Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Everyone's got it. Well, everyone who has a functioning conscience does. I mean guilt; that horrible feeling of regret, shame, and unworthiness we so often feel. When I was a child, I remember that when I got in trouble, I struggled to look my parents in the eye. No matter how many times they demanded, "look at me when I'm talking to you," I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I felt guilty. Maybe my guilt as a child was mostly a healthy fear of my impending punishment, but there was some sense in me that I had done something I should not have done, and I was disappointed with myself for doing it. As I got older, that feeling became more profound. I worried less about the punishment and more about me. I felt dirty--perhaps too dirty to ever be cleaned. I worried that I had perhaps started down a slippery slope that I'd never escape. I worried most of all that I was a sort of imposter in the church--that if my secrets were found out, I'd be utterly rejected and fully deserving of it.
In Johnny Cash's iconic song, "Folsom Prison Blues," he sings from the perspective of a convict stuck in prison, forced to listen to free people ride by on the train. His crime? "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." The prisoner's sorrow is intensified by the fact that he knows he deserves his punishment. He did the worst possible thing for no good reason at all, and every time he hears a train, he is reminded of it. "When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry."
Guilt is often justified. In fact, if you never feel guilt, you are either a perfect person or in serious need of a psychological evaluation. If you meet either of those two conditions, please stop reading this article and respond accordingly. For the rest of us, guilt is how we should feel when we do something that we know is wrong, and guilt can actually be a tool in God's hands. Consider 2 Corinthians 7.10: "For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, but worldly grief produces death." Here, Paul is writing to the Corinthians after his relationship with their church had been restored. You may recall that in 1 Corinthians, Paul strongly rebuked the church on several issues. Evidently, he had sent more letters and made a visit in between 1 and 2 Corinthians because the church did not respond well. However, at some point, the church felt grief, or we could say guilt, over their actions. Paul rejoices and says that this godly grief leads to salvation, meaning that our guilt can be a tool for our salvation! However, there is a worldly guilt, and that guilt produces death. What is the difference between these two? It isn't the emotion, but our response. Paul says that Godly guilt produces repentance. Worldly guilt does not.
Let's use some examples. In 2 Samuel 11, we read the story of David and Bathsheba. In the story, David, the man after God's own heart, takes a married woman (it isn't as though she had the status to refuse the king), gets her pregnant, and then arranges to have her husband killed. David must have thought he had gotten away with it. However, in chapter 12, God sends the prophet Nathan to expose David's sin. In dramatic fashion (read the story), Nathan rebukes David and announces severe judgment from God. Can you imagine how David must have felt at that moment? And he deserved every bit of guilt and humiliation he felt! Yet, look at how he responded. He humbled himself before God and fasted. Out of this moment, he wrote Psalm 51, which is a beautiful prayer for forgiveness. In the moment of his greatest guilt, he stopped trying to hide his sin. He took responsibility for what he had done and went to God for forgiveness and restoration. And because of God's goodness, God forgave David, just as He will us, no matter how horrible our sin. Godly guilt drives us towards God in repentance.
However, there is a worldly guilt. Peter was Jesus' most audacious disciple. He was in Jesus' closest circle and was frequently the first one to speak up and take charge. Peter adamantly argued that he would never desert Jesus and that he would even die with Jesus! But Jesus warned him that in one night, Peter would deny that he even knew him. After Jesus was arrested, Peter followed and tried to hide in the crowd, and fearing that he too would be arrested, he denied that he even knew Jesus three times. In Luke 22:61-62, it says that after Peter's third denial, Jesus turned and looked at him. Can you imagine how much pain that eye contact caused? Peter, the boldest of the disciples, ran away and wept. I can't blame him or pretend that I would've been better, but why didn't he come clean when he was caught? Couldn't he have acknowledged that he really did know Jesus, and gone to trial with him, like he said he would? In this instance, guilt did not correct Peter and drive him to his Lord. Instead, it crushed him and drove him away.
Have you ever felt too guilty to pray? If you grew up in church, you probably know all about how Jesus died for our sins and how God forgives us, but it doesn't seem quite right when you've done something so horribly wrong that it shouldn't have even been a thought for you in the first place. Forgiveness is unbelievable when you are having to ask for it again and again and again for the same thing. So, we hide. We avoid the elephant in the room. Prayer becomes something to be avoided because we cannot stand to look our heavenly Father in the eye.
But there is good news. Peter's story didn't end in guilt, and yours doesn't have to either. After his resurrection, Jesus went to find Peter. In John 21:15-19, Jesus asks three times whether or not Peter loves Him. The first time, Peter says, "yes, you know that I love you." The second time, he says the same thing, although perhaps a bit confused that Jesus has asked the same question twice. But the third time, Peter was grieved. Just a few days earlier, Peter had denied that he even knew Jesus three times. Now, he has been asked three times if he loves Jesus, and he knows that his words now won't mean much given what he had just done. There was that guilt. However, Jesus didn't condemn Peter in this moment but instead affirmed that in the future Peter would be faithful to the death, and then, as if to offer a reset on the relationship, Jesus said, "follow me."
When I was a freshman in high school, I got the most exciting news: my high school would be getting a football team. I had always dreamed of being able to play football, and this was my chance. However, I hadn't played any sports at all in years. I had no athleticism at all! I knew I needed to start working out, but I had never done that before. I went to my school's weight room one day with no plan other than to do what I had seen football players do on tv. The bench press seemed to be the holy grail of weight training, so I took a shot at it. It seemed to me that the motion was similar to a push-up and would work all of the same muscles. I weighed about 170 pounds and could do a push-up. Therefore, I should've been able to bench press 170 pounds. (For reference, a man who is in good physical shape should be able to bench press his body weight) I knew that I should warm up first and learn what the bench press felt like. I loaded up a whopping 85 pounds to start. I lifted the bar off the rack and lowered it to my chest, where it stayed much to my shame and panic. I struggled in vain to lift a bar with two puny ten-pound plates on each side off of my chest. I don't know what was worse: the weight physically crushing my lungs, or the shame crushing my ego. To the benefit of my ego but the detriment of my body, I had gone into the weight room alone and had no one to rescue me from that immovable weight. I suppose that the only reason that I didn't choke out and die that day was that I didn't know enough about lifting to have used clips to fasten the weight to the bar, which meant that I was able to tilt the bar to my right, then left and let the weights slide off, allowing me to escape from my untimely demise.
Isn't it funny how guilt can literally feel like a weight on your chest? Unlike my day in the weight room, that weight isn't going anywhere. It isn't doing you any good either. You are not becoming any stronger; you are only being crushed. The only way out is for someone to intervene and lift the weight for you. That's what Jesus does for us. We serve that kind of God that not only forgives us but even pursues us when we hide from Him! He is the one who can lift the weight off our chests. No matter how heavy that weight might feel to you, it isn't too much for Him to handle. Don't hide your guilt; it will only fester! Instead, turn and face your God. Put it all out in the open and humble yourself. If you keep sinning, keep repenting. Jesus knew good and well what all you have done and what all you will do when He went to the cross, and yet it didn't make Him quit. I cannot help that you will feel guilty. That is how we should feel when we sin. But we don't have to be burdened by it forever. Sinners, turn and face your God, and see that He will hold out mercy instead of judgment.