Secular psychologists told us that religion and society imposed unfair “codes of conduct” on us and that was the root of our guilt. The answer we were told was to throw off those constraints and create our own definitions of what’s right and wrong.
Isn’t that what women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, the right to abortion, the demand to be gay, bisexual, transgender or whatever we desire, are all about? In our attempt to alleviate any guilt, we’ve re-written the code.
- The Environmental Fig Leaf
Behaviorists came along and blamed the environment. They said we shouldn’t feel guilty. It’s not our fault. It’s because we’re poor and uneducated. Or it’s the way our parents raised or neglected us.
- The Low Self-Esteem Fig Leaf
The self-esteem movement told us it’s because we don’t feel good about ourselves. We must raise our self-esteem so we can eliminate those negative emotions.
- The Medical Fig Leaf
The medical world has clouded the issue, too. Drunkenness is now called a disease, alcoholism. Rebellion is oppositional defiance disorder. Sexual immorality is a sexual addiction.
The problem is when we quit calling things what they are, the answers get obscured, as well.
The Effects of Living in a Sin Cursed World
No one would deny the the environment in which a person is raised has an effect on them. But we have a choice as to how we’ll respond to those factors. And because of our fallen nature we can have a predisposition to certain kinds of sin, weaknesses, where we need to depend on God in a greater way.
And, certainly, we need to examine any “code of conduct” in light of God’s Word. Legalism and false religions are full of man-made rules. But the answer isn’t to come up with what seems right to us.
There is a way that seems right to a man,
But its end is the way of death (Prov. 14.12).
And nowhere in the Bible are we told to esteem ourselves, but rather, to esteem God and others. We’re not to denigrate ourselves, but neither are we to think more highly of ourselves than we should.
For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith (Rom. 12.3).
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself (Phil. 2.3).
Whatever our weaknesses, whatever our environment, God has promised that if we belong to Him, He’ll give us the grace we need for every situation.
No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1 Cor. 10.13).
And if a person is not saved, those are the things God uses to help us see our need for Him.
The problems with the world’s fig leaves is that none of then have eliminated the problem of guilt. First of all, because guilt is not just a feeling, it’s a state of being. We are guilty before a holy God. But neither has it eliminated the feelings of guilt and shame, because God created each of us with a conscience.
14 Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. 15 They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right (Rom. 2.14-15 NLT).
The conscience can be quieted or pacified to some degree, but it still remains.
I once counseled a young woman who had lived a lesbian lifestyle. One day we were talking about the importance of cultivating wise friendships if we want to live God’s way. She resisted giving up one lesbian friend. Her comment about this friend caught my attention. She said, “She’s not like most other gay people.” When I asked her how she would describe most of the gay people she knew, she thought for a minute and said, “Broken.” As she went on to explain, what she was describing was guilt. Guilt which led to all sorts of destructive behavior and negative feelings.
God does ask us to examine the cause of our guilty feelings. Let’s look again at His questions to Adam and Eve:
“Who told you that you were naked?” the Lord God asked. “Have you eaten from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat?” (Gen. 3.11 NLT).
“Who told you that you were naked?” In other words, what’s your source of truth? Is it God or the AMA? Is it God or Freud? Is it God or the culture?
“Have you eaten from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat?” Have you disobeyed my commands? Have you attempted to make up your own rules?
Before we talk about God’s answer to guilt, let’s lay a little ground work.
What Is Guilt?
Guilt is liability or culpability for doing wrong. It’s not primarily a feeling though there are feelings associated with it. It’s actually a state of being, as I said a minute ago.
Some general truths about guilt:
- We’re all guilty.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3.23).
God has given us His Word and the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin, to make us feel bad when we are going our own way and ignoring God’s commands. It’s His love that allows us to experience shame and guilt. It tells us something is wrong and helps steer us away from the judgment that will come if we continue going our own way (Jn. 16.7).
- We’re accountable to God for our guilt.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 6.23).
Even as believers, if we ignore God’s conviction and continue going our own way, God may discipline us.
5 And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons:
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him;
6 For whom the Lord loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives.”
7 If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? 8 But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons (Heb. 12.5-8).
