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The Danger Of Guilt, and the Need For Good Friends

Mable has struggled for many years with guilt. All of it is real, though much of it is not her fault. After twenty years of fighting, the “true and false” of her guilt is so convoluted that it is hard for her to sort it out. In one sense it does not matter who did what.

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She did some things, while other people did things to her. That was her past. Mercifully, Christ rescued her and made the long-awaited, soul-refreshing declaration: not guilty.

The Lord acquitted Mable of her sins. That is the good news. She initially felt wonderfully great about being forgiven by God, which she should–we all should.

But in time, the old thoughts and old patterns began to creep back into her thinking. Though she was positionally pronounced free in Christ, as though she had never sinned, Mable is practically living in a fallen body, in a fallen world; she continues to experience sin.

After God regenerated Mable, she made a few mistakes, and there were accusations hurled at her by others. The result was her ongoing problem of reverting to the same old pattern of self-condemnation.

But God does not condemn her any longer, though she has a habit of condemning herself. God has declared her “not guilty,” but the old habits continue to trap her and keep her from living in the freedom of His declaration (Galatians 5:1).

Though the Lord placed all her past, present, and future sin, on His Son, Mable’s habituation with self-condemnation puts her on trial and under the “self-perceived” judgment of God.

Mable is the judge, jury, as well as the prosecuted. Guilty is the verdict. Mable daily acts out what our court system calls double jeopardy.

Double jeopardy is a procedural defense that forbids a defendant from being tried again on the same, or similar charges following a legitimate acquittal or conviction. – Wikipedia

This law means you cannot “retry” someone twice. Mable does not know that she cannot be retried for the same thing again. Let me clarify: she does know that God will not judge her, but it is not real to her.

Rather than taking her guilt to the Almighty Judge and receiving His full pardon, she turns back the punishment that Christ carried on to herself, which works out in many different behaviors.

Sometimes she will escape through shopping sprees to make herself feel better. Other times she will get angry at others so she can feel better about herself, by reminding them of their faults.

She also struggles with bouts of depression and unremitting despair, which is another way she manages her guilt. All of these things, plus a few other inconsistent behaviors make it difficult to understand what is going on with her.

Can’t Manage Guilt

Guilt was never meant to be managed by fallen people. To do so is dangerous. Guilt will win the day, and you will grow tired, bitter, and angry, while your relationships suffer. There is a better way to address this problem.

Let’s suppose you legitimately sinned. There is no doubt about it. You sinned. It is objective. God declares it. You are guilty as charged. Let’s also suppose you asked God to forgive you for what you did.

If you did sin and you asked God to forgive you, then you are no longer guilty. Period. You have been acquitted of your sin, not based on your works righteousness, but based on the works righteousness of Jesus Christ.

The Savior saved you. He died on the cross for you. He took your sin so you would not have to pay for it. This truth is a significant piece of the gospel. You belong to Him. You are in Him. Christ’s righteousness is your new identity.

God annihilated any sin, whether past, present, or future because of the punishment meted out on Christ. To come back around and retry yourself for a sin God has already punished and forgiven is heresy.

Sad Backward Glances

It is not unusual to reflect back on your life through a lens of disappointment, regret, or guilt. If you live long enough, you will be disappointed. You are a fallen individual, in a fallen world, living among fallen people.

Sin thrives in a fallen world. One of the harsher realities of life is our daily battles with disappointment. We have all been there and experienced it. Sometimes the disappointment we experience comes with accompanying and compounding guilt.

Whenever we take a backward look and see the brokenness of various kinds, it is essential to guard your heart in those reflective moments. Even if you learn from your past, there is a temptation for lingering guilt.

Life is not neat enough, and you are not strong enough to control all outcomes. Some things will be left undone, unsaid, or unresolved. There will be sin, and some of that sin will never be resolved or made right.

While you should do all that is reasonably within your ability to make things right, you also must be careful that you do not process the past through an unbiblical grid. Imperfect outcomes are why there is a gospel. The gospel makes right what fallen people cannot fix.

Living In the Courtroom

A person who continues to carry guilt for things in their past has not come to terms with the dynamic power of the gospel. The gospel powerfully forgives and cleanses Christians from all sins, no matter how big, or awful those sins are.

Let’s suppose you spanked your child for a sin he committed. It would be unreasonable, illogical, and unkind to go back into his room and “re-spank” him two hours later for the same sin.

