This blog post is a follow up to a previous post, “A Question on Guilt“. In that post I shared how I was listening to a David Crowder Band song a few days ago. The song is about forgiveness offered to us through God’s grace. The song is called “Oh, Happiness” and it speaks to the feeling of being freed from guilt and having a restoration of peace and a flood of joy due to being washed clean. While listening to the song I realized that some people crave forgiveness for their misdeeds, but they do not have anyone to forgive them. These misdeeds are not necessarily sins against others, but sins against some thing, but they do not know what. All they know is that they are guilty. There are many people in this world who feel constant guilt, but do not know what to do to rid themselves of it.
I definitely understand the feeling of needing forgiveness but not sure how to obtain it. I have watched the animated movie Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children several times because I am moved by the main character’s burden of the need for forgiveness. There was a time of several years in my life where I felt a heavy burden of guilt. I had brought this guilt on myself because of a sin that I had committed against someone. This person had forgiven me, but I still felt guilty. I felt as if I had sinned against some thing greater than just this person. I felt as if I had violated a system, not just an individual.
I can confidently now join my voice with David Crowder and exclaim, “Oh happiness! There’s grace!” But how did I get to that point? I am going to answer that in this post. But first, I would like to look at a few aspects of guilt.
The truth is that when we sin, we do sin against more than just the person we sinned against. Let me give you an example: when we flick someone off, we did more than just disrespect the individual. Let us look at how this is possible.
Far Reaching Consequences
First, we may have put that individual in a bad mood. So now that person goes around disrespecting others because they were disrespected. See how our sin against that one person caused grief in other people’s lives? Or think about from the perspective of a parent. If someone were to disrespect your child, do you not hurt with your child even though you were not the ones to whom the disrespect was directly shown? See how we did not just effect that one person, but a whole community or system?
Second, we recognize that in order for society to function well, the members of the society must adhere to society’s rules. We have a system called society in place to help everything run smoothly. Any disruption within the system can cause troubles to the whole of society. When we flicked off the one individual, we could have encouraged other people to do the same because they thought it was cool. So now we not only acted out ourselves, but we inspired others to rebel as well.
Third, we violated a concept; a concept that is not restricted to only one person; a concept that when violated, everybody feels the weight of the violation. Let us say that although we flicked off just the car behind us, there was a second car behind us that saw the action. Even though the action was not directed towards the second car, the people in the second car may very well respond with, “Well. That was quite disrespectful.” Notice how even though the second car was not the target of the disrespect, they still recognized the action as disrespectful. That is because the concept of respect hangs over everyone. The concept or the system of respect was broken.
So, do you see how when we sin against just one person, we really sin against some thing much greater? So it is not surprising that people can have an overwhelming feeling of guilt even if they only sinned against one person who has forgiven us.
In fact, we do not even need to sin against anybody directly to sin against a system and feel guilt from some seemingly sourceless origin. That cryptogenic guilt can come upon us when we are all alone but we know we have done something wrong. I know many who struggle with this kind of guilt. Have you ever felt guilt but unsure of how to find forgiveness?
How do we seek forgiveness from an impersonal system? Society may be full of persons, but is everyone really going to have to make public service announcements every time we sin to get our conscious clear? In our first and second examples above, are we really going to have to track down all the people we have directly and indirectly affected because of our sin and try to make amends? I really do not think that will work. Certainly we can alleviate a good portion of our guilt by seeking out those people we have sinned against and asking their forgiveness. That goes a long way in feeling forgiven. But what about those times when people refuse to forgive you? Are we doomed to feel the guilt forever?
Or how do we seek forgiveness from a system that is not even made up of persons? Like our third example above, we sin against the system of respect, but there is no person or group of people that make up the system “respect”. So how are we to stop feeling as if disrespect is a part of our identity? Certainly we can try to change our actions and see improvement, but that only goes so far. Our past mistakes can never be undone, so they can be very haunting even after many victories.
God is the answer to all our feelings of guilt.
I am glad you asked.
God is the answer to all our feelings of guilt for a number of reasons, some of them I will not list here, but here are a couple that are worth pointing out.
First, there are times when we ask someone for forgiveness but they refuse to grant it to us. What are we going to do in that situation? Well, with God there is someone else to turn to for forgiveness. Allow me to illustrate this.
Imagine yourself as a child. Imagine you have just hurt your sibling or friend. Out of guilt you look to your sibling or friend and ask forgiveness. They refuse to give it to you. What do you do? You run to your parent and say, “I’m really sorry I hurt her!” With that you fall into your parent’s arms and cry. Your parent softly strokes your soft hair and repeats, “It’s okay, child. I know. I forgive you.”