Even when sinned against, we are accountable for our responses. God won’t go to our parents and say why did your son or daughter sin? He won’t go to our spouse and say why were you such a turkey?
He comes to us. He went to Adam and Eve individually about their own sin.
9 So whether we are here in this body or away from this body, our goal is to please him. 10 For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body (2 Cor. 5.9-10).
A Moral Compass
What if a person is guilty of sin, but he or she doesn’t feel guilty? They seem to be able sin with no feelings of guilt or shame. Or what if a person has not sinned, but they feel guilty? They may have a conscience that functions unbiblically.
The conscience is like a moral compass. A compass works with the earth’s magnetic fields which cause it to point north. If there was no “magnetic field” to line up with, the compass would be useless.
God’s Word is the magnetic field that causes our moral compass to function properly. So if a person’s moral compass is not informed by the Word of God, it’s not going to function as it should. They may be guilty of sin, but not experience any guilt over it.
Many of us as wives never understood that biblical submission is a command from God and we were anything but submitted. But we didn’t necessarily feel guilty about it at the time. Then we got saved, started hearing the Word taught, and our consciences were pricked.
But if, after we hear the truth, we reject it and refuse to obey, we can also sear our consciences.
1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron (1 Tim. 4.1-2).
That word seared means cauterised. Something can be cauterised to the point where you no longer experience pain. It kills the nerve endings.
Remember one of the Freudian answers to guilt. You’ve had this unfair “code” imposed on you, so you should throw it off. Go out there and keep doing whatever it is until it no longer bothers you. That’s basically what the world is doing today, throwing off all restraint and doing whatever they want to do. Added to that, when a society or individual rejects God over and over, God will remove His restraining grace leading to the downward spiral in Romans 1.18-32.
So you can have an untrained or seared conscience. In either case you may not feel guilty, even though you are.
What about someone who feels guilty, but what they are doing doesn’t violate Scripture? They may have a weak conscience. A weak conscience is one that is triggered by something other than God’s Word (Rom. 14.1-5, 23).
But when you have a biblically informed conscience and you experience guilt for the right reasons, you’re in a position to handle guilt God’s way.
God’s Way of Dealing with Feelings of Guilt & Shame
- Confess our sin to God.
Remember Adam & Eve’s method of covering sin was woefully inadequate. But God made garments of animal skins to cover them. The animal’s blood was shed to cover their sin. Later there was the whole sacrificial system which was a picture of the ultimate Sacrifice—Jesus Christ!
Believing and accepting the gospel is where all freedom from guilt must start, but even as believers we can experience feelings of guilt.
5 This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.
8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us (1 Jn. 1.5-10).
When we sin, the guilt and shame we feel is because our fellowship with God has been broken. The answer is the same, confession. Confession means to agree with God. We need to agree with God about our sin; confess it to Him; then ask for and receive His forgiveness.
- Confess our sin to appropriate people.
Sometimes our sin is only against God, but if we’ve sinned against someone else we need to go to them, as well (Matt. 5.23-26).
- Make restitution when possible and appropriate (Lk. 19.8).
Like Zacchaeus in Luke 19, if we’ve cheated or stolen from someone, we need to make it right. If we’ve lied or misled someone, we need to set the record straight.
- God’s fourth answer for guilt is to forsake the sin.
13 He who covers his sins will not prosper,
But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy (Prov. 28.13).
So God’s answer to guilt is …
- Confess our sins to God.
- Confess our sins to the appropriate people.
- Make restitution whenever possible.
- Forsake the sin.
God’s way of handling guilt and shame is the only way to have true freedom. When we quit trying to cover it with man-made fig leaves and deal with it biblically, God covers it as only He can.
Next week in Our Series:
Over the next couple of weeks we’ll finish this series by discussing trials and suffering. Be sure to add your email here so you don’t miss any of them.
Coming Up in the Daily Posts:
In the next few days, we’ll look at how we tend to expect certain guarantees from God in our parenting, what the Bible has to say about debt, what we mean when we talk about the fear of God, and what it means to be an uncommon friend. Be sure to sign up here for the daily posts, as well, so you won’t miss any of these helpful posts.
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