Dorothy was weeping. Great sobs shook her frail frame. One hand stroked the cat on her lap and the other rested on the walker beside her chair as she told me her story: a lifetime of alcohol, drugs, family conflict, and immorality. “Now I’m old,” she said. “I can’t see. I can’t walk. My children don’t want to be around me. And it’s finally hitting home—all I did that hurt my family, all the unkindness and neglect. I feel terrible—and I can’t blame anyone but myself.”
It was a sad picture, yet you might be surprised to hear that Dorothy’s experience was actually very positive. Her remorse meant that God’s Spirit was leading her to repentance.
Is guilt bad?
Guilt isn’t popular nowadays. I’ve heard people blame guilt and, by extension, religion for their unhappiness, rather than tracing it back to the wrong things they did that made them feel guilty. Some psychologists have encouraged their patients to throw off their guilt by simply declaring that the things the Bible tells us not to do really aren’t so bad after all, and you needn’t feel guilty for doing them. “Be yourself!” they say. “Do whatever feels good to you! Nothing is wrong as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else—and sometimes even if it does. Just don’t let old morals hold you back!”
Yet guilt, as horrible as it makes us feel, is absolutely necessary. When God confronted Adam and Eve about their disobedience, they felt terrible—and rightly so, because remorse led them to recognize and admit their error. From the beginning, God wanted us to understand that disobeying His perfect laws for life makes everyone—Him, others, and ourselves—increasingly unhappy.
Can you imagine a world without guilt?* Anyone could kill another person without a second thought, making friendship impossible and personal security nonexistent. Anyone could have sexual relationships with anyone else without feeling remorse, so marriage and parenthood would disintegrate. Because people could steal whatever they wanted without regret, business and trade would be impossible. Promises, vows, and contracts? Meaningless. People could disobey the laws of the land with impunity, for there would be no small voice telling them that they shouldn’t.
In the end, we would flee the company of other people because every moment together would be filled with betrayal and danger, and so the human race would self-destruct. No wonder Sigmund Freud, hardly a man of faith, admitted that without guilt there could be no civilization, because guilt is what holds in check human aggression and selfishness.
Once guilt has served its purpose, though—once it has led us to see our need for forgiveness and correction—it needs to stop. Indeed, in order for us to live an emotionally healthy life, it must stop. It isn’t God’s desire that we suffer constantly over past sins. The question is, How can a person get rid of guilt?
You begin by taking responsibility for your own actions. King David committed some truly horrible sins. Once he murdered another man in order to take the man’s beautiful wife for himself (2 Samuel 11). But when confronted with his sin, David faced it squarely. He wrote, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” (Psalm 51:3). David not only acknowledged that he’d sinned, he felt sorrow for it—an experience the Bible calls repentance.
Sometimes people blame others for their sins. “I became violent because you made me get angry.” “I committed adultery because the other person tempted me, and I had no choice.” These are excuses. You could have chosen to act differently. You can’t repent of your sins unless you admit that your own choices were responsible for them.
Putting repentance into words is called confession. The New Testament Greek word for confession (homologeo) means “to say the same thing,” so confession is agreeing with God’s assessment of our sins rather than trying to weasel out of them. David, in his confession, agreed with God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” (verse 4).
Because most sins aren’t just between ourselves and God, confessing to the people we’ve hurt is also important. “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed,” advised the apostle James (James 5:16). When the tax collector Zacchaeus repented of his dishonest business practices, he declared, “If I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8). Talking to those you’ve wronged and making restitution for the harm you’ve caused lifts the burden of guilt.
Along with confession, we ask God to forgive us. David prayed, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. . . . Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity” (Psalm 51:7, 9). To be forgiven for their sins, people in the Old Testament had to confess in the presence of a priest and offer a sacrifice. Not anymore! Because God’s Son, Jesus, gave Himself as the ultimate Sacrifice for sin, we can approach the Creator of the universe “with confidence” and “receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
To receive—and feel—God’s forgiveness is a life-transforming experience, one that Jesus illustrated with a story. He said, “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7:41, 42). Clearly, the man who had the greater debt forgiven would have the most powerful motivation to love and serve his forgiver.
And so it is with our sins. When David received forgiveness, he invited God to take over his life and change him so he wouldn’t be tempted as readily the next time: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). He promised that in return he would “teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you” (verse 13).
Just remember that when you sin again, guilt will come back too. It’s a warning light on the dashboard of your life to alert you to turn from your wrong ways and make things right with God.
Philosopher Alfred Korzybski quoted an old maxim, “God may forgive your sins, but your nervous system won’t.” He meant that sometimes people who know intellectually that God has forgiven them can’t shed their feelings of remorse. A man told me once that he despaired of feeling completely forgiven because he couldn’t find the person he’d wronged many years before in order to confess.
A cruel father might later repent of his unkindness to his family, but he can’t make up for years of broken relationships. A murderer can be sorry for killing a man, but he can’t bring the victim back to life. Sin’s results continue even after forgiveness.
Unresolved guilt is painful and destructive. David felt the weight of his guilt as though his bones were being crushed (verse 8). When a paralyzed man was brought to Jesus, Jesus forgave his sins without at first even mentioning his withered legs, because He recognized that the man’s sins hurt him far more than his infirmity (Luke 5:17–26).
If you’re struggling to drop a weight of guilt, let me assure you that you have every right to accept God’s forgiveness and let Him bury your sins “into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). If you haven’t dropped that burden and let Jesus take it, then pray that God will do whatever it takes to give you the relief of forgiveness. And don’t be afraid to talk to a trusted spiritual advisor. Sometimes a kind and compassionate counselor is just what’s needed to help you accept the joy God wants you to have.
God doesn’t excuse our sins, but He comes armed with something that can defeat guilt. His forgiveness was sealed and delivered by Jesus, who “bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). Forgiveness is so transformative that experiencing it is like resurrection to a new life! “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires,” wrote the apostle Paul. “Rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life” (Romans 6:12, 13).
Don’t hold on to guilt when Jesus gave His life to forgive you!