God the Father executed His one and only Son on the cross for your sins and mine. It was a “divine spanking” if you will. Christ took our punishment for all our sins.

If you do not live in the functional reality of this gospel truth, you will be tempted to live in the residual condemnation of your past and present actions. This lifestyle choice is double jeopardy–retrying yourself for a previously resolved crime.

I like the Charitie L. Bancroft song, “Before the Throne of God Above.” There is one stanza that captures the force of the gospel while focusing your mind on its guilt-releasing truth:

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

Who Am I? Really

Typically a guilty person, who does not live in the freedom of forgiveness, over-struggles with their sinful actions. They have a hard time coming to terms with what they did or what someone did to them.

It is like being surprised at doing something dumb. Have you ever done a knucklehead something and said, “I can’t believe I did that?” If so, that is the idea I’m communicating.

The truth is you did do that dumb thing. It is common for humans to do ignorant things. Our problem is we are not comfortable with accepting the reality of how we came into the world. The Bible doctrine is total depravity.

Total depravity means that I and everyone else are depraved or corrupt in the totality of our being. No part of us is left untouched by sin. Our minds, our wills, and our bodies are affected by evil. We speak sinful words, do sinful deeds, have impure thoughts. Our very bodies suffer from the ravages of sin. – R. C. Sproul, Human Depravity

If you are surprised at doing something dumb, you genuinely do not understand yourself or total depravity. We do foolish things because Adamic fallenness messed us up completely.

It will always be hard to embrace forgiveness if at some level of your heart you are shocked, surprised, and unwilling to embrace the “full-dumbness” of who you are.

Sadly, the self-esteem culture has nearly taken over our Christian worldview–to the point that we become overly surprised at some of the things we do. It is hard for proud people to fully accept who they are and to fully live in the freedom Christ offers through His punishment on the cross.

The Pharisees could never come to terms with the death of Christ. They chose to pay for their sins through their works rather than His. Mable is doing a similar thing.

Unresolved Guilt

She truly believes the gospel and is grateful for it, but even after her prayerful conversations with the Lord, she leaves those settings carrying part of the guilt that she confessed to Him.

She cannot leave it at the throne of God. While she would counsel others to leave theirs there, she continues to cling to hers. And she lives in a low-grade, self-punishment mode for her past actions.

By continuing to carry her guilt, she is trying to make atonement for her sins, albeit unwittingly. It is her “atonement,” plus Christ’s atonement. Do you see the problem? It is one act punished twice.

Unresolved guilt is the act of beating oneself up on an ongoing basis for some shameful deed. There is seemingly a limitless number of ways in which guilty hearts will seek to atone for the wrong things they have done.

Mable would go and buy herself something to make herself feel better. At other times she would be critical, angry, or condemning of her friends, which was another way of feeling better. She also lived in a secret and delusional world of self-condemnation.

Mable Needs Restorers

While the self-atoning, guilty person feels awful for what she did, Mable is not processing it through a biblical framework. Mable cannot get out of this cycle of sin-guilt-punishment-despair-anger-sin-guilt, ad infinitum.

She is sin-centered, always carrying the rocks of her past actions in her pocket. Her strongest temptation is to fight this internal battle alone. Her approach is like a blind man groping for the walls, trying to figure out how to turn on the lights.

It is not supposed to be this way. When Philip asked the Ethiopian if he understood what he was reading, the Ethiopian replied back that he could not understand Isaiah 53 unless someone helped him (Acts 8:31).

Think about that for a minute. The Ethiopian had the Word of God and the Spirit of God, but he could not figure out what he was reading. A blind man in a dark world needs help finding the light.

The one thing Mable was missing, though she had the Word of God and the Spirit of God, was a caring individual walking her through what she could not see. She was in a trap and could not get out of it.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Galatians 6:1-2

Mable and the Ethiopian are like the rest of us. Sometimes it is not possible to extricate ourselves from some of the traps we find ourselves. For Mable, she needs a competent and compassionate restorer. She needs a friend to pull her out of her incarceration.

My recommendation for someone like Mable is to find your friend and be honest with your internal struggles. I also recommend to her friend that she restores Mable in a spirit of gentleness, while keeping watch on your soul, so you do not be tempted to sin while you are serving her.

With the help of the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and the friends of God, Mable should be able to live in the practical reality of this beautiful song.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

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