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Grappling with Guilt

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Grappling with Guilt

Jesus is my Advocate when I am overwhelmed by the guilt of my sin.

Blessed is he

whose transgressions are forgiven,

whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the man

whose sin the Lord does not count against him

and in whose spirit is no deceit

When I kept silent,

my bones wasted away

through my groaning all day long. For day and night

your hand was heavy upon me;

my strength was sapped

as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you

and did not cover up my iniquity.

I said, "I will confess

my transgressions to the Lord"—

and you forgave

the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you

while you may be found;

surely when the mighty waters rise,

they will not reach him.

You are my hiding place;

you will protect me from trouble

and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you

should go;

I will counsel you and watch over you.

Do not be like the horse or the mule,

which have no understanding

but must be controlled by bit and bridle

or they will not come to you.

Many are the woes of the wicked,

but the Lord's unfailing love

surrounds the man who trusts in him.

Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;

sing, all you who are upright in heart!

Psalm 32

A story is told about an interesting prank pulled by the famous playwright Noel Coward many years ago. It is said that he sent an identical note to twenty of the most famous men in London. The anonymous note read simply:

"Everybody has found out what you are doing.

If I were you I would get out of town."

Supposedly, all twenty men actually left town.

What if you opened your mail one day and found such a note? What would race through your mind? Even though you've probably done nothing, it's a safe bet that, for a brief moment, your heart would beat a little faster and your palms might get a little sweaty. If you doubt it, think back to the last time you saw a police car in your rearview mirror. When the police car finally passed you, didn't you breathe a sigh of relief, and chastise yourself a little for those crazy, unfounded guilt feelings?

We all live with a great weight of false guilt and anxiety hanging over us. I don't mean the real and necessary sort of biblical guilt that helps us realize we're sinners and leads us to repentance. I mean the kind of guilt that dogs our lives, and that comes from who knows where and makes us feel miserable.

Some people never marry and feel guilty that they didn't; some marry and feel guilty that they did. Some never have children and feel guilty about that; others feel guilty about the poor parenting job they are doing with the children they have. Some sick people feel guilty over the care they are forced to receive from others; other healthy people who have sick people in their family feel guilty they aren't caring for them as they should.

We all carry around little guilt and big—about phone calls not answered, letters we have answered, books we've read, books we haven't read... and on and on.

The other day I listened to the actual recording of a psychologist's scheduled therapy sessions. One by one, several people came in and unloaded the guilt they felt.

One Jewish man shared his feeling of guilt because he was the only member of his entire family to survive a concentration camp during World War II. In another case, a woman expressed her guilt over being unable to appropriately care for her aged mother. She even felt guilty that she'd had to institutionalize her parent.

But we "normal folks" aren't much different, If I were to ask you to identify your guilty problems, you could probably list several things. And so could I. Some of our feelings would probably be well-founded, while others would be totally unfounded. Yet guilt can keep us from ever experiencing the fullness of life we as spiritual people should daily know. It can cripple us emotionally, mortally hindering our spiritual growth and keeping us from experiencing our full potential as people of God.

That sounds quite serious, doesn't it? Well, it is.

So, how can we get rid of this awful, draining guilt? We must begin to believe what the Word of God tells us about the reality of the Christian life. And a good place to start is Psalm 32.

Relief and Release

Of all people, David had good reason for feeling guilty. As we know, his sins were immense. Scholars believe that Psalm 32 was written by David as a twin to the 51st Psalm. Psalm 51 was written in the white-hot heat of David's cry to God for forgiveness over his double sin of murder and adultery. Most scholars believe that Psalm 32 was written sometime following the events which occurred after David had experienced the forgiveness of God. He had internalized that forgiveness, God had set him on his feet again, and the psalm reflects that experience. Relief and release from guilt are written all through it. "Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered / Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him...."

It's easy to see why Psalm 32 is called a penitential psalm. It was written to give the reader words to take to God.

As New Testament Christians, we have something even David, "the man after God's own heart," didn't have. John gives us a promise that can break the stranglehold of guilt on our lives: "If anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One" (1 John 2:1).

These two scripture passages hold the secret to overcoming guilt. Any of us can experience freedom from guilt if we do two things: 1) tell God like it is, and 2) turn to Christ as our Advocate.

Telling God "Like It Is"

Every Bible reader is familiar with David's amazing, terrifying, exciting story. It reads like fiction—but it's all true. David, the sweet singer of Israel, author of Psalm 23, chosen by God as king to replace Saul over Israel, aborted all that promise and potential in one sinful act—an act that led to more sin and more sin. One day he lazed about on the roof of his palace. Below him he saw a woman bathing, and he took her in adultery. Later on he had her husband killed to cover up his guilt. And then he covered his sin for more than a year.

