(June 2003 – Volume 9, Issue 6)
In Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpiece The Tell-Tale Heart he writes of a man who had committed the perfect murder. Having hidden the body beneath the floor of his home he felt so confident the police, who were interrogating him, would never discover his secret that he seated himself in a chair directly over the place of the corpse. But as the conversation continued, he began to hear a strange pounding noise in his head – then he realized that the noise was coming from beneath the floor exactly where he had buried the body. This was none other than the beating of the dead man’s heart, he was certain, and wondered why no one else noticed the sound. He began to panic in his efforts to cover the pounding. He talked more loudly, cursed, argued, grated his chair on the floor, but the beating heart only became louder. Finally in desperation he gave up, “Villians!” he shrieked, “Dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! – here, here! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!”
Extreme? Certainly, but an accurate picture of the revolt of our conscience when guilt grips our hearts. Yet guilt and all its ramifications are issues we try to hide securely under the floorboards. With the help of modern psychology we often imagine that we have succeeded in our efforts.
We may deny guilt, calling it false. We are only feeling badly because the Bible or Christians say we have sinned. They (someone, anyone) are putting us on a guilt-trip, there is nothing really wrong with us. Thump!
We may feel guilty because our standards and expectations are too high – we are too hard on ourselves. After all, no one is perfect. We will just lower our standards and all will be well. Thump! Thump!!
If we continue to feel guilty, it must be someone else’s fault, so we blameshift. Christian psychiatrist O. Quentin Hyder states, “Too rigid a superego or conscience can only be developed by too rigid expectations or standards imposed by parents.” Poor parents, they get blamed for everything. Yet, Thump! Thump!! Thump!!!
Blameshifting is a favorite activity for most of us. John Killinger tells about the manager of a minor league baseball team who was so disgusted with his center fielder’s performance that he ordered him to the dugout and assumed the position himself. The first ball that came into center field took a bad hop and hit the manager in the mouth. The next one was a high fly ball, which he lost in the glare of the sun – until it bounced off his forehead. The third was a hard line drive that he charged with outstretched arms; unfortunately, it flew between his hands and smacked his eye. Furious, he ran back to the dugout, grabbed the center fielder by the uniform, and shouted, “You idiot! You’ve got center field so messed up that even I can’t do a thing with it!”
The Biblical View of Guilt
While everyone wants to talk about forgiveness, the subject of guilt is not a very popular one today. However, until we understand guilt we are not going to be able to truly grasp forgiveness. Although we would all admit to occasional feelings of guilt, few handle guilt biblically.
What is guilt? First, we must distinguish between guilt and the feelings of guilt. Guilt is simply the result of having violated God’s principles. When we have wronged God, when we have disobeyed Him, we are guilty, no matter what our emotions might indicate. Guilt feelings, on the other hand, are the uncomfortable, inner awareness that we have violated these principles. Since most people are more concerned about feeling right than being right, almost everything said on the subject today deals with the emotions. We are even encouraged to do right because we will feel better about ourselves. For example, Christian psychiatrists Minirth and Meier say, “True guilt [feelings] is valuable. God uses it to influence us to change our minds about what we are doing – that is repent. Then when we do what is right, our fellowship with God will be joyful and we will like ourselves more, too. Doing what is wrong lowers our self-worth“(emphasis mine). However, God never tells us to do right so that we will like ourselves more or have high self-worth. Rather, we do right that we might please a holy God (2 Corinthians 5:9).
Scripture, of course, is not bashful about both the existence of guilt and its effect upon our lives and those around us. Psalms 32, 38, and 51 contain some of the most descriptive and poignant accounts of guilt found anywhere in the Bible. According to these Psalms, those who sin are guilty: (I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me [51:3]); and will usually feel guilty: (For Thine arrows have sunk deep into me and Thy hand has pressed down on me. There is no soundness in my flesh because of Thine indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities are gone over my head; as a heavy burden they weigh too much for me [38:2-4]). The consequences of sin are clear in Psalm 51, where David lost his purity, joy, confidence, consistency, fellowship and desire for service (vv. 7-13). Guilt affects every fiber of our being, as demonstrated in Psalm 32: When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer (vv. 3-4). These admissions detail the powerful toll that guilt can take on us. As David became more and more aware of his sin, still refusing to seek forgiveness, the strain began to affect his body. Mentally nothing went right. All day long he groaned and complained. Spiritually, David had no fellowship with God. And finally, emotionally, he had no energy or desire to do anything. He was depressed. Someone has said depression and guilt are brother and sister, and this is often true.
