Of course you remember that day, no matter how hard you try to forget it.
- It was the day you spoke out of turn—yelling at the wrong one at the wrong time, or saying something you really didn’t mean to say and know you shouldn’t have said it. Those few words cost you so much in terms of respect, credibility, reputation, promotion, and favor. But the instant you said them, it became impossible to take them back.
- Maybe it was a different day; it was the day that you made the public gaffe. You embarrassed yourself through ignorance of a social norm, mistaking the identity of someone important, or making an embarrassing blunder that was not so easy for most people to do. Almost everyone has forgotten the incident, but you will remember it for decades after others have forgotten.
- Or maybe for you it was a relationship mistake. “Why did I ever talk to her?” “Why did I let him have my number?” “Why did I go out with him?” “Why did I let my friend convince me to take her out?” “Why did I ever kiss him?” “If I had simply gotten off the bus at my usual stop….”
- For others of you it could have been the day you took the bait on the get-rich-quick scheme, the day you hastily quit when a grand opportunity had landed in your lap, the day you ignored the feeling that told you not to let your child out of your sight, or the only day in your life you caved into the peer pressure to break the law and got caught.
What I am talking about is the day you made the choice in which you let yourself or someone else down, often only learning later the magnitude of your choice. I am talking about the day that began those painful feelings you have not been able to shake—those feelings of guilt.
Guilt feelings. They can be good things when they are pointing out our culpability before God, otherwise known as conviction. The Almighty is the one we have let down and we are struck by the realization that we have failed him. The Holy Spirit alerts our conscience that we have broken the law if our consciences are not damaged from rebellion.
However, guilt feelings can be bad things when they come from lingering misplaced shame or simple regret. By this I am talking about the alert system that turns on when the threat of sin is not there. Yet you keep branding yourself with the scarlet, “Mea Culpa,” “Mea Culpa,” “Mea Culpa!”
The first set of feelings can make life lighter for us as we confess our sin and guilty lawbreakers. The second set of feelings can burden life for us as we carry around unnecessary weights. Yet, because we do not know what to do with our guilty feelings, our most typical responses to guilt lend themselves toward carrying burdens:
- We trying to hide our failure or cover it up. But like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, we only become more burdened as we constantly look over our shoulders to see if someone has figured that we are guilty.
- We lie to ourselves and act like the guilt-causing thing never happened. So when we are called into account, we end up lying to Congress about our steroid use or arms deal, (or to our family about those unaccounted for ours), and then have to keep suppressing the lie and evidence to the contrary.
- Others become professional pity-seekers. But you are not seeking pity on the guilt-making thing, just on the miserable life you are living as a result of that gnawing parasite-feeling you can’t eliminate.
O Lord, how do I get rid of the burden of guilt – guilt over my sin; guilt over my regret from foolish things?
If you are struggling with feelings of guilt, King David, a man freed from being burdened by carrying around guilt will show you the way to freedom.
In Psalm 51, we read of David’s request for relief from the burden of guilty feelings:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me. (51:1-3, ESV)
David acknowledges his sin before God (1-6).
David, guilty of adultery with Bathsheba, the murder of her husband, and covering up both crimes, is weighted down by his guilt. Feelings follow his crime, especially as they remain without confession, for “[his] sin is ever before [him].” In Psalm 32 he speaks of his guilty feelings in this manner:
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. (32:3-4, ESV)
Rightly, David takes his culpability before God in confession (51:4-6). In doing so, he is not simply alleviating the feelings. He addresses his biggest problem: His guilt before God.
Our biggest problem with guilty feelings, when they are pointing to sin, is not how uncomfortable we feel. Our biggest problem is the holy God whose law we have transgressed (3), whose standard of righteousness we have missed (3), before whom our actions are evil (4), who is just in finding fault with us (4). Until we take care of our moral culpability before him—our guilt for sin, we will feel guilty. Until we recognize that our acts come from a disposition toward sin that has been there since birth, we will wear our own guilt. We must see that God requires more than outward coverings for sin; he wants truth of the heart and soul, which only he can bring about. The first step in dealing with guilty feelings is dealing with guilt. Acknowledge your sin before God.
In the Redmond household, when our children were younger, and one of the children would get called on the carpet, sometimes the tears would start flowing at the point of accusation, long before any sign of punishment. At that point, especially if a repeated error was being addressed, the child might have heard these words: “You are not crying because you recognize that you are wrong, but because you got caught.”
Being caught is not what should bring remorse. Being wrong before God is what should bring remorse. Being wrong before him should deter future acts of the same sins so that true guilt can be avoid. Do not worry about how it will look if you are caught or confess. Worry about a just God. Acknowledge you sin before him.
David requests restoration with God (7-12).
David now seeks to have his sins dealt with permanently—for the guilt and associated feeling to be removed. For David, this only can happen if he is brought back into a relationship with God – that relationship that was broken by his sin.
However, David cannot restore the relationship; only God can do this. So David will cry out for purging and washing (7), for God to turn away his face from sin by blotting them away (9), and for the Lord to clean his heart—his sin-stained motives, thoughts, intents, desires, and his feelings too! In doing so, David will have joy and gladness instead of feeling like his bones are broken. David will again sense the presence of God rather than being cast away! His own spirit within will be sustained by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit once sin is removed! (Of course we know that the Holy Spirit permanently dwells in believers as the deposit guaranteeing our salvation (Eph. 1:13-14). He can be grieved by our sin (4:30), but never taken away.)
