Guilt is something we all face. We have all done things we are ashamed of. We walk around feeling terrible for what we have done at times. Sometimes we bury it and pretend it isn't there, other times it rides just on the surface colouring everything we do and say. Explosive emotions, health problems, and spiritual isolation can all have their root cause here. What we are to do?
Often when dealing with guilt we start at the wrong place. We tend to start at the middle or end of the problem - our specific act for which we feel shame. Unfortunately, if we don't start at the right place, we will never truly rid ourselves of guilt. We may bury it and try to forget it, but it will always be just below the surface of our lives waiting to burst out.
So where do we start in our quest to genuinely rid ourselves of life-destroying shame? It all starts with God. Only in Jesus Christ can we be free from guilt. Any other method is only a deceptive covering of our wrong-doing which will ultimately fail.
We feel guilty because we are guilty. We stand condemned and guilty on four levels. First, we are born with guilt before God because of Adam's rebellion - called original sin. Second, for the specific act that we did, we stand guilty before God. Third, for the specific act that we did, we stand guilty before the person we hurt. Fourth, for the specific act that we did, we stand guilty before all the people who were affected by our act.
Can we live free from shame in all four areas? The answer is YES, but we have to deal with each area in its proper order. Most people start with level three. Sometimes they may consider level four, but levels one and two are often ignored. Yet, if we don't deal with levels one and two, we will never live free from guilt. So let's look at all four areas to cleanse our lives of guilt.
1. In the Garden of Eden, Adam stood as the representative of the human race. We reap the result of his actions - for better or worse. When Adam rebelled against God, we all became guilty of rebellion. Before anyone condemns Adam, every time we knowingly sin, we are agreeing that Adam made the right decision. We all stand before God guilty and condemned as rebels. This guilt can only erased in Jesus Christ. Just as Adam represented us and brought us all into sin and shame, so Jesus represents those who believe in Him, and brings us into right living and freedom from guilt. I am not going to spend any more time on this, although it is the most important and foundational area, because most of my readers are already Christians. They know they have been forgiven for original sin. If you are not a committed Christian then you will want to discover the joy of knowing God for yourself before you read any further. You may want to refer to our report: An Introduction To Life or take the short course Reality Check. Without a right relationship to God through Jesus Christ, we cannot successfully deal with guilt on any level.
2. If we have dwelt with original sin, through Jesus Christ, we are ready to move to level two. Level two begins to look at the guilt we feel for specific acts that we have done. We start with the fact that we feel guilty because we have done something wrong which has hurt someone. [I know some people use shame to manipulate innocent people, but in this report I am dealing with guilt that comes from a real offense.]
In level two we recognize that EVERY offense is first an offense against God before it is an offense against those who were hurt or affected by it. Why is that? Because the universe and everything [including the people] in it belongs to God. Any offense [sin] is a violation of God's rights in His creation.
"For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof." [1 Cor. 10:26, KJV]
"Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die." [Ez. 18:4, KJV]
This is why David could, after he had committed adultery and murder, say:
"You're the One I've violated, and you've seen it all, seen the full extent of my evil. You have all the facts before you; whatever you decide about me is fair." [Ps. 51:4, The Message]
If we want to be free from guilt for a specific act [sin], we must recognize that it hurt God before it hurt anyone else. We must come to God for forgiveness. It doesn't matter how great or small the offense was, forgiveness must come from God first.
Remember, God is holy and perfect. Even the slightest sin is an insult to His very nature. Any disobedience from the revealed will of God in the Word of God is an act of High Treason against the King of kings and the Lord of lords. We all stand condemned and guilty for small and big offenses alike.
"As it is written: 'There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.'" [Rom. 3:10-12, NIV]
So when we realize we have committed a specific act of rebellion, and are feeling shame, what do we have do to get God's forgiveness?
Part of forgiveness, as we will see below, involves restitution. The bad news is that it is impossible for us to make restitution to God. When we violate Him - even in the smallest way - we can never make it right. The good news is that Jesus Christ made restitution on our behalf and for every offense big or small, past, present, or future. This is why Christ had to suffer and die. Without that there can be no forgiveness. This is also why those who have not come to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, taking care of original sin as in point one above, can never have the forgiveness of God for specific sin.
