“Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48, NKJV)
Baffled and distressed though still functioning as a valued teacher in our Christian high school, Taylor asked whether I would talk with his wife. Betsy, the school nurse, was virtually immobilized, increasingly depressed. It was Christian-life week at school, and she sent word that she needed to see me. Gradually, it came out. Betsy had given the wrong medicine to a student. In a hurry, overlooking the label, she chose the wrong medicine. No permanent bad outcomes, but Betsy was coming apart. Forgiven? Perhaps, but she could never forgive herself.
Therapists would say, “Of course. Guilt feelings are the most destructive force in a person’s life, even in Christian lives, maybe especially in Christian lives.” Then they would set about freeing all the Betsys in their care from those damaging feelings. But there are effective and ineffective ways to get free. I’ll share with you some responses to guilt that I think are counterproductive or destructive. Are any impacting your life?
Denial. This is the problem with much therapy. Even Christian therapists can lead guilty people to dead ends by delivering them from guilt feelings without dealing with the guilt. But seeking deliverance from the feelings without being delivered from the guilt itself causes a greater problem. When therapy delivers us from the feelings alone, the deliverance won’t last if the real guilt remains.
Rationalization. We can almost always find a good explanation for our bad behavior, especially if it isn’t too egregious. When we speak hurtfully, we may say, “It’s just a misunderstanding.” But if we had been honest about it, we were just insensitive. “Well, yeah, I didn’t handle that just right, but I meant well.” Good motives justify bad behavior, right?
Transference. If there’s failure, surely there’s someone else to share the blame with, maybe to shift it to them altogether. That’s easy — and perhaps justified — No sin of mine to repent of, except maybe stubbornness. But who’s to say my transfer of blame to another person isn’t an attempt to cover up something deeper and darker? Like a desire for power, ego satisfaction, or pride? But it’s a dead-end maze.
Impotence. The pervasive conviction today is that a person isn’t responsible for what he can’t help. Fornication? He had been drinking. Drinking? Alcoholic parents. Alcoholic parents? Unjust society. Or how about my short fuse? Blame your father! What else do you expect? The bottom line is, I’m not really responsible. It’s something I can’t help, or I’m a victim of someone else’s bad behavior.
Diminution. A great way to relieve guilt feelings is to redefine sin. Indeed, “sin is the breaking of law” (1 John 3:4), but that was not intended as a comprehensive definition. Stating a more comprehensive definition like deliberate transgression of the known will of God is to diminish God’s high standard of being “perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, NKJV). To be true to Scripture, ignorance is not a legitimate excuse (see Romans 1:20), so unintentional offenses are sinful too. So is failing to be or do what I ought (see James 4:17). To diminish the biblical definition of sin may give temporary relief from guilt feelings, but it’s a dead-end tactic.
Not only are we unable to pay off our own debt — including the debt of continually falling short of God’s glorious character — but by our attempts to do so, we also denigrate the work Jesus did on the cross to pay the debt for us. I’m saying God doesn’t keep His promise of full and free atonement or He can’t forgive this particularly grievous sin and still stay true to His holy and righteous character. But if I can’t rely on Jesus’ death to take away my guilt, I’ve reached another dead end. That was never His intent! God keeps his promise of full and free atonement! Today, pray that you rely on His abundant forgiveness!