CAN GUILT BE GOOD?
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Arthur Miller's play, All My Sons, is about a manufacturer of airplane engines during World War II. He knowingly allows defective engines to leave his factory, and the result is pilots die in the airplanes with his engines. When he is charged with the crime he cleverly manages to shift the blame to his partners. He feels no guilt about what he has done, but only smart.
His son, however, who is an air man, is of a different nature. He feels such guilt over his father's deeds that he went on his last flying mission with the deliberate intention of not coming back, and he didn't. When the father received word that his actions caused the death of his own son, he no longer felt very clever, and the impact of his evil began to sink in. He had always felt responsible to his own family, and he realized he had obligations to them, but only with the death of his son did he realize he was also responsible to others outside of his family. He saw then that he was not only guilty for the death of his own son, but for the death of others, for as he finally said, "They were all my sons."
The play is a fascinating study on both the blessings and burdens of guilt. Guilt is so complex and paradoxical that it is both beautiful and beastly. It lead to the death of the innocent son who was not guilty at all, which shows the danger of being destroyed by false guilt. On the other hand, lack of guilt was a curse in the father, for it enabled him to do terrible evil with no pain in his conscience. That guilt which killed his son, had it been in him, could have kept him from killing the sons of others. The greater one's capacity for guilt, the greater is one's compassion for others. People who have no sense of guilt are called psychopaths. They become the least human of all people. They can kill, rob, torture, and cheat people, and have not the slightest regret. They lack all human compassion, and they are seldom if ever curable. A few have been helped to some degree, but even then only when some degree of guilt can be felt.
None are so hopeless as those who cannot feel guilt. David was a great sinner who had to learn the hard way about the blessings and burdens of guilt. God inspired him to write about his experiences in the Psalms that we might learn from his experience without tasting all the bitterness he had to endure to learn. In other words, it is true that experience is the best teacher, but you don't have to learn from your own experience, for you can learn from the experience of others. It is folly to learn only from your own mistakes. It is wisdom to learn from the mistakes of others. Out of David's experience, as recorded in Psa. 32, we can learn these three important lessons about guilt. 1. The value of guilt. 2. The viciousness of guilt. 3. The victory over guilt.
I. THE VALUE OF GUILT.
David, like all sinners, tried to escape the value of guilt by denying that he was a sinner. In verses 3 & 4 he tells of how he covered over his sin, and pretended there was nothing wrong. Here is the universal cover-up. All of us are hypocrites, if you mean by that, that we pretend to be better than we really are. It is really a blessing that we do, however, for how horrible life would be if we were all dwelling on our evil side all the time. The covering over of sin is good, just like the covering over of your garbage is good. What is wrong is, if you do not honestly admit that you are covering it. This lack of honesty about your sinful nature is what leads to self-righteousness.
This was the problem with the Pharisees. When Jesus said to them as they watched the woman taken in adultery, "Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone," Jesus ripped off their cover, and let them see themselves standing naked, and their guilt made them slink away. Jesus used the universal sense of guilt to spare this woman. Jesus knew that even these godly men were guilty of lust, and He was so sure everyone of them was guilty that He risked this woman's life on it. Jesus knew that all are guilty, and that all are covering their sin.
This is not the problem, however. The problem is when we refuse to admit that we are covering it over, and so refuse to deal with our guilt. Honesty about your guilt is what makes you compassionate for others, but they would not admit their guilt. This is what David is doing, and it led to serious consequences. But before David gets into that, he begins his testimony by acknowledging the blessedness of being forgiven, and having your sins covered; not by being deceitful and hiding them, but by getting them out in the open where God can deal with them. When God deals with sin it is covered so it does not become a public nuisance. You can forget it and not feel guilty about it because it is forgiven. Only the person who feels guilt can be brought to the place where he experiences the blessing of forgiveness. No guilt means no confession; no confession means no forgiveness, and no forgiveness means no blessedness. So the road to real happiness in this sinful world begins with guilt. So guilt can be good, even though everybody wants to escape it.
Thank God for guilt, for though it is the cause of unmeasureable misery, it is also the basis for unmatchable mercy. Those who go through life without guilt are not blessed, but they are cursed. They are like lepers, for the leper has no warning system to tell him he is in pain, and is destroying his body. The leper does not feel pain, and so he scrapes his fingers, cuts and burns them, and does not feel it, and the result is he wears them away. He injures himself because he does not feel pain. Guilt is to the mind what pain is to the body. It is a warning system that tells you something is wrong, and you need to do something about it.
If your appendix breaks you feel pain as a warning so you can get help. If it gave no warning, you would die without a fighting chance. So guilt is the only hope a man has of dealing with sin. If when you transgress a law of God you have no pain of guilt, you will go on transgressing, and finally get to the point where there is nothing ahead but judgment. When David realized he could have lost all the favor of God had he not been brought to repentance and confession, he rejoices in the blessedness of those who experience forgiveness, because they are made to feel their guilt.
