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Guilt - And Why We Need It

Guilty Hound

by Dennis Pollock

Imagine, after a woman gives birth, the doctor coming to tell her, “I have some wonderful news. We have given your little baby girl a special gift. We have given her a new drug which will make it impossible for her to ever feel pain. She will never have a headache, never experience a stomach ache, and if she is ever in a serious car accident she will never feel the least bit of pain. If she has to have a major surgery there will be no need for any pain medication afterwards. You little girl will grow up pain-free and will be that way for all her days.”

Would the mother rejoice at such an announcement? Not if she had any sense, she wouldn’t! In fact, that doctor would have sentenced the little girl to an absolutely terrible life. You talk about a lawsuit – the parents of this little girl would surely have grounds for one!

Few of us pay much attention to the role that pain plays in our lives. Of course we all try to avoid it as much as possible, but rarely do we consider its positive effects. But if we ever doubted that pain can be a good thing, all we need do is consider the terrible effects of leprosy. One of leprosy’s most dreadful consequences is that lepers often have mangled, shortened, deformed, and sometimes missing fingers and toes. Many assume that the disease brings this about directly, but in fact the cause is indirect.

In an article sponsored by American Leprosy Missions, they respond to the question, “Do fingers and toes fall off when someone gets leprosy?” Their answer might surprise many: “No. The bacteria attack nerve endings and destroy the body’s ability to feel pain and injury. Without feeling pain, people injure themselves and the injuries can become infected, resulting in tissue loss. Fingers and toes become shortened and deformed as the cartilage is absorbed into the body. Repeated injury and infection of numb areas in the fingers or toes can cause the bones to shorten.”

Moral Feedback

In other words, leprosy destroys the body’s ability to feel pain, and repeated maiming and infections in the fingers and toes almost always results. It turns out that pain is our friend. It is a God-given feedback system which tells us that our body is being harmed, giving us the greatest possible motivation to find the cause of that harm and remedy the situation. While a teenager I was mowing our lawn when I noticed a small piece of pipe on the grass. Not wanting to run over the metal object with the lawnmower, I stooped down and picked it up. But I didn’t hold it for long. Almost as soon as I picked it up I dropped it immediately. It turned out to be a substitute muffler my dad had used to replace the regular muffler on the lawnmower. It had apparently just fallen off a minute before and had it been any hotter, it would have been red.

The time I held that hot pipe was probably about one second. But suppose I could not feel pain. I might have held it for twenty or thirty seconds, pondering what it was and where it came from, and doing severe damage to my fingers as I thought about it. But the intense, burning pain that the nerve endings in my fingers registered and sent to my brain gave me a simple, but very effective message: “Drop that pipe.” Pain was my friend, but I wasn’t thinking very philosophically at that time, and all I knew was that the pain in my fingers was excruciating.

We would be very foolish to insist that pain is a bad thing, utterly useless and worthless, and to question our Creator about why He would include the ability to feel pain as He knits little babies together in their mothers’ wombs. And guilt serves us in a very similar sense. Guilt is the soul’s ability to feel moral pain. It is our soul’s way of telling us that something is seriously wrong – and that we need to take steps to correct the situation. Just as physical pain serves wonderfully in motivating us to make changes, guilt puts intense pressure on us to change our course, change our ways, repent, make restitution and apologize. Without guilt we would go through our lives blissfully unaware of what jerks we are, and we would get worse and worse as the years pass. As with the fingers of lepers, we would be destroying ourselves without knowing it.

We Feel Because We Are

The secular world doesn’t seem to get this, for the most part. Their constant mantra is: “By any means, get rid of your guilt – you don’t deserve it.” A holistic psychology counselor writes: “Guilt is the worst experience known to humans. Guilt ties you up in knots and makes you feel unworthy and miserable. Contrary to what you may think, guilt is not a real, authentic human emotion. Instead, it is a "feeling" that you have committed a sin, therefore, you are bad and wrong.” On one website we are told: “Focusing on “I should do this” or “I should have done that” sets you up for being self-critical...”

Bad boyEven in Christian circles, we constantly hear teachers and preachers who advise us to get rid of guilt by simply telling ourselves that we are not guilty. Yet they never seem to consider that sometimes we may feel guilty because we are guilty. We rarely hear that repentance and a change of behavior may solve our guilt problem far more effectively than merely trying to convince ourselves not to feel guilty.

