13 December 2017

Guilt: Fact or Feeling? Despair or Hope?

The secular view

Guilt is not an easy subject for human beings to think about – unless, of course, we keep it within the boundaries of criminal activity and the courts. Beyond the context of the justice system, the idea of personal guilt tends to make us uncomfortable. Consequently, we have sought ways to understand it in terms that lessen its capacity to disturb us. Postmodern society tells us that the guilt that we experience outside of breaking the law, is an unnecessary burden thrust upon us by our out-ofdate upbringing. We need to move on, we are told, to grow up and realise that there are no absolutes, no underpinning moral law that tells us what is right or wrong; that adults in a liberal society are capable of making their own decisions about what seems right. Thus society has developed a series of euphemisms to avoid us having to admit that we have done wrong. Politicians, for example, who have been caught abusing their privileges or acting dishonestly, seem to be increasingly adopting a common terminology; they talk about having made ‘an error of judgment’ or ‘a mistake.’ And when they admit their ‘mistakes’ their response is to assure us that they “take full responsibility” when in fact they do no such thing. Taking full responsibility for our wrong actions does not consist in saying the words, “I take full responsibility.” Actions have consequences – at least they used to. Of course, it is easy to throw stones at those whose wrongdoing is so publically exposed and whom we can ‘judge’ at arm’s length. Bringing this closer to home is something else…

The history of psychotherapy demonstrates an avoidant approach to what is perceived to be the ‘problem of guilt.’ From this perspective, the human sense of guilt is a problem that needs to be solved rather than a fact that needs to be addressed. Freud, for example, taught that guilt is an oppressive state that occurs as a result of the dominant parental authority in early childhood, which told the child that his behaviour was unacceptable. This child, now adult, required to be liberated from the inner chains and constraints that this placed upon him. Others, like Rogers, argued that the problem of guilt emerges from social and parental conditioning which means we cannot accept ourselves as we really are because we associate the things we do ‘wrong’ with parts of our own selves, leading to self-rejection and fragmentation. He recommends that by re-programming ourselves to accept ourselves as we are, we can deal with the problem of guilt.

So what is guilt?

Perhaps the most glaring deficit in psychotherapeutic responses to the paralysing power of guilt on the human person is the absence of the acknowledgement of sin. Theology tells us that sin – the deliberate turning away from God and the attempt to establish the human self as a rival to Him by exerting control over our own choices, behaviour and destiny – is the root of guilt.

There are two legitimate ways in which we can understand guilt. First, it is a state which objectively belongs to us when we do what is wrong – what contravenes God’s good and perfect law. This kind of guilt is ungodly – it is anti-God and has no part in His perfect plan for us. The second understanding of guilt is an emotional response to the wrong that we have done. It is what our conscience, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, makes us feel and our conscience is a God-given aspect of our humanness. For the Christian, the emotion of guilt is not a negative experience. The catalyst for the guilt (the sin) is not a good thing but guilt as a response to the wrong we have done is God-given.

Both of these expressions of guilt – the condition and the emotion are legitimate and true. Yet, when we think about this whole area, we need to be aware of the possibility of confusion which might lead us into an experience of what might be called ‘false guilt.’ When we are guilty it is right that we feel guilty. Our guilt and our feelings of guilt are reliable and appropriate. When we are not guilty yet feel guilty we are living under false guilt. So, is guilt a fact or a feeling? Well, it is both but it is only a legitimate feeling when it is also a fact.

Guilt through God’s eyes

Real, factual guilt is a profoundly biblical concept. From Genesis chapter 3 when God’s will was first disobeyed and His authority challenged, guilt became a reality for every human person. Interestingly, Adam’s and Eve’s response to their guilt was to hide from God because their conscience (part of how God had put them together in the first place) told them that they had done wrong. When God enquired into this behaviour, Adam’s explanation was that his act of disobedience which led to his experience of guilt caused him to be afraid. Sin leads to guilt which leads to fear – fear of discovery; fear of shame; fear of punishment.

