I can still clearly see in my mind a woman who was part of a panel of recovering alcoholics being interviewed on an afternoon TV talk show many years ago. She had been sober for several years now but there was no evidence of joy in that fact anywhere around her. Her story was that her alcoholism had produced a life so out of control that she had lost her husband and four children along with everything else. She had no contact at all with any of her family anymore; they wanted nothing to do with her ever again.
Strangely, she didn't appear to be filled with either bitterness or self-pity; it was almost as if she agreed with the decision her children (who were now adults) had made. She didn't deserve to ever see them again; she didn't deserve either joy or happiness to ever even briefly touch her heart. Her face and body said she was one thing only: guilty. Her grief overwhelmed everything except an even more overwhelming guilt. I've never forgotten her. What a tragic life!
Well, when we do something wrong, we are supposed to feel guilty, right? That's our conscious kicking in. Without our conscious we would run amuck like little dictators trampling over each other. We would have no sense of right or wrong and society would deteriorate into chaos. Yes, our conscious is a very good thing and that little sting of "guiltiness" that we feel is our internal signal that something is wrong. God intended guilt, however, to be a trigger, not a lifestyle.
The Bible says something important about guilt in II Corinthians 7:10. "For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death." The word "sorrow" in this passage is referring to that guilty feeling. The writer is saying that there are really two kinds of guilt; one that leads to a turnaround and frees us and another kind that leads to spiritual and emotional death. So there is a good kind of guilt and a bad kind of guilt.
How can you tell the difference? First let's start with the acknowledgement that you have done something wrong. No burying your head in the sand. No excuses. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden after they sinned; "they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden." (Genesis 3:8) They tried to cover up and avoid God because of their sin and mankind has been trying to hide that same way ever since. Don't do it. Admit to yourself and to God that you have blown it.
Now you have a choice to make. Do you want the guilt that leads to freedom or the guilt that leads to death? If you choose freedom you have to do something hard but it will be worth it. You have to follow God's directions and actually repent of the sin. Let me first tell you what repentance is not. It is not being sorry you got caught. It is not feeling that you were somehow justified in what you did or unduly influenced by someone else who you think is much guiltier than you. It is not saying a quick "sorry" to get by. It is not saying you are sorry but then continuing in the sin.
The real meaning of the word repentance is that you stop, turn around, and go a different direction. Real repentance is marked by a genuine grief over the sin and a humble sincere heart that recognizes the truth of the weakness inside each of us. Real repentance says something like this; "Oh Lord, how could I have done this to offend you? I'm so very sorry. Can you please forgive me? Please pour your grace into me so I won't do this again. I'm weak but you are strong. Please help me!"
Making the choice to acknowledge your sin and then repent of it points you through the door to freedom. One of God's best promises now kicks in: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (I John 1:9) In this scenario, guilt did its work; it triggered the soul to seek reconciliation with God. Now that work is finished and the guilt should get lost fast.
But there is another kind of guilt. It uses that initial trigger to lead us to an entirely different place. There is one other than God who whispers in your ear to embrace this kind of guilt. We have a fierce and unrelenting enemy who is the devil, Satan. First he encourages us to commit every kind of sin and then he tells us how bad we are - how guilty - every time we fall. His game is to use guilt as a trap. Here are some of his more popular lines: "If you were a good person you wouldn't have done such a thing," "God can't love you after that one," "Don't bother to be sorry for that - you'll just do it again," "You've gone too far this time," "You can't change." And here's one; "Even if God could forgive you, just forget it because you could never forgive yourself."
At all costs he wants you to avoid actually acknowledging the reality of the sin and then repenting of it. Instead, he wants you to wallow in the guilt itself, keeping your eyes on yourself and off the Lord who can deliver you. As you wallow you are robbed of the joy and happiness of life. In the scripture, Jesus called the devil "the thief." John 10:10 says; "The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly."
Examine your heart and your life. Are there little globs of guilt lurking around inside you? Or maybe even great big globs? Is guilt an overriding emotion that fills the majority of your life like the recovering alcoholic I talked about earlier? Please know that no matter what you have done that triggered the guilt in the first place, you can be free.
We have just examined two very different kinds of sorrow or guilt; one leads to freedom and the other one leads to death. God does not desire you to be bound with guilt and has provided a way of escape. To be or not to be guilty. What is your choice?