I love Mafia movies for many reasons. One of those is the hypocritical yet dramatic juxtaposition of a hardened, swaggering gangster going to Catholic confession. He seeks absolution for his guilty conscience only to leave and sin again, typically by murdering a family opponent. A child in one of my favorite Mafia movies encapsulated this sentiment: “It was great to be Catholic and go to confession. You could start over every week.”
A Heavy Cloak
For those of us who don’t go to a priest to confess guilt but go directly to the “throne of grace,” it would seem that we have an advantage. Still, guilt, “a feeling of deserving blame for offenses” according to Merriam-Webster, has proven to be a heavy and clingy cloak for some to take off despite knowing that Jesus bore our sins on the cross. Although a sin was confessed years ago, the guilt sometimes continues to linger way past the point of utility.
Dr. Denzil D. Holness, retired minister of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, says there are four reasons that Christians tend to wrestle with unresolved guilt: perfectionism, having an unbiblical image of God, listening to the whispers of Satan, and not having the assurance of the Holy Spirit’s work.
Perfectionism leads to lofty ideals of behavior that are often projected onto God. When tempted to think that God expects perfection from us, we should remember what Paul wrote: But he said to me, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). We are most powerful in God when we realize that we are weak and not perfect.
An Approachable God
It may be that I’ve been influenced by the movies I’ve watched, but it’s easy to conjure up an image of God as a celestial curmudgeon, stroking his long gray beard as he waits to zap us when we do wrong. As unrealistic as this image is, how much more unrealistic is it to think that God is unforgiving, always ready to unleash his wrath? I’ve discovered the best way to picture God is to consider his Son. “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7). Jesus was a fan of eating and drinking as noted in Matthew 11:19. Also, only a person with a great sense of humor would compare a rich man entering into God’s kingdom to a camel passing through a needle’s eye as depicted in Matthew 19:24. Jesus sounds like a person to befriend and have fun with at a party! If Jesus is a representation of our holy God, he is not only approachable but welcoming.
And yet knowing that we’re not perfect and have confessed our sins to our friend God does not stop the devil from telling us that our guilt disqualifies us from grace. Second Corinthians 10:3-5 is good to remember when this happens. We can take those false thoughts captive and counteract them with biblical truths. One refrain to recite is, “Jesus died so that I can be forgiven for my sins. I am forgiven.” Be prepared for this. If the devil was bold enough to approach Jesus directly (see Matthew 4:1-11), we are not above his attacks.
After reciting this refrain, we must recall that feeling of assurance the Holy Spirit provided when we confessed our sin. In John 16:7-11, the Holy Spirit is referred to as the Advocate who “will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.” Satan is the one who stands condemned; not us. And the Holy Spirit will confirm that sense of knowing within our beings.
Overcoming Our Guilt
Whether or not you find yourself within these four categories, there are steps all of us can take to live without guilt. The first is to get honest with God. I don’t know if the adulterous woman in John 8 was scared into silence, but she didn’t dodge what she did. I believe her forthrightness led to Jesus’ forgiveness. I believe it was the cover-up as much as the crime that earned Adam and Eve’s condemnation. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
The next step is to use the Bible. As a journalist, I can never read enough human interest stories. Reading people’s stories enables me to extract parallels for my life. The Bible is a canon of human interest stories. I’m not the only one who is guilty of great offenses. How did God deal with King David, a man after God’s own heart, yet who was guilty of taking another man’s wife and killing the man? One of the greatest Christians who ever lived, the apostle Paul, killed Christians before becoming a believer! Freed from guilt, Paul proclaimed, “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33).
The third step is to invite others into the process if needed. While we don’t have to confess to a priest, confessing to one another and/or to a Christian counselor can be healing as noted in James 5:16. And a true friend may say what needs to be said even if it stings. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Proverbs 27:6).
Following that step, we have to let God have his way in our lives. Forgiveness of our sins does not free us from the consequences of our sins. “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7). In Genesis 16, Sarai sowed division in her marriage to Abraham by sending her servant Hagar to sleep with her husband, her plan to create an heir in her barrenness. And division is what she reaped when Hagar had a son, Ishmael, who was predicted to live “in hostility toward all his brothers.”
Finally, we have to turn away from sin. After confessing and repenting of our sins, we are charged to get on with life as described in Philippians 3:13. While we’re not perfect, we should be intentional about “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” Wallowing in guilt keeps us locked in unwanted behavior. Turning away from it helps us to correct it. This is what happened with the prodigal son in Luke 15. He offered to remain in his guilt as a hired servant, but his father referred to him as “son” and hosted a party for him. Obviously he had relationships to repair, having squandered his father’s wealth and offended his older brother, but he had repented of his sin.
It is not God’s will for us to live in guilt. Jesus died to free us from it.
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service, an online national news service for attorneys. Connect with Jacqueline and read her blog at afterthealtarcall.com.