True Guilt or Guilt Feelings? What's Your Spiritual Diagnosis? What's the Remedy?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

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The Distinction Between Feeling Well and Being Well
There's a big difference between feeling better and BEING better. Yesterday, I was at the clinic suffering from an upper respiratory infection. The doctor told me, "We'll have you feeling better right away." I wanted to tell her, "I'm not so interested in feeling better. I want to BE better."

It used to be that the way you felt physically had a close resemblance to your true medical condition. They used to call those feelings "symptoms." I'm told that doctors were trained to look at the symptoms to diagnose the malady. But these days, many doctors and a giant portion of the pharmaceutical industry have found dozens of ways to divide how we feel from our true medical condition so that we feel healthy and full of energy once more even if something is terribly wrong with us. And sometimes, the only way they can diagnose what's wrong with us is to take us off all of the meds and find out our... there's that word again, "symptoms."

You may say to me, "What's the difference? If you feel better, you are better, right?" Not necessarily.

...And Between Feeling Innocent and Being Forgiven
This whole thing has a profound, spiritual application. When you feel guilty about something, which do you want more than anything, to FEEL better or to BE better? Which do you really, deep down, desire, to feel innocent, or to know you are forgiven (whether you feel it or not)? You may say to me, "What's the difference? If you feel forgiven, you are forgiven, right?" Not necessarily.

Does True Guilt Exist? Does Sin?
It used to be that the way you felt spiritually had a close resemblance to your true moral condition. They used to call that "guilt." I'm told that all Christians were trained to examine the guilt to diagnose the sin. But these days, psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers, and members of the tele-religion industry have tried to divide the guilt we feel from our true spiritual condition. What they prescribe is designed solely to block all of those guilt feelings from our conscience so that we feel clean and pure once more.

"There's no such thing as sin," the agnostic shrink tells us, "and therefore, no such thing as true guilt. All you have are 'guilt feelings,' the residuals of the fairy tales the nuns told you in that parochial school. Or maybe you thought you shouldn't love your mother and resent your father THAT much, and you have carried that childish baggage on into your adulthood. Forgive your inner child and ignore your guilt feelings. Then get on with your life."

Tele-evangelists (of course, not the hell-fire and brimstone ones, but when have you seen any of them lately?) may claim that because God is loving, He would never reject any human being, but will welcome all into His kingdom some day. They quote, "He is not willing that any should perish" but leave out the rest of the verse, "but everyone to come to repentance." And the very next verse describes "the day of the Lord" in all its wrathful fire, on the basis of which Peter urges us to "make every effort to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with Him" (2 Peter 3:9-10,14). God is loving beyond anything we can imagine, and in His infinite love, He wants us to avoid the punishment of our rebellion. Carlton Pearson is an example.

True Guilt Has Real Consequences
The Bible says there really is such a thing as guilt, and that guilt has true, deep, and lasting consequences. Guilt started in Eden, not because Eve and her husband wanted something not on the menu. Despite their daily fellowship with God and receiving all He provided, they wanted something more, wanted to be more. Rather than waiting on the Lord to fulfill those desires His way in His time, they rebelled. They thought they would benefit, gaining much more than they would lose, but they were so wrong! They fell for the lies of the Deceiver, and they deceived themselves.

All of their sons and daughters who have matured past tikes have chosen to participate in the same rebellion. We have all been deceived. We have deceived ourselves. Paul's indictment sticks on all of us: "Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools" (Romans 1:22). Later he laments, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

The Six Kinds of Sin Bury Us All
All of us are guilty of sinning in all six categories of sins.

Six Kinds of Sin

  • Sins of commission:
    - Things we do that are wrong (e.g., stealing or murder).
    - Things we say that are wrong (e.g., slander, lying).
    - Things we think that are wrong (e.g., malice, hatred, lust).
  • Sins of omission:
    - Things we should have done but didn't (e.g., not helping someone injured, not paying our bills).
    - Things we should have said but didn't (e.g., allowing the wrong person to get blamed by keeping quiet; not talking to our kids about avoiding premarital sex, tobacco, alcohol, crime, or drugs).
    - Things we should have thought but didn't (e.g., not considering the needs of others around us, not wanting any help when we need it).