Perhaps the most prominent personal expression of guilt in the Bible – Psalm 51, spells out David’s response to coming face-to-face with his personal guilt following his adultery with Bath- Sheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah. It is worth looking at. David (v1-2) uses three separate words to describe the wrong he has done: ‘transgression, iniquity, sin.’ Unlike many of us in today’s society, David calls a spade a spade, using hyperbole to express to the fullest extent his awareness of the situation he is in. He owns his sin completely, three times referring to it as ‘my, my, my.’ He says too (v3) that his sin is constantly in the forefront of his mind; there is no brushing it under the carpet. If we really acknowledge our sin we find it inescapable. And he makes it clear (v4) that sin is originally and ultimately an offence against God; it is God’s concern. While others are hurt by our sin, it is against God that we commit it. It sets us immediately in opposition to God and therefore must be dealt with. Because sin is against God, God is right to judge and to pronounce judgment. When society tells us that what we do is our own affair, the Bible tells us that when we sin, it is God’s business. David goes on (v5-6) to acknowledge the root of sin in his life; it is a condition of birth, not an isolated incident. It is not that God is not aware of and interested in this. God wants us to live truthfully within, even where no one else can see and He is active to teach and empower us to find that godly way of living once we understand the root of our problem. David recognises the mark of sin on his whole person (7). The imagery here is of dirt – a guilty stain that needs to be cleansed and purified in order to be removed. Only God can do this; David cannot make restitution for himself. He goes on to articulate the enormous pain of guilt. Guilt hurts, spiritually, emotionally and physically – David describes it as akin to having his bones crushed by God (v8). And he knows (v9-12) what is at stake here. His guilt could potentially alienate him from God forever. He could lose God’s presence as a result. Obviously it has already had an enormous spiritually negative impact on him – he has lost the joy of God’s salvation (v13-15). Guilt makes everything wrong but mostly our relationship with God and when, as Christians, we lose an experience of that, there is nothing worse that we can suffer. David is aware, though, that there might be a way back and when he is back, the experience of guilt forgiven will be of service to others who can know from David’s personal testimony, that God is a forgiving God. The celebration and proclaiming of God’s mercy will be a cause of honour and praise to God. Yet David swings back and forward here (v16-17). One moment he is planning what he will do if and when his guilt is assuaged; the next, he is pleading his case again. He tells God that he would do something if there were something he could do that would make a difference; however he realises that what matters most is a realisation of his powerlessness in this situation. He knows that only God can deal with sin and that where there is true acknowledgement of the grievous nature of the sin then God, being God, will not be able to withhold His transforming love and forgiveness and will remove his guilt completely.

The drink we cannot dilute

If David’s confession teaches us anything, it is that we dare not adopt the secular minimisation of the depth of our human wretchedness. We must not dilute the truth that sin is not just something we ‘do’ in small pieces but is utterly ingrained within our very being and that we are helpless to do anything about it. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “the true Christian’s nostril is continually attentive to the cesspool.” It is the unpleasantness of this stench that brings us to an awareness of our guilt and our desperate need of forgiveness. We do not need to read of David’s experience to be aware that guilt is a suffering-provoking condition – we already know. This is not at all to say that all personal suffering is a direct consequence of personal guilt – the Bible teaches no such thing – but when we are guilty and God is challenging us about it, we suffer.

No need for despair

Yet we must remember that the pain of our guilt is not an entirely negative experience; it makes us feel desperate but because of God’s grace, there is no cause for ultimate despair. The Bible declares that there is an answer to the paralysing power of human guilt and that is God’s abundant grace. As Karl Barth writes: “When people realise their guilt is wrong done to God, and when in consequence there is no other hope but God, then is opened up to them the possibility that cannot be locked against them – God’s mercy and grace.” This is the marvellous news of the gospel; on the one hand, we have all sinned and, this side of heaven will continue to sin. In fact, as Eugene Peterson says “Christians know more about the deep struggles of life than others, more about the ugliness of sin.”

John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, now elderly, reflected on a lifetime of discovering the fullness of the truth of what happened when the Word of God came to live on earth as a human being and changed forever the course of human history. He writes (1John 1) of how, we who have been saved by and love Jesus, cannot pretend that we no longer sin but that when we confess what we have done, God will, in faithfulness and righteousness, both forgive and cleanse us. Jesus, too, invites and teaches us to pray for the daily forgiveness that we need to sustain us and keep us moving on in our relationship with our Father (Luke 11.4).

On the other hand, the One who alone could condemn us, instead, makes us a free, unlimited, continuing offer to remove our guilt. So, while the post-creation narrative begins with the intrusion of sin and guilt into the human experience, its unfolding story tells of God’s grace and His ultimate and comprehensive dealing with human guilt in the death of Christ who bore on the cross the guilt of every human being; the guilt that is consequent upon every single breach of God’s law throughout all of history. His sacrifice was utterly sufficient for the sin of every human being and the freedom it offers is accessible by faith to every person who acknowledges their sin and their need of Him. This is grace, not merely a historical experience in our lives but a current and future one too. We have not just been saved by grace but are being saved by grace – the same grace that first cleansed us from our repented and confessed sin, continues to make us clean again and again. When we grasp the reality that this indescribable grace lifts from us the guilt which should rightly be ours then, as Larry Crabb explains, “an overwhelming revelation of the depths of our depravity will provoke, not despair but worship.”

Jill Harshaw

Leader, Community Life Team & Lecturer in Practical Theology

Belfast Bible College

[1] Eugene Peterson and Janice Stubbs Peterson (ed.), Living the Message, (London: Harper Collins, 2003)

[2] Larry Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, Finding a True Spiritual Community, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999) 100