David did his best to conceal his sin. Perhaps for a time he fooled those around him and even himself. But guilty he was, and the day came when that guilt overpowered him and brought him to his knees.
We see a similar process in the original edition of Robinson Crusoe. Stranded on a deserted island, all Crusoe could think of was deliverance – rescue. With little else to do he began reading from a copy of the Scriptures that he had with him and fell under deep conviction. As the Lord broke through to his heart his main concern shifted from physical deliverance to spiritual. “Now I looked back,” he cried, “on my past life with such horror, and my sins appeared so dreadful, that my soul sought nothing of God but deliverance from the load of guilt that bore down all my comfort.”
As described in Psalm 51, David, took a very similar route as Crusoe. For starters, David takes full blame for his sin. He does not talk about his poor relationship with his mother, or his inferiority complex because he was “ruddy” (just kidding), nor does he point to his recent mid-life crisis (if he had such a thing). Instead, when confronted by the prophet Nathan he acknowledges, I have sinned against the Lord (2 Samuel 12:13). But true repentance is more than words of regret; it is even more than confession. True repentance involves a change of mind that results in a change of desire, which leads to a change of action. As David turned from his sin, note the kind of life he wanted to start living. He desired to teach others God’s ways: Then I will teach transgressors Thy ways (Psalm 51:13a); and lead them to conversion: And sinners will be converted to Thee (51:13b). He longed to praise and worship God: Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Thy righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Thy praise (51:14b, 15). And all of this he sought to do with a humble heart: The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise (51:16,17).
It is worth observing that those who repent of their sins soon begin to focus on others. David ends his Psalm with concern not for himself but for the people of Jerusalem (51:18, 19). When Zaccheus turned from his sin to Christ, he immediately began to think of others and wanted to give restitution to any he had cheated: Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much (Luke 19:8). Guilty people are self-absorbed people; one of the marks of the penitent is a burden for others.
Still, it is not uncommon, perhaps likely, that even those who have confessed and repented of their sins will not feel forgiven. Why is that? For some it is that they have not taken God at His Word. The Lord pledges that He will forgive our sins if we will confess them (1 John 1:9). We must believe that He keeps His promises. Others stumble because they are trying to forgive themselves. Nowhere in Scripture are we told to forgive ourselves. This is an additional and impossible burden placed upon us by humanistic psychology. It is amazing how often the psychological world creates a problem and then attempts to solve it unsuccessfully (for example, our supposed problem of self-esteem). In the first place, it is impossible for us to forgive ourselves because we do not have the power or authority to do so. Only God can forgive sin. The idea of forgiving ourselves is a humanistic one in which man is basically a god. Since only God forgives sins, it is our task to seek His forgiveness according to Scripture and then believe that He has forgiven as He said He would.
Others may feel guilty because of unbiblically comparing their performance to that of others. 2 Corinthians 10:12 tells us that this is unwise. Comparison will often lead to pride or jealousy or feelings that we are not measuring up to others. Romans 12:3 calls for us to measure our performance according to the gifts and opportunities that God affords us. Even then it is God who does the final evaluation. Too many compare themselves to the wrong standard. God doesn’t expect His children to achieve sinless perfection in this life. Rather He expects us to grow in our Christian maturity (Philippians 3:12-14).
Joseph Stowell gives this excellent illustration in one of his books: “There are few things more valuable than a clear conscience. A clear conscience releases us from the fear, worry, and anxiety that comes with sins…. It is that inner sense of being clean. Nestea Iced Tea used to run a television ad depicting a golfer struggling up the fairway on a hot, humid day. A bag on his back, he is perspiring and completely wrung out. Then he hears the clicking of ice cubes in a glass and the sound of iced tea being poured over the ice. He is mesmerized. He drops his bag and runs to an adjoining backyard where a party is being held. He reaches for a glass, lifts it, drinks, and as he does, lost in abandon, he falls back into the swimming pool. He rises from the swirling bubbles smiling, obviously clean and refreshed. Then the words, ‘Take the Nestea plunge,’ blaze their way across the bottom of the screen.”
What the “Nestea plunge” did for that physically overheated man, God’s forgiveness does for the guilty sinner. Forgiveness is available for every sin that we will ever commit. Sin always promises what it cannot deliver. Sin is never worth the price, but God’s forgiveness is always available when we come to Him on His terms.