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A Healthy Dose of Guilt

Ongoing, self-absorbed guilt is shoddy payment for such a gift. He wants us to experience the freedom of grace, a freedom that helps us see those sins for what they are — paltry trinkets posing as treasure.

Woman feeling guilty

One result of believing in Christ for salvation was that I left my sins at the cross and walked away from them. They were dealt with. My past was over, and I could look forward to the future. I had considered them honestly first; had to face Christ squarely and say, “My sins nailed you to the cross.” I had to ask forgiveness and sit at the cross for a little while.

But then I accepted forgiveness — otherwise, Christ died so I could feel awful; otherwise, I wasn’t worshiping the risen Christ. One of my pastors recently spoke about this topic. We are too apt to either get stuck in guilt or to pass over it too lightly.

David Felt His Guilt

There is a reason why we are taught to pray “forgive us our sins” — we sin every day. So, my quest today, as I write this, is to stop at the cross. Boy, does that ever stink. I immediately trip over my sin, and I don’t want to look at it. Then I’ll have to stop doing it.

My particular sin of choice is allowing daydreams and distractions to lead me away from God when I’m under stress. No one’s getting directly hurt by what I’m doing, except that my imagination is disobedient, and God knows exactly what I’m thinking.

Like I said, it stinks to think about personal sin.

David put it this way: “For my iniquities have gone over my head; [...], they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; [...] For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart” (Psalm 38:4-8).

Here was a great man, humble before God. He was honest about his guilt and shame. David not only admitted his sin, but he knew that it was God whom he offended when he chose sin over righteousness. And while David cried out with his sinfulness, that wasn’t because he thought God didn’t know.

Confession Is Good

When I look at this Psalm, I feel David’s relief. It’s so good to get all of that stuff off of our chests. Confessing our sin to God is obedient and also healthy. Have you ever kept a guilty secret from someone? For so long that sin would eat away at you, you couldn’t sleep.

Maybe you couldn’t eat, or you felt nauseous. Worse was when you could tell that a friend, parent, or co-worker realized you were guilty but was unwilling to say anything. You had to be the one to come forward, repentant. You had to demonstrate that you knew, and cared about what you had done.

Finally, the burden grew too great, and you couldn’t hide the sin any longer. What a load off of your mind when you finally said, “I was the one who dinged your car!” or “I snuck out and took the car to a party.”

Sin Comes with a Price

David cries out, “Do not forsake me, O Lord! O my God, be not far from me! Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!” (Psalm 38:21-22). The worst thing that could happen to us is that God would forsake us. That will not happen if we are born again in Christ.

The Lord cannot abide sin, however; and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Jesus paid and he was spiritually forsaken. God could not look at the weight of our sin clinging like sticky filth to his only Son. That was the price paid by Jesus. When we contemplate our sin, we should think about the punishment Christ took for us.

We might also want to think about the practical ramifications. I was reading today in Proverbs how sons are warned away from adultery not only because it goes against God’s law, but also because of earthly consequences. “He who commits adultery [...] destroys himself. He will get wounds and dishonor, and his disgrace will not be wiped away. For jealousy makes a man furious, and he will not spare when he takes revenge. He will accept no compensation” (Proverbs 6:32-35).

Don’t go running after your neighbor’s wife. Not only will God be highly displeased, but your neighbor will probably beat you black and blue and you can’t pay enough to buy his good graces. Your reputation will be tarnished.

Examples and Opportunities

It’s probably fair to say that this Proverb was written because sexual sin was a huge temptation for all people, one so powerfully tempting that it enslaved David. His sin with Bathsheba grew from adultery (possibly rape) to murder, leading to considerable guilt, shame, and loss.

Perhaps your sin is lying, or procrastinating, or spending too much money: whatever. Sit and think of what that sin can become if it gets out of hand. God never makes a point for which there is no purpose.

Scripture touches on the spiritual cost and also the practical cost of our sin, which is such a loving thing for God to do. Yes, there is mercy and forgiveness if I mess up, but maybe daydreaming away from the Lord won’t be as powerfully alluring if I remember how that habit has robbed me of peace in the past.

Guilt and Ego

Here is an important caveat when considering our personal sin: don’t let guilt become all about you. Yes, admit your responsibility, but remember what trespass is. When we sin, we rebel against God.

We reject his Lordship over our lives. We are basically denying that he is good, right, perfect, and loving. We imply that the Lord doesn’t know what’s best for us, and what is most glorifying to him.

Guilt should not lead to wallowing and self-loathing. As Tim Keller says, “The essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.” When we say, “Woe is me, I’m so bad,” there’s too much emphasis on us and we aren’t pointing to Christ. Or we paint a picture of a merciless God who wants us to feel terrible, as though he is still in the tomb, powerless and suffering.

A too-guilty conscience says that when God looks at us and decides, in his perfect justice, that we are righteous in Christ, his perspective is faulty. He won’t condemn us? God must not know how truly wicked we are; we know better. Could there be a more arrogant posture to take before the Lord?

Our omniscient God knows what we did, what we thought, what we said, and what we failed to do. When we come to him with our sin and give it over to him, this is an act of submission, which is exactly right. Joyless Christians don’t let God have control; they try to own their sanctification; they think they can do it themselves.

Explaining Philippians 4, one writer said, “Rejoicing in the Lord always does not mean denying what we feel and our troubles but it is abiding in the Lord with contentment and in full submission knowing that we are hurting but He is with us.”

The Good News

Christ was sinless, which means he was the only person able to take our penalty. He took it, the price is paid, and we will never be forsaken. This means that although we need to take some time and contemplate our sin for what it is, we can also be sure that we are right with God through Christ’s sacrifice.

David was a sinner like the rest of us, but God still loved him. He still loves us. We can enjoy the relief of confession directly to God by the Holy Spirit. The second half of Romans 6:23 says, “But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Ongoing, self-absorbed guilt is shoddy payment for such a gift. He wants us to experience the freedom of grace, a freedom, which helps us see those sins for what they are — paltry trinkets posing as treasure.

For further reading:

Conflicted about Judgment

Why Is it So Hard to Forgive Ourselves?

How Did a Man after God’s Own Heart Fall So Far into Sin?

What Is Temptation in Christianity?

What Does it Mean ‘The Wages of Sin Is Death’?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/fizkes


Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.