Freedom from Guilt

By Pastor Doug Batchelor

An Amazing Fact: Amputees often experience a sensation called "phantom pain." For example, they might have lost their entire leg, but their toes hurt or their knee itches even though they no longer actually have them. They sense this phantom feeling coming from an absent member and their invisible toes will curl and their imaginary fingers will grasp. Even a nonexistent leg might feel sturdy enough to stand on. Doctors watch helplessly, unable to treat this part of the body that is screaming for attention even though it no longer exists. In the same way, there are many Christians, new and old, who have confessed and forsaken their sins and applied the blood of Jesus for cleansing, yet still feel the phantom pain of guilt.

A kind farmer offered a ride in his wagon to an old man carrying a large sack of potatoes to market. After the weathered man had struggled into the back of the cart, the farmer noticed his new passenger was still hoisting the sack of potatoes on his shoulder. "Friend," the farmer encouraged, "Set down your load and rest your back." But the weary fellow responded, "Mister, you were kind enough to give me a ride;

I wouldn't dare ask you to also carry my sack of potatoes." Of course, we know the worn traveler was silly not to put down his load and rest, yet there are millions of Christians who accept Jesus' forgiving mercy yet feel they must continue to carry their burden of guilt and shame.

There are few things more important to a Christian's peace and assurance than the understanding of guilt and forgiveness. Sadly, these are some of the most misunderstood subjects, and I am constantly asked about what guilt and forgiveness should mean to Christians. Too many of God's children are dragging an unnecessary yoke through life.

Paul says in Hebrews 12:1, 2, "Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith" (NKJV). To successfully run this race, we are commanded to lay aside not only the sin, but also the weight of guilt that impedes us.

The Bible also says, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). That cleansing includes the sin and the phantom pain of guilt.

What Is Guilt?
To appreciate the kind of forgiveness mentioned in 1 John, we need to understand guilt and overcome the many misconceptions causing confusion and heartache.

Have you ever instinctively taken your foot off the gas pedal when you see a highway patrolman? You might hit the brakes even when you are already going the speed limit. Why? Might it be because you often break the speed limit and automatically fear you might be doing something wrong?

Do you ever feel guilty? There are times when you should, because it's good for you. If you never feel guilt, something is probably wrong with your conscience. The Bible says, "For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not" (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

Of course, nobody enjoys guilt; yet everyone, if they have a normal conscience, will experience it. So it shouldn't surprise us that popular philosophy, and even some theology, tells us that all guilt is bad. Feel-good preachers say we should try to prevent guilt from worrying our minds no matter what we're doing or how evil it might be.

Yet no matter how stressful or uncomfortable guilt can be, it's not always bad.

The Sense of the Soul
Obviously, it would be nice to live without pain. But the very nerves that give you the sensations of pain also help you to experience pleasure. Even more, nerves keep us alive. Leprosy attacks your nervous system and eventually kills the feeling in your extremities. When those with this disease touch a hot stove and burn their fingers, they don't know it. Amazingly, leprosy even makes your eyes forget to blink! It's a very slight impression on our nerves that tells us to lubricate our eyes. Without nerves, you wouldn't blink and you would be subject to dry eyes, becoming more susceptible to infections or blindness. Little sensations of pain are actually a blessing.

Likewise, while guilt doesn't feel good spiritually, it keeps your conscience alive. Jesus called the Holy Spirit a Comforter, but He also convicts the world of its sin (John 16:8). We can know the Holy Spirit is working in our lives when we feel the sensation of guilt that follows bad behavior. The sensation of remorse for sin is often literally a sign from God of new spiritual life!

How to Respond to Guilt
Have you ever been gossiping to another person when the very subject you're discussing walks into the room? You suddenly get very quiet and talk as if you were just commenting on the weather. Why that reaction? Guilt. Is that a good or bad reaction? Good. You should be ashamed if you're gossiping!

When Peter preached that spirit-filled sermon at Pentecost, one of the signs that it was effective is found in how his listeners responded. "They were pricked in their heart" (Acts 2:37). They were convicted, and they pleaded, "What shall we do?"

That was a good response. Peter could then talk to them about repentance and forgiveness, but only after they sensed their guilt. After Isaiah saw God, he cried out, "Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips!" (Isaiah 6:5). When Isaiah saw God's holiness and goodness, he became aware of his badness, and then God cleansed him of sin.

The closer you draw to Christ, the more you will experience impulses of guilt. That might sound like a paradox, but it's true. The nearer you come to the Light, the more clearly you will see the wrong things in your lifestyle that you may never have noticed before - and you will probably feel guilt and shame.

But when you ask for forgiveness, you will experience grace and peace. "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up" (James 4:10).

Who's Really Guilty
In John 8, we read the well-known story of a woman caught in adultery. Her accusers condemn her, saying to Jesus, "Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?" But Jesus ignores their accusations, and stoops down to write in the dust on the temple floor. As they continue to press their case, Jesus finally stands up and says, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." Jesus then returns to His writing. The Bible next records, "And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last." They felt guilt, and they walked away.

I believe Jesus wrote out the laws that these men had themselves broken, as each one was specifically convicted about their own guilt. By contrast, some of the guilty react in anger when they are convicted. Stephen was murdered when religious leaders heard his powerfully convicting sermon; they were so troubled that they plugged their ears and then stoned him to death (Acts 7:57, 58).

We might need to ask ourselves if our anger toward another comes from their wrongdoing or because we resent that their goodness makes our badness stand out in contrast. Are they simply reminding us of our guilt? In fact, some people stay away from church because they want to avoid places that will stir the unpleasant sensations of shame.

The Heart of Guilt
One of the best possible goals is to go though life feeling peace and innocence before God. Job declares, "My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go: my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live" (Job 27:6). The Bible says Job was a perfect and upright man who feared God and hated evil, but I don't think Job claimed to be sinless. But then why could he say that his heart was not condemning him? Because whenever Job became aware of any failure, he dealt with his sin, keeping his account right with God. He sacrificed for himself and his family every day, so his heart was always clear before the Lord.

Have you ever felt condemned by your own heart? Sometimes it hits you like a bolt of lightning. Other times it might build slowly, as if you know you are doing something wrong but are trying to ignore it - until it begins to boil over and, all of a sudden, you have an awful revelation. It's here we suddenly see ourselves through God's eyes. We feel guilty and condemned, and like David, we cry, "I have sinned!" The weeds of sin must be pulled from the gardens of our hearts as soon as they sprout.

Yet what a wonderful thing when, like Job, our hearts don't condemn us. "Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then we have confidence toward God" (1 John 3:21).

False Guilt
Have you ever known somebody who felt guilty when they really shouldn't - maybe even yourself? The devil is probably urging you to feel shame about sins that have been forgiven. I once read a story in which the devil appeared to Martin Luther with a list of Luther's sins listed on a scroll. The devil said, "Do you really think that God can forgive all this? You're a doomed man." Luther saw the list and thought, "Oh, there's no hope for me." But then he noticed that the devil's hand was covering some words at the top of the scroll, so he asked, "What is your hand covering?" The devil answered, "Nothing. Just notice these sins here." Luther demands, "Remove your hand in the name of Jesus." And finally the devil took his hand away, revealing the words, "All under the blood."


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