If the Prodigal Son had not come to the point where he felt guilt for his folly, he never would have returned to his father, and to the joy of forgiveness. If the thief on the cross had not sensed his guilt, and that he was dying justly for his sins, he never would have felt a need for a Savior, and he would have missed his last chance for paradise. If the Publican had not cried out in guilt, "God be merciful to me a sinner," he would not have gone home justified.
Cursed are those who never feel guilt, for they never need grace. The Pharisee felt only pride and self righteousness, and he prayed, "I thank God I am not as other men," but he was as other men, but he didn't know it. He was guilty before God, but did not feel it, and the result is, he missed the blessing of forgiveness. What we are saying is that, even though guilt is a negative and painful experience, it is of value because of the reality of sin, and the fact that we are guilty. Jesus never felt guilt, for He never sinned and transgressed the law of His Father. Being guilty is not good in an absolute sense, but only in the sense that it is the only way a sinner can inner into God's plan of grace for the conquering of sin.
Look at one more illustration before we move on. The priest and the Levite passed by on the side of the wounded victim. They were able to do that without a feeling of guilt because they sensed it was outside the sphere of their responsibility. You can only feel guilt if you feel responsible. Jesus actually tried to increase our guilt by expanding our sphere of responsibility. Who is my neighbor? Jesus responded to this by saying that anyone who has a need that you can meet is your neighbor. In other words, your sphere of responsibility is much broader than you tend to think. Be aware of this, and you will feel responsible for more people, and the result will be, you will feel more guilt if you neglect people.
What we see then is that guilt is the negative side of love. If I really love my neighbor as myself, I will feel guilty if I do not act lovingly toward them. This guilt will motivate me to be more responsible and more Christlike. Guilt then can act like a sort of electric fence on the path of life. When we start to wander off from the path of duty and responsibility we hit this fence and get a shock of guilt, and it reminds us of our duty, and so we get back on the path. Guilt is not good, it is bad, but it is a bad thing that can lead us back to the good. It is better not to feel guilt. It is better to be motivated by love and compassion and a sense of duty. It is better to never need to repent, confess, and be forgiven, but the whole point is, since sin is inevitable, and failure and folly is going to be a certainty in our lives, guilt is a major value, for it forces us to face up to our need for grace. It did this for David in his sin, and that is why he starts this song with rejoicing.
But lest we become so superficially positive about guilt that we neglect its horrible negativeness, David goes not to verses 3 & 4 where we see-
II. THE VICIOUSNESS OF GUILT.
The paradox is that the only way guilt can be a blessing is by being a curse. In other words, if guilt did not make you miserable it would not motivate you to seek mercy. We are dealing with fire here. Fire handled right is a great blessing, but handled wrong it is one of man's greatest enemies. So it is with guilt. It can be a constructive force, but usually it is very destructive, and even God's people often suffer a great deal of unnecessary damage because they do not handle their guilt wisely. Like David, they seek to conceal their guilt, or suppress it, and this begins to hurt their health, and they develop, as David did here, what are called psychosomatic problems. David began to lose weight, and his energy was sapped. He was dragging himself through everyday like it was a hundred degrees in the shade, and he was weak and depressed.
There was nothing wrong with David as far as his physical health was concerned.
A trip to Rochester would have been a waste of money, for all the tests would reveal no cancer cells, no tumors, no organs infected or malfunctioning. He was in perfect health, yet hardly able to function, because he refused to acknowledge his guilt. It is estimated that as many as 85% of the people in hospitals are there because of psychosomatic illnesses connected with some form of guilt. Everybody has guilt, because everybody is a sinner, but guilt is not allowed to do its good function of leading us to repent and confess our sin. Instead, man and his pride does everything he can to cover it, and refuse to take the blame. Instead of letting guilt be a friend that leads us to God's mercy, we make our guilt an enemy, and fight it, and it becomes a truly vicious foe. The rise in alcoholism and drug addition goes hand in hand with a nation where freedom to sin is great. People have to have some way to try and hide and escape from guilt. The greater the sinfulness of a people, the greater will be the guilt, and the greater will be the use of escape methods.
Nobody wants to admit to failure and confess that they blew it. It is a part of our nature to conceal our faults. The paradox of this is, that the fear to reveal our sin, that forces us to conceal our sin, is the very cause for all our needless suffering from sin. The person who can honestly face up to the reality of his sin, and take responsibility for it, is the one who can escape its destructive power. The vast majority of people, however, must suffer because they cannot be bold concerning their sin. The cover over their guilt, and like a covering over a piece of ground with an old barrel, it provides a place for the bugs and worms to develop that eat away and destroy the grass.
Professor C. Fitzsimons Allison in his book Guilt, Anger And God says, "The average person has no more serious enemy than his own guilt." Guilt is to the body what poor alignment is to a machine. If the machine parts are not running in harmony with one another there will be terrific wear and tear on the machine, and it will rapidly come to a break down. You can't ignore it and cover the machine up, and expect that to protect the machine. You may prolong the life of the part by flooding it with oil, but even that is just a temporary solution. Eventually the wear will tell. The only solution is to get the machine back into alignment where all the parts work in harmony without tension. So it is with the body and guilt. When we refuse to deal with guilt we are forcing our bodies to work under tension and out of harmony with our soul. There is an unseen friction that is wearing away at the body, and the result is some kind of psychosomatic problem where the body begins to break down.