Finally at the end of that year, he came to himself, with the help of Nathan, and confessed his sins of adultery, murder, deceit, and dishonor.

Why would such a story be included in the Bible? It shows us God's unconditional power to forgive. If God can forgive such heinous crimes and wipe a man's soul so clean he could write songs about it that would live for centuries, then certainly God can come to grips with my guilt and yours.

I believe the Scriptures also tell us how David went about getting rid of his guilt through confession. David, seems to have understood confession better than anyone, maybe because he had sinned so deeply. But his actions show us how to make these principles workable and alive in our own lives. Based on three words David used to describe what he'd done, I believe his confession was three dimensional—Godward, manward, and inward. And I believe these are the three different dimensions of "telling God like it is."


First of all, there is the "Godward" aspect. The New International Version of the Bible uses the word "transgression." That word means, "I have rebelled, I have mutinied against God. I have openly revolted against the government of God in my life." It is the same word that was used in secular Hebrew of the Old Testament to speak of one king who had attacked another, one nation revolting against another.

Man in Revolt

Emil Brunner said that the whole human race could be called "man in revolt." When David came to his spiritual and moral senses, and began telling God "like it is," the first thing he said is, "Godwardly, I have rebelled."

He didn't say, "First of all, I have broken my own standard of conduct," although he had. He didn't say, "First of all, I have broken the trust of my great friend Uriah," although he had. First of all, he looked up to the throne of God, and, probably choking on the words, said, "I have rebelled against Your throne."

Until we can come to grips with this Godward dimension of "telling it like it is," of facing the cause of our guilt and dealing with the split between us and God, we will never be free of guilt's hold.


Second, let's look at the "manward" dimension. In Psalm 32, David says, "Blessed is he whose sins are covered." The word sin means "to miss the mark, to have your aim deflected." It is our failure to come up to the standard we have set for our daily lives. It is the very opposite of what Paul meant when he wrote, "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:14). In effect, David was saying, "Godwardly, I have rebelled, but manwardly, I have even missed the mark I set for my own life."

I have a feeling David was thinking about his amazing childhood. There was old Samuel anointing him to be the king of Israel as they both stood in a pasture. I'm sure David probably remembered the precious years he had spent with God as a boy, writing wonderful poetry and singing beautiful songs. And he probably thought, I never intended that my life would turn out so marredthat I would break the heart of God and the trust of my friends. I have missed the mark in my own life.

Manward (or womanward), we miss the mark in our own daily actions. We all set our own standards and when we do not live up to them, we heap guilt upon ourselves that clings and festers.

I have some long-suffering friends who decided seven years ago to teach me how to play the game of golf. I was almost thirty years old and they felt I had been deprived. So they invited me out on the golf course, telling me I could never be a minister of the gospel unless I learned how to play golf. I hadn't quite figured out the logic of that statement, but I figured if they had the patience, I had the time.

And boy, were they patient. I remember one friend laid down his #1 custom-made Ben Hogan driver parallel to me. Then he said, "I want you to swing your #3 iron right along that club and then through." So I proceeded to swing it right up the shaft so well that I hit the wooden head and broke it into a thousand little pieces. Well, my friend turned purple. Then he turned blue. But he didn't say anything.

Later, I was out with another friend. Thinking golf carts were like go-carts, I went driving up a hill and turned the cart and us over. After awhile, I was actually able to make contact with the ball. But that opened up a whole new set of problems. When I finally made contact, I found out that the ball just wouldn't go where I wanted it to! In fact, the harder I tried to make it go in one direction, the more it went in the opposite direction. Quickly, I learned that everything is opposite in the game of golf.

Isn't being a Christian the same? When we begin to get serious about following the will of God, we meet Christ. And for a long time, we just bungle everything. We can't seem to make contact with the will of God. But when we start making contact, we want everything to go the right way. But it just doesn't. And then we find what Paul said to be true: "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out" (Rom. 7:18). We just miss the mark, the standard we set as men and women of God.


Third, there is the "inward" dimension. The King James Version uses the word "iniquity"—"whose iniquity the Lord does not count against me." The word "iniquity" means that there is something twisted in me that needs to be straightened out by the grace of God. There is something bent that needs to be unbent; there is something crooked that needs to be straightened out

The other two words, "sin" and "transgression," deal with "doing." When I sin, I have rebelled against God; when I have transgressed, I have missed the mark. But "iniquity" is on the level of "being." Inside my being there is something that needs to be corrected. It is a collective thought. As David looked back over his whole life, he realized that, over all, his life was like a picture hanging crooked. He needed God to straighten his life's picture.