When you consider all of those ways to sin, you start to get an inkling of the mountain of guilt under which each one of us is buried. Jesus compared it to a debt of millions of dollars a servant tried to pay back to the king at a time when the going wage was 25 cents a day (Matthew 18:23-26). It will never get paid off, never. Never ever. Yet, like the servant, we glibly say to others and to God, "Patience, please! Don't rush me! I'll pay you back." Yeah, right! In 164,383 years! And that's with no interest, no weekends off, and no vacations!

Don't Fool Yourself!
Scripture says, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure" (Jeremiah 17:10), and "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death" (Proverbs 14:12). We can listen to the pop-psychology or the smiling, winking preachers and retrain our conscience not to prick our hearts (Acts 2:37), but that will not take away our guilt.

Some Guilt Feelings Are Baseless, But Not All of Them
Sure, there can be "guilt feelings" beneath which no real guilt exists. Christians are prone to this problem as much or more than anyone, because our Lord has trained our consciences to be sensitive. In fact, unbelievers often manipulate Christians by trying to generate those guilt feelings within them. Yet we also must mature to the point that we can distinguish the true guilt from the false. We serve a God who has promised to "hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19). We who are submissive to the Lord Jesus can have confidence even "when our hearts condemn us" (1 John 3:19-20), because we know Who owns us. And, when we turn back to Him and submit once more to His loving authority, He stands ready to forgive us.

Only One Way for True Guilt to Find Forgiveness
That readiness to forgive comes from the cross, from the only One not deceived into joining the rebellion, whose perfect, sinless life He was willing to trade in exchange for ours, muddied and bloodied by our own sin (see Hebrews 4:15; 2 Corinthians 5:21). For all those who have repudiated Satan's mastery, put their trust in Christ, confessed His name, joined in a reenactment of His death and resurrection, and are now willing to walk in His steps, the forgiveness is a continual washing in His blood (see Acts 3:19; Romans 10:9-10; Romans 6:1-7, 11-14; 1 John 2:6; 1 John 1:6-7).

Is Forgiveness Objective or Only Subjective? Is It Real?
Another way of saying all of this is, where does forgiveness happen, outside of you or inside? Is it wholly subjective or is there an objective dimension as well? Does forgiveness happen when you forgive yourself, or when you say to yourself, there's no such thing as sin in a post-modern world? No, forgiveness happens when the offended One accepts your confession, adopts you into His family, and covers you with the righteousness of His Son.

Only then are you forgiven, whether you feel forgiven or not. Only then can the divide dissolve between how you feel and what you are, and your angst and guilt feelings can make room for the "peace which transcends all understanding" that "will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7). Christ's death and resurrection for you was an objective, space-and-time-anchored event in the real world. And because of that historical reality, the consequences of his death and resurrection can be real in your life: forgiveness, salvation, the indwelling, fruit-bearing Holy Spirit. Receiving and perceiving that forgiveness empowers us to forgive one another (see Matthew 18:26-35; Ephesians 4:32).

What Does True Forgiveness Do to Your Self Esteem?
By His death Jesus Christ makes this statement that should transform your self esteem: "When I look at you, your life, your potential, I think you are precious, and I'm willing to prove it by trading my life for yours. I'm willing to die so that you can live the life your were meant to live--a life of selfless service that manages guilt and doesn't hide or deny it. You are worth it to Me. Come, let's walk together--forever after." [TOP]

Want to go deeper?

The following are recommended to help you look deeper into the nature of guilt, sin, forgiveness, and the work of the Cross. I cannot endorse anything carte blanche outside of Scripture. Be disciminating in your judgment! That's a big part of what it means to Go Deeper.

Recommended for purchase:

Jack Cottrell. Baptism: A Biblical Study (1989)

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The Cross (1986)

Alister McGrath. Self Esteem: The Cross and Christian Confidence (2002)

Leon Morris. The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1955, reprinted many times)

John R. W. Stott. The Cross (2006)

Online resources:

John Mark Hicks. "Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God's Transforming Work" (intro. to his book)

Jim McGuiggan. "The cross or the Christ on it?"