Suddenly with those words you feel released from your bondage of guilt. Since your parent is head over the sibling or friend (as the guardian for the day), you know that someone in authority has brought down the gavel of innocence and you are free.
Well, that is how it is with God. Since God is head over everybody, if one person will not forgive you, you can always go to the authority to be freed from your bondage of guilt. Since God is the head, those under him do not ultimately carry the authority of placing guilt or innocence – God does. And God is full of grace. He will not turn away someone who is longing for forgiveness. (If you want a couple Scripture verses to support that, read Psalms 51:17 and 1 John 1:9.)
Second, remember how sometimes we feel as if we have sinned against an impersonal system? How are we to obtain forgiveness in those cases? Well, God is the creator of the system. The system has personhood in God. Since God is the creator of the system, we can go to him for forgiveness. So there is no wandering around with no place to lay down burdens of guilt. There is a Creator to go to. God is more than just the creator, he is also the repairman. God tells us to have no fear; he will fix whatever is broken. God enjoys making all broken things new.
The Reason for Guilt from Two Worldviews
Guilt exists to remind us of wrongdoing, to persuade us against wrongdoing, and to encourage us to perform right actions. These basic reasons for guilt are true in both the Christian and naturalistic worldviews. The only difference is that naturalism would probably change the wording a bit to: guilt is a naturally selected emotion that helps someone survive in that it reminds us that there are undesirable actions, that we should not perform undesirable actions, and sways us to perform more desired actions. Notice the change from “wrongdoing” to “undesirable”. (There cannot be any truly morally “wrong” actions in naturalism, just actions that are either desirable or undesirable for the group or individual.)
Another difference between the Christian and naturalistic worldview is the end goal of guilt. In the naturalistic perspective the end goal is survival. Guilt helps a person keep in line with societal norms. If one keeps in line with societal norms, one is more likely to not upset anyone and so survive longer. In the Christian perspective the end goal is harmony. Guilt helps a person recognize that something is wrong and out of harmony. Our wrong actions have either injured a relationship or a system put in place to ensure harmony. Guilt encourages the act of repentance (asking for forgiveness and changing one’s actions), and once someone repents, God places that person back in harmony with others and the system he has created.
The problems with guilt being a means to survival are many. First, if survival is what we are aiming for and not correctness or rightness per se, then survival now becomes the ultimate goal and justifications for actions, not morality – a concern for correctness or rightness. Second, if one does something considered undesirable, yet it increases or improves one’s survival, then one should ignore guilt feelings associated with the actions.
If on the other hand guilt is something that encourages us to keep harmony with God and others, then guilt is something that is supposed to lead to a very positive result. Paul, an early follower of Christ, said that guilt that the world brings (a naturalistic approach to guilt) will lead to a relentless sorrow; but guilt that God brings (a Christian approach to guilt) will lead to peace where regret is removed. (If you would like to read that for yourself, it is found in 2 Corinthians 7:10.)
Forgiving One’s Self
Someone may say, “Listen, Curtis. All I have to do is forgive myself and then I do not feel guilt.” That very well may be true. I believe that learning to accept forgiveness is a very important thing. However, there are problems associated with accepting forgiveness that is given to you by yourself.
First, relying on forgiving one’s self means that one can ignore the harm done to others or to a system and simply turn a blind eye to all the consequences of one’s actions. That kind of forgiveness does not actually solve any problems. In other words there is denial.
Second, relying on forgiving one’s self means that one never has to actually admit wrong. If the individual can decide to forgive himself, she can decide to forgive herself even if she does not deserve it. In other words there is no accountability.
However, if we go to God for forgiveness (as well as to those we have hurt), then there not only is an acceptance of one’s actions (opposite of denial), but also a source of accountability (God and his commands). Lastly, with God we have someone who always forgives, so there is no reason to ever allow those feelings of guilt to persist. We may have to learn how to accept forgiveness from God, but at least we know true forgiveness is always there and not a figment of our own imagination.
Guilt does not have to relentlessly hang over our heads. No matter what we have sinned against, God offers us a way to receive forgiveness. Christ came and took all our guilt from us. As Paul said, “Christ has taken away the decree of guilt that was upon us. He took it and nailed it to the cross.” (You can read about that in Colossians 2:13-14.)
Be free young man and young woman. There is freedom from guilt in the Creator of all systems.