When we admit, as David did, in these three ways—that we've rebelled against God's government in our lives, that we've missed the mark, and that there is something crooked within us that needs straightening—then we have the capacity to feel clean as David did. Why? Because we can claim the promise David experienced.

And what promise is that? As Augustine, that great early Christian put it, David's words were no more out of his mouth than God had already forgiven him. God is just waiting for us to be real with Him. To tell it like it is. That's the essence of the phrase in verse 2 that says, "in whose spirit is no guile or deceit." God waited for David to stop blaming everybody and everything else and to simply make that three-dimensional confession.

Blaming everybody else? We don't know for sure what happened during David's year of silence, but I have an idea that he tried to deal with his guilt humanly during that time. Possibly he dealt with it as we might. He might have said, "Look God, it's Your fault. It's Your fault I happened to be on that roof and saw Bathsheba. You're in control of the universe. You must have set it up that way."

Does that sort of thinking sound familiar? That's exactly what happened in the Garden of Eden. The man blamed the woman. The woman blamed the snake. And they both blamed the fruit on the tree. But the problem wasn't the "apple" on the tree, but the "pair" on the ground. And so it is with us. And just as it was with David, no sooner is our confession out of our mouths than God has forgiven us of our sin and is able to deliver us from our guilt.

You notice I said that God is "able to deliver us" from our guilt. It is possible to confess our sins, be forgiven, and still be loaded down with our own burden of guilt. That's when guilt becomes false. And that's when the problem can become quite debilitating—not only spiritually, but psychologically and physically. You can actually make yourself sick.

Dealing with Guilt

If you don't deal with your guilt, then your guilt will deal with you. In his book, Whole People in a Broken World, Dr. Paul Tournier says that many people have come to his office complaining of all kinds of problems, some of them physical. Time after time, these symptoms would turn out to be nothing more than the expression of some repressed guilt from years before that had never been dealt with.

But 3000 years before Paul Tournier discovered the physical impact of guilt, David described it eloquently. "When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer" (Ps. 32:3).

Evidently, during that year David experienced some sort of illness related to his sin. His strength was sapped, he was feverish, and he lost weight. Physically, he was feeling guilt's effects.

And then David spoke of guilt's psychological effects. He said, "My conscience roared all day long. My mind was like a ravenous roar of a leaping lion and I heard it all along." That lion image goes all the way back to David's boyhood. As a shepherd boy he had lived out in the fields of Bethlehem in absolute quietness. All day long he heard only the low moan of the sheep. But sometimes, altogether unexpectedly, he would hear the roar of a leaping lion. At that moment, he himself had to leap into action to protect the sheep with his own life.

And then, as an older and guilt-ridden man, he could hear his conscience roar all day long. When he awoke in the morning, there it was leering and growling. At high noon, it roared, and at night, as he tried to sleep, it still rumbled. His mind was in absolute turmoil. This is one of the most vivid mental images David could use.

Other than the writers of the Bible itself, no one has so expertly pictured guilt as Shakespeare. He wrote that the mind of a guilty person is "full of scorpions." We may think our guilt has spent its force but when danger, death, or detection draws near, that guilt will revive.

Shakespeare's characters show the long-lasting effects of guilt: Brutus, guilt-stricken after killing Caesar, keeps seeing Caesar's ghost. Lady MacBeth sees blood on her hands after taking part in a murder. MacBeth seeing floating daggers.


Can this really happen? Can guilt really make us physically and mentally ill? Dr. Norman Covanish of the University of

California in Los Angeles has studied the subject for decades. In 1968, he did an interesting series of investigative studies of single-car accidents on the Los Angeles freeway system. Reviewing hundreds of cases (about 1 ½ percent of the total) he found that 25 percent, one out of every four, was very definitely caused by the driver acting out self-destructive behavior because of guilt.

One woman, for instance, early in her marriage had been caught in a felony. When her husband found out, he told her that if she ever did anything like that again, he would divorce her. Years later, she embezzled some money at work. Her boss threatened to tell her husband. When she left work that day, instead of going home the usual way, she took another route. In a moment of self-destructive guilt, she went over the side of a hill in her car. She survived and explained what guilt had caused her to do.

Dr. Covanish says when we live with guilt year in and year out, these same self-destructive impulses will surface, whether it's behind the wheel of a car or in a myriad of other ways. David himself was on the way to utter personal ruin.

