Guilt and Forgiveness
Is what you know in your head about forgiveness different from what you feel in your soul? Do you still feel guilty about something you have done even though you know you are forgiven?
You are not alone. I have talked to many people who ask God for his forgiveness, receive it, and then find they cannot feel it. They try to feel forgiven, but instead find that, even though the Bible says they are forgiven, guilt plagues them for a long time.
Sadly, they do not know what to do other than what they have tried. That is, to ask God again for forgiveness and to read what he has said. So they pray and read over and over again 1 John 1:9, which says, “If we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong.” This helps for a moment, but when the guilt remains, they often do not know what to do.
The bottom line is that there is “theological” guilt that comes from being separated from God, and this guilt can be resolved by being reconnected to God through Jesus. This theological guilt was total and legal. The resolution is also total and legal. We go from being guilty before God to not guilty before God just by believing. Separation from God equals guilty, and reconciled equals not guilty. This is the theology of guilt in the Christian faith. Therefore, since Christians believe, and belief is what gets rid of guilt, a “guilty Christian” is a theological oxymoron.
But what if you still feel guilty?
The Bible talks about our legal standing before God, and about how God feels toward us. But, it does not talk much about how we feel within ourselves in relation to this problem of guilt. How we feel in response to how God sees us is the other side of the guilt equation. In this way, our relationship to God is like any other relationship. A husband, for example, can love his wife deeply, but this does not ensure that his wife is going to “feel” loved. She may be deeply cared about and accepted and yet unable to experience the love her husband has for her.
Have you ever been in a relationship where someone needed constant reassurance of your love? Your loved one asked you over and over again if you cared, and no matter what you did to show your love, it did not get through. After a while, you realized that your reassurances were not all that was needed to help the other person. She had a problem in her heart. She had a block to feeling loved. To tell her a thousand more times would not completely solve the problem. If she were ever going to feel your love, she was going to have to find out what inside of her was keeping her from feeling it.
It is the same with our relationship with God. Our hearts can condemn us even when God does not. So we have to ask, “What is wrong with our side of the equation? What are the conditions inside of us that prevent us from feeling forgiveness even when we are surely forgiven? This is the question we all have to ask if we struggle with guilt. Let’s look at some of the answers.
The first question I always ask someone who is struggling with guilt is, “What do you know about what the Bible teaches?” After working with many Christians over the years, I’ve been amazed at how many do not know what I have just written above. Many are taught that we are forgiven until we sin again and then we have to be forgiven all over again. Then they struggle with whether or not their confession was good enough. The Bible does not say that we go into a state of guilt when we sin. In fact, it makes light of the old sacrificial system that could never relieve us of feeling guilty.
Some have never been taught how forgiven they are when they believe in Jesus. They truly have been forgiven “once and for all,” and there is truly “no condemnation.” So the first thing a person needs to understand is that if they are reconnected to God, through a relationship with Jesus, they are not guilty. Their problem may not be that their emotions are not following their knowledge. They just may not know in the first place.
In cases like this, it is crucial that people learn what the Bible really says about forgiveness and God’s grace. Meditating on and memorizing Scripture verses about forgiveness and grace should be part of their regular diet until they understand what God says about “no condemnation.” They need to be able to answer their internal accusations with God’s truth.
Now let’s look at some other causes of guilt.
People who grow up with unrealistic standards from their parents, the media or the culture often have an “ideal” person in their head to which they compare themselves, and the result is relentless guilt or shame. Their perfectionistic standard beats them up daily. The reality is that we struggle to the degree that we should, given what has happened to us. As Jesus said, we are broken and sick and need a physician.
However, people have difficulty accepting their brokenness. And yet, the fact that we are broken is actually the standard the Bible tells us to use to judge ourselves. We need to remember our standard to judge ourselves is not an ideal standard; it is a broken standard—broken people. God remembers that standard when he measures us. He knows that we are a bunch of broken strugglers. Often we forget that.
Anytime I hear, I shouldn’t feel depressed. Or, I should be making more progress; I know these clients are listening to the accusing voice of a false standard. While they may not want to be where they are forever, it’s truly how they feel at the moment. There is a reason why they feel this way—the “shoulds” (how they think they should feel) won’t change that reality. They must find the reason that they are where they are.
People who struggle with making a career or something in life work often operate under a different false standard. They expect to be able to do things on the first try, when the reality is that things take time and effort. When they hear stories from others about how hard it was to succeed and how many failures and false starts were endured, they can give themselves more grace. Testimonies and support groups are a great source of encouragement for people. They find that others did not just “arrive” at success but had to work very hard and fail many times to get there. In short, community “normalizes” failure.
One of the most destructive causes of guilt is emotional and spiritual isolation. The maxim to remember is this; an alone self is a bad self. If someone feels alone he or she is going to feel bad. The answer is not goodness or most self-esteem. The answer is love. This is the reason we have a gospel of reconciliation—of relationship with God and others, instead of a gospel of being “better people.” For if we get reconciled, we will be better but we won’t be obsessed with it. The “knowledge of good and evil” will not be the big issue. How well we are doing or how good we are will not enter our mind. But instead, the big issue will be love.
In the area of resolving guilt, make sure you are on a mission to end internal isolation. If you find people who feel “bad” about themselves, find the isolated part of their heart and give them grace, love and connection. If you do that you will cure a lot of the guilt.
This is one reason abuse victims feel so bad about themselves. The abuse has made getting close to others and trusting very difficult. Isolation takes over their soul. As a result they feel like a bad person, even when that is the farthest thing from the truth. Love will do away with that state. If people know they are loved, they are not afraid of their “badness.” They feel accepted and safe, and they do not have to feel “good” about themselves to be safe. Love does that. In the Bible, the opposite of “bad” is not “good.” It is love.
The good news is that Jesus said he did not come into the world to judge or condemn it. If this is true, how on earth did the institution he began turn into one of the guiltiest place on earth? This is a big problem. The one who came to end guilt, has it dished out in his name over and over. The Bible teaches there should be no guilt for the Christian. There should be the freedom of no condemnation, along with—and here’s the kicker—deep concern for real problems and issues.
So as you work on your guilt or the guilt of others, remember that it is not the problem but rather, a symptom of being separated from love. The solution to this problem is always reconciliation to love.
Taken from How People Grow, © Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Zondervan 2001
This article is part 7 in a series of Feature Articles adapted from How People Grow.
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