A woman once came to see me as I was doing pastoral care with people in recovery. She told me of a verse that was literally life saving for her. The verse she cherished was the first part of Isaiah 5:18 in the New Living Translation version. It says this, ‘What sorrow for those who drag their sins behind them with ropes made of lies…” What she heard in that taught her something about how to stop feeling guilty. She was dragging her past behind her along with lies of “you mustn’t ever forget it, you’ll never leave it behind, and you’re not worthy to walk into a blessed future.”
Now, the verse in context meant something different to Isaiah. But, when she heard “dragging your sins behind you brings you sadness” and you do this because “you believe lies,” she felt she could begin to change her life. She saw that feeling guilty constantly did harm, not good. And, she saw that she was thinking this way because of lies she was believing about herself.
Holy Spirit spoke through these words to set her free.
There are times when guilt is appropriate, but there are also many people who beat themselves up with guilt and believe that they are honoring God by doing that. I want to explore here what the Bible says about appropriate guilt, about unnecessary guilt, and about freedom from relentless guilt.
When Guilt is What We Should Feel
There are times, many times in our lives, when we do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing. It is appropriate then, to feel guilty, to recognize our wrongs, and to make amends.
The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are tremendously helpful in providing a process for dealing with wrongdoing and for clearing the conscience. You may be reading this and not be addicted – don’t worry. These steps will help anyone. But, if you are in recovery, they are so powerful in allowing you to face the past, say you’re sorry, try to correct it, and to then MOVE ON.
Here are steps 4-10:
#4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
#5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
#6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
#7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
#8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
#9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
#10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Part of Moving on From Guilt is Repentance
I remember seeing an in prison seminar given by a psychiatrist named Dr. Stanton Samenow. He was talking to a group of men; tough, hardened men. But, they were all trying hard to leave criminal thinking behind.
I remember a moment in their conversation when one of the men described his behavior under the influence of cocaine. He described theft and violence. “But,” he casually said, “That’s not me.”
You might think the other men would have said, “You’re right. Others drove you to that – a rough childhood, poverty, etc.” But the men wouldn’t buy any of what he was saying. One man responded, “Who put the cocaine in your body? You did. And everything you did under its influence was you, man. Face up to it and don’t make excuses.”
It was an incredible conversation. In essence, they were telling him, “You want to know how to stop feeling guilty and how to stop living the same life when you get out? Face up to who you have been. Face up to your wrongs. Say, in your heart, ‘I’m am so deeply sorry.’ Then learn to think and do different.”
Jesus Died to Free Us from Guilt
Here’s some great news: When we are repentant and seek to change, Jesus Christ will help us with that and with guilty feelings. There is a beautiful hymn (O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing) whose lyrics were written in the 1700s by Charles Wesley. A verse in the song says this:
He breaks the power of canceled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean;
His blood availed for me.
Jesus breaks the power of canceled sin. What is this power? It is guilt. If sin is canceled, or forgiven, and if we’re truly sorry for it, it should be gone and forgotten. But if we keep going back to it in our heads, even after we’ve been ashamed and said, “I’m sorry,” it still has a hold on us. Jesus died to take away both the sin AND the lingering shame from it. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” it says in John 8:36.
How Did He Do This – Take Our Shame?
Jesus bore our shame and guilt on the cross in the same way that He bore our sins and sicknesses. He became human and He took our place on the cross. In other words, though humanity was the “guilty party,” Jesus let Himself be led to the cross and killed on it in our place.
The Bible explains it in this way, “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in Him, we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
Jesus was shamed on the cross, humiliated by the leaders and soldiers and everyone who mocked Him. And, He bore our shame as if it was His own. In doing this, He removed our sin and shame. Jesus paid for it, not us. He gives us freedom and a new life instead, if we’re repentant and if we choose to believe in Him.
Romans 10:11 says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”
Or, as it says, in 1 Peter 2:6-7, “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone [Jesus] and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
God Does Not Want Our Guilt as An Offering
I remember a sermon from years ago that so touched my heart. It was given by Pastor Jim Cymbala at the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. He told the story of someone on his staff talking with him and bringing up her past from years ago, feeling sad and ashamed about it yet again.
Pastor Cymbala said he told the woman, “You believe in Jesus. Years ago you accepted Him as your Savior. And, years ago, you prayed and asked forgiveness about these things, right?” She answered, “Yes.” Pastor Cymbala then said, “Why are you holding on to it, then? Do you think God wants that or is honored by it? No, He’s honored if you really, fully accept the freedom from all that which He died to give you. He loves you.”
Releasing Our Guilt Actually Honors God
And then, Pastor Cymbala began to connect this current day story with the story of Joseph and his conniving brothers in Genesis 37-50. Joseph had already forgiven his brothers who had sold him into slavery and then lied to their father, saying Joseph was dead. He had helped them in Egypt during a famine. But, when their father died, the brothers said this to Joseph,
Your father left these instructions before he died: “This is what you are to say to Joseph: ‘I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. Genesis 50:16-17
Joseph was a “type” of Christ. He represents qualities of Jesus.
So, Pastor Cymbala said, “It hurts God’s heart when you won’t fully receive His forgiveness. Jesus died to remove your sins from you (if you believe) and to remove your guilt. When you keep offering Him your guilt, you mistakenly think you’re honoring and pleasing Him. You’re not. You’re refusing His love poured out on the cross.
Yes, be humble and reverent, but that’s different from going around and dredging up your sins again and again after you’ve repented and after He’s forgiven you.”
Leaving Guilty Feelings Behind for Good
Yesterday in worship, the pastor preaching said something that is so helpful. He made the comment that, “The pain of the past can become comfort in the present and hope for the future in Jesus.” We don’t have to drag our sins around us forever believing lies about ourselves and God.
What scripture says about God removing our sins from us and making us into brand new people who He accepts is ALL TRUE. Here is just one verse that sums this up so well:
“There is therefore now NO condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1) [Emphasis mine] NO CONDEMNATION!
For nine wonderful verses that offer more assurance that God wants you to walk out of guilt – He does not want you to stay in that state if you have repented for past mistakes – read here.
God is honored when you believe in Jesus and receive Him into your life and when you open your heart to Him as Holy Spirit. Jesus died to give you and me freedom from our wrong and old way of life. He died to enable you to receive His life of goodness and righteousness. You DON’T have to walk around with your head down, loathing yourself. That is not God’s desire for you.
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