So the truth is that if you don't deal with your guilt it will deal with you.

How, then, do we deal with it? We must begin to believe what the Bible is telling us. We must believe that what happened to David can happen to us as well. And then we must turn to the advocacy of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our Guilt Is Gone

We've seen the beautiful words that David used in the Psalm: his transgressions were forgiven, his sin was covered, his iniquity was not counted against him. He reminds us that the same God who covers the sky with blue in the day and inky darkness at night, also covers the meadow with wild flowers in spring and snow in winter. This same God covered David's sin—his and ours. "My iniquity he does not count against me." God has not written down our sins anywhere. They are gone—eradicated. And we need to believe the reality of that fact. Computer technology has given us a good modern example of this truth. A few months ago I was in Birmingham, Alabama. I had slaved over twenty-four pages of a book I was writing on James. It was tough. For days I had entered and stored information on the computer's diskette. Then one afternoon, I went down to get a cup of coffee in the hotel dining room and there was some kind of surge in the power of the hotel. When I got back to my computer, my work was gone! Vanished. I became so excited I called the computer salesman in Fort Worth. I said, "Where did it go?"

He said, "Nowhere."

I said, "It's got to be somewhere. All that work—it was on there!"

He said, "It's nowhere."

I said, "Isn't there any way of getting it back?"

And he said, "No, never."

That's exactly what God did for David. When David told God "like it was," suddenly his sin and guilt were gone—gone forever.

But we should understand that principle even better than David does. David looked back on a temple made of stones, but we look back to Calvary. David looked at animal sacrifices—bleating bulls, yapping goats—while we look back with 20/20 hindsight on the only begotten Son of God who was slain to obliterate all our sins—and our guilt.

And so if David believed that his sins were covered and lifted and erased, and that his life should be guilt-free, then how much more should we?

Turning to Christ as Our Advocate

To truly be capable of ridding our lives of guilt's hold, as Christians we must take seriously the promise in the King James Version of 1 John 2:1—"If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ...." Literally, we are having Him now. Whenever we need Him, He is there. John doesn't say we will have an advocate if we sin, when we feel bad long enough. He said we are having an advocate—always.

"Advocate." The word means Jesus is literally face to face with the Father in our behalf. David knew nothing of that relationship when he wrote Psalm 32. Yet he knew the truth innately. We have a powerful Advocate in Jesus Christ.

Think about it. The name Jesus should remind us of that very position. His name Jesus means that He is a sympathetic Advocate. That's His human name. When Jesus was born, the angelic messenger said, "You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21). But His name is also Christ. That is His name of power.

I have many friends who are sympathetic toward me, but they can't help me. They may say, "Hey, you blew it, or hey, I'm sorry," but beyond that, they cannot help me at all. But that name Christ means that Jesus is the anointed Son of God—the righteous one, as John goes on to describe Him. And this means He has the power to stand before God for you and me, because He needs no one to stand before God for Him. "I owed a debt I could not pay," the old saying goes. "He paid a debt He did not owe."

Jesus is my Advocate when I am overwhelmed by the guilt of sin.

Many people misunderstand Christ's advocacy role, however. Jesus doesn't go up to the Father and say, "Well, now, it's true that Joel Gregory down there didn't strictly tell the truth today. And it's true that he didn't go exactly where he was supposed to go. But look, he's a pastor and a writer and an all-around good guy.... That ought to count for something." That's not the way it works. The thought here is that there is a kind of balancing of the books. Jesus pleads something of merit over and against my sin.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus does not hold up my petty little "goodness." Instead He says, "Gregory has missed the mark. He's rebelled against Your authority and government. There's something crooked in him that needs straightening. But I want to remind You, Father, what I was sent to do for him. I left heaven to go down to earth to keep Your law perfectly for 33 years. Then on that cross I substituted a crown of thorns for a crown of glory—for him. I was mocked for him. I bled for him. I covered him from head to foot with My perfect living, and

My perfect dying. And because of that, I know You will forgive him, Father."

That's what it meant to know the forgiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ—to trust the realness, the utter dependability of His advocacy, and to believe we are forgiven. That is the only possible way for us to know freedom from guilt. Until we allow the reality of our Christian lives, the power of Christ's gospel, and the Word of God to address the dilemma of guilt, we cannot be free of that burden.

Tell God like it is. Then believe in Christ's wonderful advocacy. When you rely on these foundational Christian truths, you can be free from guilt

Growing Pains of the Soul.

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