Guilt: How is it to be overcome?
People have been known to do some extremely irrational things because of their feelings of guilt. Perhaps the most well-known case in the Bible is that of Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus. He apparently had no idea the scribes, Pharisees and others intended to kill Jesus. When he realized that these religious leaders of Israel were taking steps to see Him crucified, he was so remorseful he went out and hung himself. Obviously, he was totally overwhelmed by his feelings of guilt over the matter. For just a few pieces of silver, he had betrayed the sinless God/man Jesus Christ.
1 When the morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death:
2 And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor.
3 Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself [METAMELOMAI = regretted], and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders,
4 Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that.
5 And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself. [Emphasis added]
It seems from what information can be gathered about this that when Judas realized what these religious leaders were going to do, in his extreme feelings of guilt and frustration he got a rope, tied one end of it around one of the temple pillars on the East side, wrapped the other end around his neck and jumped from the colonnade around the temple to the Kidron Valley below. Because it was a weak rope it broke, and Judas’ body fell into the valley onto some property he had recently purchased with the money from the betrayal.
18 Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. [Emphasis added]
Suicide in one form or another has often been the sad end in cases of extreme feelings of guilt.
What is guilt? How is it correctly defined? Typically, it is thought to be a feeling of sorrow over a wrong committed. Guilt speaks of being liable or in danger of being punished for some form of wrongdoing. For the most part guilt over one’s sins is a self-induced form of unhappiness. Certainly, there are times when people experience guilt over something they didn’t intend to do but usually that’s not the case.
Something people in modern day psychology tend not to want to admit that some expression of sin is the chief cause for feelings of guilt. Having majored in psychology in college I was always amazed at how most people in that field didn’t even want to use the word sin, let alone acknowledge the presence of sin. But sin, a problem for all mankind, is at the heart of the problem of guilt.
23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; [Emphasis added]
From the day we’re conceived sin remains a problem for all of us. Even a great man of God such as King David of Israel acknowledged this. Feelings of guilt are common to all mankind. Here we have King David’s comment about it.
5 Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. [Emphasis added]
Even the nicest people you know are sinners who experience guilt. Never be so foolish as to think that you’ve met an exception to this.
I John 1:8
8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
Here the apostle John is talking about the nation Israel, but this also relates to people individually in every generation.
I John 1:10
10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
A common cause for guilt is some misunderstanding of Scripture that leads to a misapplication. The Bible is the Book of all books but there are so many errors people make from its teachings. A lot of guilt is experienced by people who misunderstand certain portions of Scripture. I can’t overemphasize the importance of being careful about who you’re allowing to influence your thinking on all kinds of things. But there’s nothing more important than those correct beliefs you can come to have from Scripture. Of all the books in the world, it is the Bible you need to work to understand more than any other.
2 Timothy 2:15
15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
It is the Bible that is to be our authority regarding guilt and many things, not the opinions of people.
2 Timothy 3:16
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
A wonderful byproduct of having a correct understanding of Scripture is a good and clear conscience. It is the Bible that will give you a healthy view about sin and what God has done to provide us with a way to correctly address the suffering of guilt.
One of the first things you need to learn about guilt is that “religious” leaders use it to control and manipulate people. They want people to keep coming to them for a solution to it, even though they have no true solution for it.
The first step toward finding a true solution for guilt is by gaining an understanding of its origin. We find it at the very beginning of human history in the Garden of Eden. It was there that man was given a test.
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. [Emphasis added]
The moment the law was broken the man and the woman experienced a sense of guilt. It was then that sin and guilt came into the world. Because of the guilt man then experienced, he tried to hide from God, and there’s a sense in which man’s been trying to do that ever since. Mankind simply doesn’t want to be held accountable to God or anyone. In every generation he struggles for his independence. However, he cannot escape it. God does and will hold all of us accountable for the decisions we make.
11 For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.
12 So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God. [Emphasis added]
The primary reason man today doesn’t like to think of his wrongdoing as sin is because he doesn’t want to have to take responsibility for it. Even in the Garden of Eden, Adam blamed God and Eve blamed the serpent. The whole story about this “blame game” and more is in Genesis 3. It was at that time that the problem of man’s guilt began. And even as man failed to solve the problem then by his own means, so it is even to this day. In every generation most people will try and fail to eliminate their suffering of guilt by their own means independently of God. This always proves to be a fruitless endeavor.