Coming back to the previous question, when we, as Christians, sin and need forgiveness from God, how do we get it? Ask. Ask in faith. Ask in faith of Christ's perfect work on Calvary. It is because of the blood of Christ that forgiveness is possible not just for original sin, but also for each and every specific sin. It is the only way to receive forgiveness from God.
"But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." [1 John 1:7-9, KJV]
What happens when we ask God for His forgiveness? He does. He looks at the restitution Jesus made and says: "It more than covers your offense. You are forgiven."
It is that simple. When we have God's forgiveness, we are released from guilt and shame. We do not have to be embarrassed to enter God's presence. We don't have to suffer through days, weeks, or even years of regret. We don't have to run from God, we need to run to God. Feelings of guilt and condemnation are a trick of Satan to hinder or ruin our relationship with God after we have asked for forgiveness.
"It's urgent that you listen carefully to this: Anyone here who believes what I am saying right now and aligns himself with the Father, who has in fact put me in charge, has at this very moment the real, lasting life and is no longer condemned to be an outsider. This person has taken a giant step from the world of the dead to the world of the living." [John 5:24, The Message]
"There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." [Rom. 8:1, KJV]
What happens if, after asking God's forgiveness, we still feel guilty? We need to recognize it for what it is: a lie of the devil. We need to remind ourselves that God has forgiven us because of Jesus - it has nothing to do with us - therefore, we are innocent. The feelings may persist for awhile as Satan tempts us to doubt the goodness of God and the effectiveness of the Blood of Christ. Do not be deceived. After receiving forgiveness, we are no longer guilty before God and we do not live with shame.
What about habitual sin or addictions? The forgiveness of God is the same. The Blood of Jesus Christ is more powerful than an habitual sin or addiction. This does not excuse us for sinning. For the Christian, there is no reason to sin. With habitual sin and addictions we need to develop a God-honouring strategy for defeating the sin. God has called and empowered us to be overcomers. We may need the help or counsel of others. Do not believe the lie of Satan that you are trapped in this sin. Nonsense. The Blood of Christ can break any bondage, but we must put forth effort as well. We cannot afford to be passive with any sin in our lives.
Special note: If we are habouring unforgiveness against others, we cannot really ask God for forgiveness. No matter how much they have hurt us, we have hurt God more. If we will not forgive them, God does not hear our own request for forgiveness. We may need to God's power to forgive. We can declare with our mouth before God that we have forgiven them and ask God to work it in our hearts. It can be a large step of faith. But we cannot hard-heartedly withhold forgiveness and expect God to forgive us. Remember, their offense was primarily against God, not us. If God is willing to forgive them, we should be willing to forgive them, too.
"The king summoned the man and said, 'You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn't you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?' The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that's exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn't forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy." [Matt. 18:32-35, The Message]
3. Many times our specific sin is not only against God, but also against another person. Many times we hurt God by hurting another person. In fact, we often don't even consider the fact we have hurt God. Our focus is only on the impact we see on the person we hurt. We feel guilty because we have hurt someone else. It may be in a small way or a big way. We may tend to avoid them in order to get away from our guilt or shame. Or we may try to make others think it was their fault so we can avoid our own sense of guilt.
How can we live guilt-free before those we have hurt? First, we should have taken steps one and two. If we haven't made things right with God, then we are not ready to make things right with people.
Assuming we have taken steps one and two, what then? How do we get forgiveness so we can live without guilt and shame? There are two overriding principles that apply in every case, although how they are carried out will be different depending on what the offense was. The over-riding principles are repentance and restitution.
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin." Ez. 18:30, KJV
"Go and do something to show that your hearts are really changed." Matt. 3:8, Phillips
Repentance is not just saying we are sorry for our action. Repentance involves turning and going in the opposite direction. In other words, we are not only sorry for our actions, but also we make a deliberate commitment to not repeat the offense. We need the power of the Holy Spirit flowing though our lives, which is not possible unless we have taken step one. He can bring true conviction [not condemnation/guilt] and repentance.
Normally part of the process of repentance is going to the person we have hurt. We confess to them our guilt for what we did, demonstrate through restitution [see below] our genuine repentance, and ask them for forgiveness.