Here is where sin and suffering have a direct connection. It is like a driver with one foot on the gas peddle and the other on the brake. He is constantly producing friction that is wearing out his brakes. Guilt is a very dangerous feeling, for it is so destructive, but since we are all sinners, it is also inevitable. There is no escape from guilt. There is a right and a wrong way to deal with it, however, as we shall see, but there is no escape. The tragedy is that many Christians go all through life dealing with guilt in the wrong way. They travel down life's highway with their foot always on the brake wearing out their system way before its time.
As bad as guilt is, it is one of those bad things we need for our own good. People who have no sense of guilt are called psychopaths, and they are the least human of all people. They can kill, rob, and torture people and have not the slightest twinge of guilt. They lack all human compassion, and they are seldom if ever curable. A few have been helped a little, but only when some degree of guilt is felt. No guilt is a terrible curse. Guilt is like pain. It is a warning system that something is not right and needs to be taken care of.
God does not want His people crippled by their refusal to face their guilt. That is why He sent the prophets to Israel. The main difference between the true prophet and the false prophet was that the true prophet told it like it was. He tried to make Israel see its sin and folly of obedience, and warned of judgment. The whole point was to make them sense their guilt so that they would repent and return to God. The false prophet said, all is well, do not be disturbed, everything is just fine. Nothing is more dangerous than being at peace and undisturbed when judgment is about to fall. It is a great blessing then to sense guilt, and flee to God for mercy. Nathan was God's prophet who finally got through to David, and got him to face the viciousness of guilt so that he could move on to-
III. THE VICTORY OVER GUILT.
The answer to one man's greatest problems is so simple; it is confession. The ability to admit you are wrong is one of the greatest abilities you will ever develop. It comes harder for some than others, but all must learn it or be doomed. David could have avoided his bout with psychosomatic illness had he been able to acknowledge his sin sooner, but he held out. The pride of man makes him into such a simple fool. David knew that God already knew of his sin, yet he refused to confess it. Men can know they are wrong and that they have sinned, and know that God knows, and even know that everybody who knows them knows, and yet still refuse to confess it. Why?
Because of the stubbornness of pride that says I can solve my own problems. Much, if not most of the suffering of mankind can be traced to man's stubborn refusal to surrender to God, and become dependent upon His forgiveness to conquer sin. Studies show that many people who habitually fail and make their lives miserable are doing it on purpose to pay for their sin. This is their way of handling guilt. They will not confess it and be forgiven. They will punish themselves and thus pay for their own sin. They do not need a Savior, or any help from anybody. They will handle their own problems by self-punishment. They actually are quite effective, and are very successful in ruining their lives and making sure every break they get in life backfires. They are judge, jury, and executioner, and they illustrate, not the victory over guilt, but the victory of guilt. They eventually destroy themselves rather than surrender their guilt before God.
The extent to which men will go to atone for their own sin rather than receive the atonement of Christ is illustrated by annual event in a village in Corsica. Every year since the middle ages a man is selected to carry the cross to Calvary. It draws a large crowd of tourists. Newsweek covered the event in 1978 and described how a barefoot man in a blood-red hood would actually stagger under the weight of a massive oak cross for a mile and a half. A 31 pound chain around his ankle made it harder, and as he stumbled along the cobbled street his feet would begin to bleed. Three times he fell under the load, and each time a fellow penitent playing the role of Simon of Cyrene would shout, "Get up-you asked for this!"
The hooded figure was a conscious stricken French sinner whose identity was known only to the local priest. This was no play. The man was to atone for his sin by suffering as Christ suffered. So popular is the hope of escaping guilt by this method that it is booked solid for the next forty years by gamblers, adulterers, ex-cons, and all sorts of people who feel this could give them peace of mind. Men will do anything to atone for their sin to escape guilt, but all of this suffering is futile folly, and would at best lead only to a temporary peace. The only lasting peace men can have is to stop trying to pay for their sin, and accept the price Jesus paid as the all sufficient payment.
Guilt is only good when you pay attention to it, and get its message. You are guilty and nothing can change that, and so you deserve judgment. Your only hope of escape is forgiveness. When we hear this message and obey it, we will confess our sin to God, and if need be to man, and find the only way out of the maze of guilt. Victory over guilt can never won by fighting, but only by surrender. Blessed are those who say, "It's not my brother or my sister, but it's me oh Lord standing in the need of prayer. It is not my family or environment, or my friends, but I am to blame for my sin. I am responsible for my foolish choices, and I am guilty." Blessed are those who confess their guilt for they, and they alone, will gain the victory over guilt, and enter into the joy of forgiveness. When guilt leads you to surrender to Jesus Christ, the only one who can forgive all sin, then guilt can be good.