The first thing that guilt produces is an awareness of one’s violation of a law. It lets you know that your actions are not consistent with your beliefs. It also can be compared to a warning light on the dashboard of a car. If you don’t heed the warning, greater problems will develop. The second thing produced by your conscience is a sense of shame. The record of Scripture speaks of both.
7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. [Emphasis added]
This is quite different from their earlier thinking.
25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. [Emphasis added]
The time that followed this is in some circles called the Dispensation of Conscience. From that time till now man is aware of his sinfulness. However, we find that when someone makes a habit of violating their conscience, they are in danger of destroying it in the sense that they’ll gradually become less sensitive to their wrongdoing. In the Bible this is spoken of as a hardening of the heart which alienates us from the peace of mind and the kind of life God would have us to enjoy. When this occurs, we then function like unbelievers of one kind or another.
17 This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind,
Here he’s telling us not to live as unbelieving Gentiles who are devoid of the norms and standards God would have us all to live by.
18 Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness [POROSIS = a hardening as with calluses] of their heart:
This is where we get the term hardened criminal, one who for lack of good norms and standards has become insensitive to his wrongdoing. He is then said to be past feeling. Activities that once bothered his conscience don’t any longer. If people around him express disapproval of his actions, he may accuse them of trying to put him on a guilt trip.
19 Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. [Emphasis added]
The “all uncleanness” here speaks of any and every conceivable form of sin. There are no limits as to what the person may do. Here the “greediness” speaks of such a person’s frantic and desperate search for happiness independently of God. Such people may know of it, but they refuse to accept the divine solution to their condition.
So, what is the solution or “cure” for this? How is it that we can avoid suffering feelings of guilt? The first and obvious solution is to choose to live obediently to God. But we know that even with the best intentions we all fail at that. In Genesis 3 we have Adam and Eve simply trying to superficially cover up their sin and guilt. We see this figuratively through their sewing of fig leaves. Here man seeks to compensate for his failure through his own efforts. But this proves to be totally unacceptable to God. He completely rejects man’s imperfect ways of compensating for his sinfulness and resultant guilt. The answer to this problem is that there are three steps involved in avoiding guilt.
1—Admit our sin.
The real solution in no way involves covering it up or trying to hide it. Claiming you did nothing wrong will not eliminate the guilt. God knows our every thought and action. Our sins and all else may be hidden from others but not God. Please note King David’s words about all this.
Psalm 139:1-8 [NCV]
1 Lord, you have examined me
and know all about me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I get up.
You know my thoughts before I think them.
3 You know where I go and where I lie down.
You know everything I do.
4 Lord, even before I say a word,
you already know it.
5 You are all around me—in front and in back—
and have put your hand on me.
6 Your knowledge is amazing to me;
it is more than I can understand.
7 Where can I go to get away from your Spirit?
Where can I run from you?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there.
If I lie down in the grave, you are there. [Emphasis added]
For some important information about misunderstanding confession of sin, please refer to my article—Confession: Is this the means to the filling of the Holy Spirit?
I suppose we’ve all at one time or another thought we could escape accountability for our wrongdoing. But such efforts never work out because, if nothing else, we can’t escape ourselves. We know what we’ve done! And we have to live with ourselves. Therefore, there must be a better way to address guilt, and there is.
Again, the first step is to acknowledge our sin to God. Notice the words of King David when he was broken and humbled with guilt because of his sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me [speaking of his ongoing sense of guilt].
4 Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. [Emphasis added]
It is by confessing your sin that you free yourself of the remorse associated with concealing it. This helps alleviate the conscience. It frees you from the guilt of harboring sin. This has nothing to do with the forgiveness of God. We’ll address that later in this article. What this does is address the problem in you, namely your conscience.
2—Accept the consequences.
You’ll not be free of your feelings of guilt until you do this. All decisions have consequences. All forms of sin have unpleasant consequences. You must accept this fact and be willing to face up to whatever the consequences may be. Doing otherwise only prolongs the guilt and even makes matters worse.
Always realize that the sense of guilt is your friend, not your enemy. It is a God-given alert system designed to make you aware of wrongdoing to direct you to a better path. A major part of growing up spiritually is learning from our mistakes, our sins, to make better decisions in the future.
3—Believe you’re forgiven.
This involves knowing what God has done to address your sin and believing it.
2 Corinthians 5:21
21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
All your sins, past, present, and future have been forgiven because Christ was judged for them all and paid the penalty for them on the cross of Calvary.
