Living With Guilt
By Dan Gatlin
Do different sins carry different consequences? Well, that depends on how we look at it. From a spiritual perspective the answer is no. The Bible tells us that all sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:1-2). Though man distinguishes between "big sins" and "little sins," the New Testament does not. James writes, "For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law." (James 2:10-11). James is not saying that the murderer is also guilty of adultery, rather, that one stands before God as either forgiven or condemned. In our courts, if someone is convicted of stealing he cannot successfully argue, "I should be set free because I have never murdered, committed arson, or assaulted anyone." We stand before the judge as either innocent or a violator of the law. Violating even one law, though we keep the rest, makes us guilty.
From the standpoint of church discipline all sin should carry the same consequence. It matters not whether a Christian is guilty of gossip, forsaking the assembly, fornication, or teaching false doctrine, if they refuse to repent (I John 5:16-17), discipline should follow (II Thessalonians.3:6-15).
But the simple fact is that different sins can vary widely in their earthly consequences. One who repents of a "little white lie" (if there is such a thing) may immediately regain his reputation. But the young woman who repents of fornication may find herself with a child to raise. Both may be forgiven, but the consequence of the latter endures while the former is more easily forgotten.
The alcoholic/drug addict may destroy every important relationship he has. Family, friends, and neighbors, may all abandon him, yet if he "comes to himself" (Luke 15:17) he can find forgiveness with God. His other relationships may never be repaired. The adulterer may find himself divorced and in a position where he can never remarry (as far as God’s law is concerned), but he also can obtain God’s forgiveness. Loneliness as a "single" may be the price he has to pay to be acceptable to God and to gain eternal life.
Living with the consequences of sins like these serve as a daily reminder of those sins . While God and man may forgive us, forgiving ourselves may be much more difficult. David wrote, "For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me" (Psalm 51:3). While God forgave him (II Samuel 12:13), his guilty conscience continued to plague him. How can we deal with the guilt associated with the consequences of such sins? God’s word provides the answer.
Devote Yourself Completely To God. Being "double-minded" (James 1:8) is how most Christians become entangled in sin in the first place. We cannot have one foot in the world and one foot in the church. Jesus warned, "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6:24). Those who try to live a double life will eventually find themselves in a situation where they have to make a choice between living as the world and living righteously.
Consider the words of Paul in Galatians 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." Paul’s life was not his own, it was entirely dedicated to Christ. The statement, "I have been crucified with Christ," is explained in Galatians 5:24, "And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." One does not have to be an apostle or preacher for these statements to apply to them. All must set aside their desires and do those things that are pleasing to God. The degree of our devotion to God is expressed by Paul, "And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him." (Colossians 3:17). "Whatever you do in word or deed" is all encompassing, everything we say and do must comply with His word. God expects us to serve Him everyday. We must pray (I Thessalonians 5:17), study (Acts 17:11), and meditate (Philippians 4:8; Psalm 1:1-2) each day. Without taking such "drastic" action, we leave ourselves open to Satan’s attacks. Overcoming Satan’s snares takes preparation, discipline, and work.
Make Corrections Where You Can. Part of repentance includes restitution. We can’t rob a bank on Friday, be converted on Sunday, and decide to keep the money on Monday. Zacchaeus told Jesus, "if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold" (Luke 19:8). While we can’t always make restitution for our sins, we can express sorrow for our sins and show by our life that we have changed. This is what John and Paul meant by the phrase , "fruits of repentance" (Matthew 8:3; Acts 26:20). If we make changes in our spiritual lives, others can’t help but see it (I Peter 4:3-5; Ephesians 2:1-10).
Recognize That God Forgives You. Even if we don’t feel forgiven, we can know that we are. Of course, such knowledge comes only after we have repented, and only by trusting in God’s promise to forgive. Unfortunately, our emotions don’t always fall in line with our intellect. The apostle John wrote, "For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God" (I John 3:20-21). (John is not saying that we can continue in sin and God will overlook it. Why would the apostle who emphasized obedience to the commandments [John 14:15; I John 2:3-4, 3:22, 5:2-3; II John 6] deny that obedience here?) We may know that God has forgiven our sins and that we are walking by His commandments, but somehow the feelings of guilt may remain. This is part of what John meant by saying, "if our heart condemns us." In such cases, God is greater than our hearts. If the guilt subsides so that "our heart does not condemn us," then we are blessed with "confidence toward God."
While David felt the guilt of his sin (Ps. 51:3), he also recognized the blessedness of God’s forgiveness. Psalm 51 expresses David’s sorrow over his adultery and murder. In contrast, Psalm 32 expresses his joy over the forgiveness of those sins: "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no deceit" (vs. 1-2). The apostle Paul never forgot the fact that he was a persecutor of the church (I Timothy 1:13). He referred to himself as "the least of the apostles" (I Corinthians 15:9) and "the lease of all saints" (Ephesians 3:8). Yet, even with such guilt he could say, "Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing" (II Timothy 4:8).
Take Responsibility And Accept The Consequences. When God confronted Adam and Eve with their sin, Adam took the cowards way out: "The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate" (Genesis 3:12). He blamed Eve and then God when he knowingly chose to sin (1 Tim. 2:14). God has never accepted excuses, and He certainly will not on the day of judgment. Again, we turn to David as an example. His statement to Nathan was simple, "I have sinned against the Lord" (II Samuel 12:13). The consequence was: "Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house" (II Samuel 12:10). In years to follow David witnessed the rape of Tamar by Amnon, the murder of Amnon by Absalom, the overthrow of his throne by Absalom, and finally the death of Absalom. No doubt David remembered the words of this prophecy as "the sword" ravaged his family.
Use Guilty Feelings Positively. Today men go to great lengths to avoid feeling guilty. Doctors dispense drugs, Psychiatrists and Psychologists try to convince people that their sin is simply an "alternate lifestyle." But avoiding guilt when we are guilty causes to our conscience becoming calloused (Ephesians 4:17- 19).
In reality, a tender conscience is a blessing. Consider the good things guilt can do in our lives. First, it should motivate us to live humbly toward God and those we may have sinned against. Humility is the foundational attitude that makes our relationship with God acceptable. "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up" (James 4:8-10).
Second, guilt can keep us from further sin by reminding us of the pain we’ve caused God, others, and ourselves. Men are inclined to think of the "passing pleasures of sin" (Hebrews 11:25) rather than the pain and suffering that later results. By focusing on the consequences of sin, and not its pleasures, we can avoid the trap that is awaiting us.
Third, guilt can remind us of the fate that awaits those who don’t make their lives right with God. "What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:21-23). Part of the torment of hell will be remembering the missed opportunities of this life (Luke 16:25). Let us always make the most of those opportunities while there is still hope.