The bottom line is, as always, “What does the Bible say?” The concept of guilt runs all through the Scriptures, but the Bible doesn’t really say a lot about the feeling of guilt. God seems more concerned with actual guilt. Still there are a few verses and several passages which deal with men and women who clearly felt guilty – primarily because they were guilty.

Guilt-producing Sermon

One of these scenarios takes place at the very beginning of the church in the book of Acts. Jesus told His disciples to pray for the promise of the Father, and they followed His instructions. About 120 men and women met together and gave themselves to prayer. On the Jewish holiday known as Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, resulting in supernatural manifestations. Word went all over town about the strange goings-on, and soon a huge crowd of thousands had gathered to see the sight. The apostle Peter, seeing a grand opportunity to preach Jesus, got up and began to speak.

Peter used a number of the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah as the basis of his sermon, declaring that Jesus had fulfilled all of these prophecies and was the One for whom the Jews had been looking and praying. But Peter was not content merely to demonstrate how Jesus fulfilled the prophetic promises. He also seemed determined to remind his audience of their sinfulness in clamoring for the death of Jesus. As Peter preached Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, he boldly declared, “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death” (Acts 2:36).

Peter was declaring that these, his listeners, were guilty of the greatest crime imaginable – crucifying the Son of God. And to drive his point home a little deeper he essentially repeats the charge at the end of his message: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). This bold preaching of Jesus, and declaration of his listener’s guilt produced the desired results. The Bible tells us, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter answered that they should repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and in doing so they would be saved and their sins would be forgiven. Around 3,000 of them did exactly that, and the church saw a great surge of growth that day.

Was guilt involved in this operation? Decidedly so! These people experienced guilt because they were guilty! The remedy for their guilt was not to go to a psychoanalyst who would instruct them to chant a mantra about being a wonderful person, or try to convince them that guilt is counterproductive and should have no place in their lives. The divine remedy was repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Just as my pain in holding that hot pipe led to an instant change (dropping the pipe), their pain in learning they had crucified the King of glory led to change as well – repentance and faith in Jesus.

“You Are the Man!”

In the Old Testament we see this in the story of King David’s sin with Bathsheba. David had committed adultery with her, and then sent his army captain a note. The note instructed Joab to place Bathsheba's husband in a dangerous position during battle, so that he would be killed. Shortly afterward David married Bathsheba and added her to his collection of wives. It is strange that David, the author of the beautiful 23rd Psalm, just seemed to go about his business without any evident remorse over his monstrous deed. Since he had been involved in so many killings during his career on the battlefield, perhaps he thought that one more wouldn’t make all that much difference. After all, he hadn’t told his commander to kill the man – just allow him to be killed.

And then the prophet Nathan came along with a story about a rich man who stole a poor man’s pet lamb, and slaughtered it for his dinner. David was furious at this outrageous act. Then Nathan lowered the boom. “You are the man!” he pronounced with holy indignation, and went on to spell out to the king exactly what he had done, declaring that God would surely punish him for it. David’s level of guilt and shame no doubt spiked tremendously as the prophet spoke. But to his credit he did not try to defend himself or justify his actions as some might have done. He did not order Nathan to be killed, but instead meekly confessed, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

As with Peter’s audience on the Day of Pentecost, David felt guilty because he was guilty – and he desperately needed to recognize it. What had probably been a vague sense of uneasiness over his actions had been transformed into a terrible sense of guilt and shame. And following hard on the heels of guilt there came repentance. The prophet told him, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die,” but went on to describe how God would send several severe disciplinary punishments into his life for his actions.

Divine Remedy

The Bible tells us, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (Psalm 130:3, 4). Through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God offers forgiveness to us when we sin. But there must be repentance.

It is possible to feel guilt when there is no legitimate reason for it. Children sometimes feel guilty over the divorce of their parents. Abused women sometimes feel an illogical guilt when their partners beat them. And sometimes Christians can feel guilty about sins for which they have already repented long ago. Satan is called the “accuser of the brethren” and delights in trying to bring up past offenses that God has already forgiven and forgotten.

We must recognize that as powerful as sin is to stain the soul, as destructive as it is to ruin our lives, break up relationships, and hijack our destinies, the blood of Jesus Christ is more powerful still. The inspired word declares, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” and in another place, “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” It is not necessary for us to repent over and over again for the same offense, day after day, or try to do various forms of penance to make up for our past transgressions. Jesus died on the cross to pay the full price for all our guilt and sin and shame and condemnation. Where there is repentance and faith in Jesus, guilt is banished and has no place in our lives. Paul writes: “Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us” (Romans 8:34).


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