Coping With Guilt
There are millions of people in this world who harbor deep feelings of guilt for wrongs they have committed. Without the proper remedy for sin, many undergo severe emotional pain and anguish. Feelings of remorse gradually build up like a tremendous weight inside a person, especially when he sees no logical outlet for these innermost anxieties. The Psalmist David mentions some very real physical and emotional symptoms of harboring unconfessed sin: "When I kept silence, my bones wasted away through my groaning all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture was changed as with the drought of summer" (Psa. 32:3-4).
Behind all this guilt is an inborn sense of moral responsibility--a "moral law within" or a moral sense of "ought." We all have a built-in mechanism called a "conscience," and that conscience may be deadened by long indulgence in things we know that are wrong. But all of us draw the line somewhere! We exonerate predatory animals of all guilt, but we are outraged when a Korean jetliner is shot down. Why is this so? Because human lives were at stake, and we somehow sense the sanctity of human life. We know from deep within that something is inherently wrong with taking the life of another human being. God has instilled within us the capacity to know that some things are right and other things are wrong (cf. Rom 2:14-15).
But what happens when the guilt that disturbs us is personal? We all know, or should know, that each one of us has done some things that are wrong--not just unwise or inappropriate, but wrong. How can we deal with the personal guilt that confronts us and plagues us?
Coping with guilt is a basic human need that must be satisfied. If this deep-seated longing is not satisfied in a legitimate way, it will be satisfied in an illegitimate way. There is a void that must be filled. Unfortunately, Satan has devised a number of counterfeit means to fill that void in his effort to overthrow the power of Divine forgiveness.
One such method is that sin is nonexistent. Modern psychologists have been saying for years that sin is a product of the human imagination. The Bible says differently! "There is none righteous, no, not one . . . for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:10,23). "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 Jn. 1:8).
Even apart from Divine revelation, good sense should tells us that if there are no moral absolutes, then there is no moral restraint. The terms "right" and "wrong" become meaningless, and the enforcement of order in society is based on relativistic law. Morals become entirely situational, and anarchy is inevitable. If there is no God who will ultimately judge us in accordance with moral prohibitions and requirements imposed upon us, life here on earth suddenly becomes very cheap. The Bible presents a far more glorious view of life than that; it depicts us as human beings with moral responsibility are created in the image of God Himself! We may say our guilt before God is fictitious, but God says otherwise.
A similar way in which men cope with guilt is to minimize its severity, even to the point of replacing those words that imply moral responsibility with nonjudgmental substitutes. This was impressed upon my mind in a fascinating article by B. Russel Holt.(1) "Premarital sex" does not sound as ugly as "fornication." "Extramarital sex" or "an affair" are much more soothing than "adultery." "Homosexuality" has gone from being considered a "perversion" to a "deviation" to a "variation" and has at last become an "alternate life style"! The opposition to "pro-lifers" in the abortion debate are not called "pro-death." They are "pro-choice." Dirty movies are for "mature" or "adult" audiences, not dirty-minded ones. People obtain "no-fault" divorces. Instead of saying he "stole" something, someone will say he "acquired" it. Mr. Holt says of all these word changes, "The object of all this verbal alchemy is to reduce sin from a felony to a misdemeanor, and the final goal is to get it off the books completely." It is true that words are powerful vehicles of thought in shaping our conceptions, but they cannot change reality!
Perhaps one of the most subtle methods of minimizing guilt might be called the principle of displaced blame. This involves "putting the shoe on the other foot." It happens whenever we shift the attention away from ourselves and magnify the faults of others. Adam blamed the woman, and the woman blamed the serpent (Gen. 3). When King Saul was confronted with the unfulfilled task of utterly destroying the Amelekites, he blamed the people (1 Sam. 15:15,21). The "prodigal son" was a loser until he "came to himself" (Luke 15:17). He finally saw himself as the real source of his problems. The Bible teaches freedom of choice, but it also teaches that we must be willing to accept the consequences of the choices we make. We cannot blame our families, friends, or circumstances for the sins we commit. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezek. 18:4, 20). We must learn to say with David, "For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me" (Psa. 51:3). We must accept the blame rather than "pass the buck."
The Extent Of Divine Forgiveness
Forgiveness on the part of a merciful God is the only option that meets all of man's complex psychological spiritual needs. More importantly, it is the only option that insures salvation! A Christian should have a much healthier attitude toward the handling of his own sin because of the biblical doctrine of forgiveness. In order to establish a right relationship with God, a person must first recognize that he is a sinner (Rom. 3:23; Lk. 5:31-32). Rather than minimizing his own guilt, a lost soul must come to grips with his crimes against heaven, and beg God for mercy by meeting the conditions for forgiveness that God has established. For that reason, the Lord's church is filled with reformed criminals. But how sure can we be about the extent of God's forgiveness?
The Bible informs us that the pale of Divine compassion knows no end. Read Luke 7:36-50 and underscore verse 47. There Jesus described a very sinful woman to a proud Pharisee, saying, "Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loveth much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little." The Savior was not encouraging anybody to "sow his wild oats" just so he could appreciate God's grace later on in life (cf. Rom. 3: 8; 6: 11). What He was saying is that a person who is deeply aware of his own condemnation before God is the person who will feel an acute need for God's plan of salvation. And even if he has committed ten times the sins, he will be able to love and thank God that much more (Lk. 7:41-43). No one is "too sinful" to receive God's grace . . . if he is willing to repent and obey! Paul was the "chief" of sinners in his own words, but he said in the same paragraph, ". . . howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me as chief might Jesus Christ show forth all his longsuffering for an ensample of them that should
thereafter believe on him unto eternal life" (1 Tim. 1:16).
But not only is the quantity of divine forgiveness immeasurable, the quality of God's mercy is equally infinite. A redeemed soul is completely restored to a state of purity and innocence. God's attitude toward the saved is expressed in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, in which the Father tells his older son, "But it was meet to make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found" (Lk. 15:32). There is no half-hearted forgiveness with God! Isaiah 1:18 says, "Come now, and let us reason together, saith Jehovah: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. " Not only does God fully acquit the Christian, pronouncing and treating him as righteous, but He also promises to completely forget his transgressions. Hebrews 8:12 recites the words of God under the new covenant system: "For I will be merciful to their iniquities, And their sins I will remember no more."
A child of God, then, needn't worry or fret over past occasions of disobedience like many in the world do. He has the guarantee of the greatest source of grace the human race has ever known or can know: Divine forgiveness through the blood of Christ. The extent of this mercy is all-inclusive. The burden can be removed. Jesus confidently invites you: "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28). "For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is his loving kindness toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, So far hath he removed our transgressions from us. Like a father pitieth his children, So Jehovah pitieth them that fear him" (Psa. 103:11-13). "If thou, Jehovah, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, That thou mayest be feared" (Psa. 130:3-4).
1. A Sinner By Any Other Name," Ministry November 1983, p. 25.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 20, pp. 620-621