I am grateful that David does not displace his blame. He recognizes that the problem is within. He does not go to God and say, “But what about Bathsheba’s role in this?” Nor does he say, “Well my father never warned me about temptations like this!” The problem is within David! David’s sinfulness runs deep and needs deep cleansing by the Lord. Shifting blame gets rid of guilty feelings the way mopping a school floor gets rid of footprints and surface crimes while the germs remain deep in the pores of the tile. What you and I want is holy grout cleaning that gets down in the pours to the issue causing the guilt, not just things that get rid of the appearance (feelings) of guilt. For surface cleansing of the appearance of sin does not restore fellowship with the Lord.
If you want to deal with your feelings of guilt, ask God to cleanse you and restore his relationship with you. The joy of knowing that he is pleased with you will get rid of all guilty feelings! The gladness that comes from sensing his presence will wash away all uneasiness caused by the guilt of our sin! Because Jesus died for sin on the Cross, only he can deal with sin in a way that restores fellowship to God and removes our guilt before God. In him our sins were nailed to the Cross and we bear them no more! He, the Just One, died for the unjust that he might bring us to God (I Pet. 3:18)! He who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor. 5:21)! Go to Jesus with your sin. He will take your guilt away!
Application: How do you and I acknowledge our sin and get restoration?
Make a daily habit of confessing your sin before the Lord.
Establish confession as a habit – as a spiritual discipline. That is, first thing in the morning your first words and acts probably offer thanks and praise to the Lord Jesus for making it through the night by his mercy. Somewhere in the evening there should be confession of sin from that day. (Keeping a journal helps with this.) The promise from God is that if we confess our sins, he will cleanse us from our sins (I Jn. 1:9).
Confession, rather than cover-up, is the means by which we keep our consciences sensitive to sin and to God’s voice. By going against our consciences, we learn to ignore sin and guilt. The danger is that we can sear our consciences so that they do not respond correctly to the stimuli from sin.
Do not hide part of your life from God’s people.
The Lord Jesus, in forming his body – the church, has provided a means for us to have our sins exposed. The body will help us walk in holiness, and that is part of our responsibility toward one another. James says, “confess your sins to one another, that you may be healed” (5:16).
But what if you are struggling with feelings of regret due to unwise choices or life scenarios that have left you scarred? If you wish to minimize these:
Learn to walk humbly before the Lord, starting today.
You cannot change the past, but you can walk uprightly the rest of your life. Both Proverbs 15:33 and 18:12 say “humility comes before honor.” Proverbs 22:4 says,
The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.
Earnestly seek wisdom on all major decisions that affect long and large parts of life.
This list of such decisions includes no less than the following:
- School choices for self and children
- Joining a job core or union or military
- Quitting a job
- Purchase of a home or property
- Becoming partner in a business venture, or making a major financial investment
- Medical choices to accept or deny surgery, therapy, medicines, or psychological treatment
- Leaving home (running away with a friend is included)
Seeking wisdom earnestly includes three things: 1) Consult with wise people, people who know you and who you know make wise decisions, such as your spouse, parent, or supervisor. Go to them and hear what you do not want to hear, otherwise you will hear it later. 2) Know the pros and cons of your decisions, for all decisions have outcomes with which you must live. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to life decisions, for the consequences can strangle your bliss. Not wanting to hear the percentage rate on a loan will make you feel good about the loan up until the bill at a 25% interest rate comes in the mail and says, “Amount Due: More than you could every imagine or afford or find funny.” 3) Do not succumb to the world’s philosophy of entitlement. Remember,
The simple inherit folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge. (Prov. 14:18)
Remember, especially if you are young, that you cannot change the past. But you can make wise decisions in the future. You are going to make a mistake here and there. But wisdom will save your soul.
Know that there are some things you cannot change for you have or had no control over them.
Can you imagine being one of the bag checkers who let the terrorists through on 9/11? Can you imagine the potential guilt they carry? However, they could not have known those men were terrorists; it was not their job to identify them when all they had were box cutters. They did their job the best you could with what they had been given. Their guilt would be unwarranted.
Similarly, you could not have known the economy would turn; could not stop your father from being a drunkard or absent; you could not have known someone claiming to be your friend would turn on you and take your money.
A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way? (Prov. 20:24)
I have many things over which I have had guilt and shame in the past. I have let my wife down in great ways. I have missed advancement opportunities due to biased advice or waiting for perfect circumstances. My idealism has allowed me to be harmed by people who are not squeamish about employing evil for personal victories. I have lived with the guilt of these things sometimes for months; other times I have lived with guilt for years.
You know how I learned to let this feelings go? I have realized that Jesus was shamed – not ashamed, for he was not a sinner – but shamed. He was laughed at by crowds of people, spit on with everyone watching, stripped in front of military men, and called a blasphemer before a religious council. He had his efforts to redeem his people denied and rejected. He was beaten and whipped; he had his beard yanked out. He was hung up publically between two criminals and mocked. He was judged for crimes of other people when he was completely innocent. He understands shame and pain and yet has no regrets for going to the Cross. At the Cross he carried my sin and guilt and foolishness away!
Yes, there are days in all of our lives we wish we could redo, recall, blot out or erase the memory of them. But those are not the days we need to keep in focus. We can stop wishing we had not responded to the wink of an eye or a promise to be a millionaire in a year. We can stop scolding ourselves for not taking the bonus, or not doing better in school. Those days are gone, never to return again!
Instead, we need to keep in focus the day that Jesus suffered wrath for our sins! On that day he took all our guilt away.
© Eric C. Redmond, 2010.
(Full text of sermon is unavailable. Please go to www.baptistsites.net/rabc for other audio samplings of sermons.)