What if the person who we offended refuses to forgive us? If we have honestly done steps one to three, then we have done all we can. We have the forgiveness of God. Their refusal places the responsibility on them. They have actually committed a sin before God by not forgiving. In this case, we must leave it in the hands of God, pray for them, and realize that we are forgiven and no longer have to walk under guilt in any way.
Above I said that normally we go to the person and ask for forgiveness. In some cases, such as violent crime, we may actually hurt the person more and bring further fear into their lives by contact with them or their family members. In these cases, we receive forgiveness from God, and may have to demonstrate our repentance and restitution anonymously through others or perhaps to someone totally different. Our main concern is not our own feelings, but on preventing any further injury to the one we harmed.
Receiving forgiveness is not possible without restitution. Restitution is replacing whatever we damaged in a person's life plus a fine for our actions. It is trying to restore the person's life to where it was before our sinful action. The Bible lays down the principles that govern our restitution. These are not suggestions, but God's command in order to receive forgiveness. If the law of our nation does not require this, we must do it voluntarily.
The easiest example is when the offense involves theft.
"If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep...If the theft be certainly found in his hand alive, whether it be ox, or ass, or sheep; he shall restore double." Ex. 22:1, 4
Here we see that restitution could be different depending on what was taken. If we have already disposed of the stolen property, then restitution involves repaying 4 - 5 times the value of what we have taken. If we are able to return the stolen property in the same condition, then the restitution fine is to pay double. For example, if we stole $10.00 we repay $20.00. Simple. Accidental damage involves replacement plus a 20% fine. For example, if I am at your house and accidentally break a plate, I need to replace it with a plate of equal value plus pay you an additional 20% of the value for the inconvenience. By the way, you do not have the right to refuse my restitution. That is the same as refusing to give forgiveness. It doesn't matter how big or small the item was.
"And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed: If he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed." Ex. 21:18-19
This is the case where two men get into a fight and one is injured. The one who did the injuring is responsible for all the medical expenses and lost wages of the injured man. This also applies if we injure another person accidentally, as in a car accident. Insurances can sometimes be purchased to protect us against such potential accidents. This does not apply in the case of self-defense where one is attacked by another person. A person is allowed to use lethal force in self-defense [and defense of ones' property] without consequence.
Many offenses, such as murder, rape, kidnapping, adultery, were are so deep that the Bible prescribes capital punishment as the method of restitution. In nations which are in rebellion to God and do not enforce His law, what do we do if we commit one of these capital offenses? Suicide is not an option. In criminal cases, such as murder and rape, we need to turn ourselves in to the law and take the punishment for the crime. It is a step in allowing our victims closure. We should also offer voluntary financial compensation.
In other cases, such as abortion and adultery, our offenses are not crimes in the eyes of humanistic law so we cannot turn ourselves in. What do we do? It may involve voluntary financial compensation. It may, in the case of adultery, involve allowing the spouse an uncontested divorce [if desired]. It may involve a special consecration of our lives to God to help others. God may put something else or something additional on our hearts, Whatever we do, it must seek to restore in as great a measure as possible what we took. In other words, our focus is on the healing of the victim not our own feelings.
Finally, we do not do the acts of restitution out of guilt. We DO NOT offer restitution as a method of earning forgiveness. Restitution is a vital part of the forgiveness process. Our motivation is to obey God and to restore what we took as much as we can. If our motivation is simply because we feel guilty, then our focus is really only on ourselves. Our actions then will not please God, really help those we hurt, or remove our own guilt,
[These two principles also apply when we seek forgiveness from God in step two. We must repent - if we have no intention of abandoning our sin we cannot receive forgiveness. And Jesus Christ made the restitution before God on our behalf.]
4. Often our offense affects not only God and the person we directly offended but also other people. Here we must make a distinction between those who have genuinely been hurt by our actions and those who merely "pick up" the offense as busy bodies. Anyone who is a genuine victim of our actions must be treated with repentance and restitution to the degree they were impacted. The busy bodies can be ignored. It is not their problem. They are simply interfering in a matter that is not of their concern.
Study Guide: Living Guilt Free- 17 pages