Guilt

Preaching and Worship Resources about Guilt

Guilt and its dark shadow, shame, never lead us out of sin; they only compound sin. The only benefit of guilt and shame is that they can open us to flee to God for cleansing grace. One way of seeing the difference between guilt and shame is that we feel guilty for what we do, we feel ashamed of what we are. Christians sometimes fall into thinking that we ought to feel guilty because, after all, we are born sinners, and we all need forgiveness. This then becomes part of our identity, and guilt for our wrongdoing turns to shame for who we are, which only bends us toward more sin. The antidote to this vicious cycle is our new identity in Christ. That's why Paul everywhere addresses his letters to messy broken churches: the saints that are in Corinth, or Rome, or Philippi. We are to find our identity in the grace and power of Christ, not in our guilt and shame.

In Scripture

In the primeval story of Creation and Fall, Adam and Eve live naked before God and each other in the garden of Eden. Their nakedness symbolizes their innocence, their utter lack of shame. After their sin, when God comes for a daily walk in the garden, they hide from God in shame for what they are, and they grab fig leaves to cover their nakedness. This is our story too. We have all feel guilt at some time or another, and we know the shame that follows in its wake. One of the few rays of hope in this dark story is that in the end, when God must cast them out of the garden, he graciously makes durable coverings of leather to cover their naked shame.

Wilderness of Sinai We next meet guilt and shame in the wilderness of Sinai where God is establishing a nation of freed slaves as his covenant people. God wants to "dwell with them so that they will be "a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6). But how can the holy God dwell among an unholy people stained with the guilt of sin? The answer is seen in the institutions around the tabernacle, especially the various guilt and sin offerings presented there, culminating in the great Day of Atonement. The only way for guilt to be expunged is for atonement to be made. At that time and place God accepted animal sacrifices for atonement.

Psalm 51 As Israel's faith develops we see a growing questioning of the regime of animal sacrifices. Psalm 51, for example, offers us a deeper understanding of sin, guilt, and forgiveness. While the psalmist acknowledges the depth of his sin, he longs for complete cleansing ("blot out my transgressions") and a new and holy life ("Create in me a clean heart, O God"). And the way to this cleansing is not sacrifices, at least not sacrifices alone. "You have no delight in sacrifice. . . . The sacrifice acceptable to God , is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." Then the "joy of your salvation" and a "willing spirit" will replace the brokenness of guilt and shame.

Culmination in Jesus The human struggle with guilt and shame culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Throughout his life he was a "friend of sinners," accepting them and giving them a new identity. In the parable of the self-righteous Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) Jesus contrasts the Pharisee's delusional self-righteousness with the tax collector's utter dependence on grace. The point was not which one felt properly guilty, but which one "went home justified before God."

The cross of Christ and the vindication of his resurrection ultimately deliver us from shame and guilt. Here we see what all the animal sacrifices point to: Jesus is the perfect human who takes on himself the guilt and shame of humanity. He is the "atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 2:2). He is the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The cross of Christ removes the stain of guilt and its accompanying shame from our hearts, so that we are now sinless, guilt-free, and unashamed before God. In the cleansing waters of our baptism we replace the leather loincloth of Eden with Christ's blazing white robe of righteousness.

The writer of Hebrews especially addresses the issues of guilt and shame in our lives. He presents Jesus Christ as the one true high priest who offers himself as a perfect sacrifice for sins. He notes that the Old Testament worshipers had to offer sacrifices over and over because the sacrifices could never truly deliver them from their guilt. In contrast, "we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all. . . . for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (Heb. 10:10, 14). The writer goes on to speak of our confidence in coming before God "in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean . . . and our bodies washed with pure water [in baptism]" (Heb. 10:22).

Points to Ponder

Our guilt and shame as weak and sinful human beings has been removed by the grace of God in the cross of Christ. Our new identity is now in Christ, in whom we are now saints. It is only by living in that identity, rather than in guilt and shame, that we can become the holy people we are in Christ.

Guilt is not God's instrument, but Satan's. The name Satan means "accuser," and that is exactly how Satan dominates our lives, by snaring us in a web of hopeless guilt. God, on the other hand, is the liberator, who alone can put guilt to flight. Instead of wallowing in guilt, we must learn to wallow in grace.

A Good Thing? Christians sometimes tend to think that guilt is a good thing; it shows that we are aware of our sinfulness before God. While the Bible acknowledges guilt and offers a way out of it, it generally sees guilt as a bad rather than a good thing. Guilt actually incites us to greater sinfulness as we begin to see ourselves as essentially bad people. The way out of guilt is to constantly claim the forgiveness and righteousness of Christ.

Calvin and Hobbes "There's no problem so awful that you can't add some guilt to it and make it even worse."

Jerry Bridges "Nothing cuts the nerve of the desire to pursue holiness as much as a sense of guilt. On the contrary, nothing so motivates us to deal with sin in our lives as does the understanding and application of the two truths that our sins are forgiven and the dominion of sin is broken because of our union with Christ."


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.