7 In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; [Emphasis added]
Christ paid the penalty for your sin long before you committed it. No, you don’t deserve this. Yes, it was a matter of grace. Even though we didn’t earn it or deserve it, it is a reality. This is extremely valuable information you must know. It is in this manner that you isolate your sins of the past, not allowing them to continue to have any negative impact on your thinking at all. Among other things this includes the absence of the pain of guilt.
Question: Do you suppose your sin was a surprise to God? It may have been a surprise to you and/or to others, but it wasn’t to God. There’s never been a time when He didn’t know about everything you would ever do. But please note that He saved you anyway. Nobody ever gets saved by giving up sin. People get saved and gain eternal life when they accept what God has done about their sin through Jesus Christ. And what does the Bible tell us He has done about your sins—all of them? Again, this includes your past ones, present ones, and even future ones because they were all in the future when He addressed this problem for you on the cross of Calvary. Here’s the full picture of the situation.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
This is our new status the moment we accept what Christ did about our sin problem—He died for our sins, was buried, and rose again. This is all a matter of history. Jesus Christ did this for you.
18 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;
God offers us all His grace. Our sin alienated us from God but through Christ He did a work of reconciliation to resolve that problem. And He did it for all mankind.
19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
Instead of our sins being held against us, they were held against Christ on the cross. There He took our place, paying the full penalty for them. This means then that forgiveness of all our sins was then and there provided for.
20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.
This tells us that His work demands the response of faith. We must believe He did this for us to gain salvation.
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. [Emphasis added]
It was the cross of Christ that made all this possible.
21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. [Emphasis added]
It is being “made the righteousness of God” that is potential for all mankind. It is only gained when someone accepts by faith this work Christ did for them. They are then justified and saved forever.
24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: [Emphasis added]
It was the redemptive work of Christ on the cross that paved the way for our justification [being declared as righteous as God] by faith in Him alone. It is this that is the good news [gospel] message we have to share with the world. All our sins were fully addressed at the cross. Complete forgiveness has been provided for you and everyone you know. To be saved they must only believe it. Again, that’s why this is called the gospel [EUANGELION = good news]. It is the best news that has ever come to this world. It is a message you should be thrilled to share with the people who are a part of your life.
Just think! Others may never forgive you of things you have done, but God already has! When people won’t forgive you, that’s their problem, not yours. You may be of help to them in that, but they may not accept your help. Again, that’s their problem, not yours. All you can do is all you can do. Accept that fact and move on. There’s no sound reason for you to let your sins, and those of others, rob you of this joy.
13 Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,
14 I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. [Emphasis added]
Even the great apostle Paul was a sinner. He readily admits that he hadn’t “arrived” so to speak, meaning there’s still plenty of room for spiritual growth and development. But he refuses to let personal sin or anything else get him down. We will lose some battles with sin, but we’ve already won the war. Victory is ours! Heaven is our new home. We’re not residing there yet, but now we have full citizenship and a place reserved for us there.
20 For our conversation [POLITEUO = citizenship] is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:
21 Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself. [Emphasis added]
Earlier in this study we were noting the problem of our sin as it is stated in Psalm 51:3. A few verses on down from that we see a common plea of God’s people.
12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. [Emphasis added]
Having this joy of salvation includes the absence of guilt. This joy is to be yours and sustained by your continued faith, believing in the principles we’ve seen in this study.
Over fifty years ago I remember learning about a little train illustration. It certainly fits with this subject. The engine represented the facts. The coal car represented faith. Then the caboose represented feeling. When you get the “facts” straight about sin and forgiveness, your “faith” in those facts will bring about good feelings. Those feelings will be ones of sustained joy, not guilt. It is by knowing all these things and applying them that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives that we’ll get to enjoy ongoing.
Always know that even as a Christian you still have a sinful nature. From time to time, it will remind you of its presence through your own bad decisions. Inevitably there will be some sorrow experienced from that. But we are told that this is godly sorrow. It works with the “alarm system” of guilt that I mentioned earlier. So, be glad that it is there. It is a blessing to make you know when you’re off course in your decision-making. In Scripture this is called “godly sorrow.”
2 Corinthians 7:10
10 For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. [Emphasis added]
This “godly sorrow” is designed to lead you to repentance, that is, a change of mind. Altogether this works to help you change the course you are on to a far better one. The “salvation” mentioned here is deliverance from the consequences of your foolishness. Again, it is designed to get you back on course. So, accept it and get back in line so as to enjoy the benefits of the wonderful life you’ve been given in Christ. To delay in this only serves to delay your freedom from the suffering of guilt.