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What Good Is Guilt

January 2001
By: David O'Leary
I'm no psychologist, but I can make a claim to being an expert on guilt. I am an expert because I am a sinner. I have known guilt and guilty feelings.

We live in a society which runs from guilt in any form. Whether that is due to the teachings of Freud, modern educational theories, or the self-actualization movement, guilt, these days, is as popular as second-hand smoke. As a result, there are many types of counseling and self-help books aimed at helping people get rid of their guilt. Guilt is identified as a major problem.

Well, it should be! Guilt loads us with fear, drains our energy, cripples our motivation, creates distance between us and others, drives us into hiding, keeps us from doing good, and makes us angry and ashamed. It is no picnic. Guilt is the frequent companion of the clients who come to our centers. We need to understand guilt and learn how to help others deal with it.

Understanding guilt begins with distinguishing between psychological guilt and legal guilt. Psychological guilt can be real or imagined. That is, it can have a legitimate, genuine cause, or it can arise from any of a number of false sources. Either way, the effect of guilt will still be felt.

Legal guilt is the natural, legitimate consequence of breaking God's Law. Legal guilt imposes on us the burden of estrangement from a holy God. We may or may not feel the weight of such estrangement. We are guilty nevertheless.

In contrast, false guilt arises easily and often because guilt appears to be so useful to us. We use guilt to manipulate relatives, children, and in-laws (and they, in turn, do the same to us). We apply guilt to employees, friends, and children to correct or discipline them. We suggest guilt to control others. We try to bring about shame or retribution by the pain and discomfort which guilt inflicts. Moreover, we use guilt on ourselves to motivate us to clean up our act, e.g., quitting smoking, getting a job, losing weight, or making a host of other desired changes. While the motivation of guilt gives us some satisfying short-term results, little real change occurs. As a result, we feel even more guilty.

There is good news and bad news for all of us! The good news is that much of what we call guilt is false and, therefore, can be dismissed. The bad news is that true guilt comes from our sin and stands as a barrier between us and a holy God. God's Word tells us: "your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear" (Isaiah 59:1-2) and "the wicked man flees though no one pursues" (Proverbs 28:1). We feel a distance between us and God because there is one. We compound the problem when we flee from Him. Separation from God gnaws at our stomachs, worries our minds, burdens our hearts, and stirs our consciences. This is what many of the clients who come to our centers are experiencing.

Until our guilt is addressed, we are open to attack. Revelation 12:10 calls Satan the "accuser of the brethren." When we are guilty, we are hit by his attacks until our sin is addressed. He reminds us of our sin and urges us to rehearse our sin over and over again. We are rendered powerless.

The modern world says that all guilt is bad for our health and tells us to dismiss it. That may be an adequate answer to false guilt, but there is value in recognizing true guilt. True guilt, before a holy God, is an opportunity for us to receive His grace. When we are sick, we need a doctor. However, the situation is worse for those who are sick and don't yet know it. So it is with guilt.

The weight of guilt drives the believer back to God for relief from his guilt. How is relief possible? It is possible by means of the cross of Jesus Christ. The unbeliever doesn't know what to do with his legitimate guilt until he understands the Gospel. Our unsaved clients will not find relief from the burden of guilt until they recognize their sin and find legal relief in the Gospel.

The seriousness of my sin is what demands the severity of the cross of Jesus. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." This tells me that Jesus was the substitute for me in bearing the punishment for my sin. He took the dreadful punishment because I committed the dreadful offense. Just as the Old Testament scapegoat took the guilt of our sin out of sight into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:10), so Jesus, the Lamb of God, takes away the sins of the world.

When Isaiah faced the Lord in glory, he was struck with his guilt. He said, "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty." He did not say he was psychologically burdened; he recognized his legal guilt. When the burning coal from the altar of God touched his lips, his guilt was taken away. Christ is the cleansing power of God for sinners. When our sin is taken away, we no longer carry the burden of guilt, and Satan can no longer wound us with his accusations. That's why our faith in Jesus Christ is described as a shield of faith which extinguishes "all the flaming arrows of the evil one" (Ephesians 6:16).

When our true guilt is removed, we are free to approach God. The writer of Hebrews said: "Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water" (Hebrews 10:22).

Thank God that He tells us about our guilt and tells us about the solution for our guilt, the cross of Christ.

David O'Leary is married and has four children. He lives in Reading, PA where he is the pastor of Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He can be reached at oleary.1@opc.org.

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