Man is made in God’s image, to be like him, mirroring his holiness, knowledge, and righteousness. Sin has marred this image, but it has not destroyed the conviction of divine ownership that he has engraved upon us. Every man knows that God exists, that we owe our lives to him, and that we are accountable to him. We come forth from the womb with a conscience that is indelibly marked with this inner awareness of God.
Man’s conscience is the Lord’s moral leash and monitor (Rom. 2:14-15), the approver of good and the condemner of our sin. It is grieved by willful, prolonged sinning, so that men seem unable to discern between good and evil. Nevertheless, conscience has uncomfortable and surprising ways of reasserting its dominance. When man lives out of accord with the will of his Maker, guilt ensues. Guilt can be a ferocious monster.
The guilty conscience is satisfied and silenced in only one way. We must be assured of forgiveness, that God is reconciled to us, that our sins are covered and removed. The legitimate removal of guilt is a gift of God’s grace in the atoning sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ. Only by faith in him, receiving and resting upon him as he is freely offered in the gospel, are we set free from guilt.
Unbelieving man rejects God’s offer of liberation from guilt. Through science, drugs, technology, wishful thinking, liquor, and reckless sinning, he attempts to deny or eradicate man’s sense of guilt. Nevertheless, the sinner’s effort to silence his conscience, even to gain its approval, is futile. Each fresh sin deepens the guilt, and in the absence of true turning to God in Jesus Christ, intensifies the guilt.
Guilt explains the deep sorrow, despair, and pessimism that plague so many. Sin is a barrier to God, to forgiveness, and therefore to peace. Guilt creates a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Guilt plagues human relationships – trying to make others feel guilty for what we think they have done to us, and trying to get rid of our own guilt by punishing others. This destructive spiral of guilt must awaken us to serious, active, gospel compassion to share Jesus Christ with sinners. For believers, we must recognize the horror of sin’s guilt and live in union with the guilt destroyer, Jesus Christ. He applies fresh balm of forgiveness through the virtue of Calvary and his heavenly intercession for us.
We must guard against the monster of guilt in our lives and homes. Fathers carrying a load of guilt through unrepentant sins are often passive in dealing with the sins of their children – or, too aggressive, fearing lest his children commit the same sins. This results in legalism and gracelessness, spirituality by obeying rules, control, and angry outbursts, often to avoid the conflict that would expose underlying sin and guilt. Either way, children become the victims of misplaced guilt. The Lord intends the Christian home to be the place where all learn to walk in daily communion with Jesus Christ, rather than a suffocating environment that requires years of discipleship for an adult child to overcome.
There are subtler ways that a Christian home can function as a guilty home. Children may hear their parents arguing but never see conflict resolved. They feel guilty for it, as if they were contributing somehow to the misery of their homes. Children also have their own sins, and the soul will seek atonement. Childhood sins – forbidden desires, secrecy, manipulation, deceit – cast long, haunting shadows of guilt. Children who are manipulated and controlled by those in authority over them, to achieve a desired result, even an ostensibly good result, struggle with guilt that they do not live up to unrealistic expectations set by their parents. Children who are physically and sexually abused are usually dominated by guilt, even though they are victims and should be rescued, helped, and pitied.
These kinds of guilt are oppressive, for parents and children alike, for the entire church of which they are a part. Behaviorism is one attempt to remove this guilt, as are emotionalism, exasperating discipline, and lack of consistent, warm, honest, and loving communication. Guilt, even in Christians, tends to isolate us from God and others, to make us practical strangers to God’s grace.
Guilt wreaks havoc upon our lives. A guilty conscience is nervous and fretful. Time, even a lifetime, does not incline the soul to forget wrongs committed, even childhood and early adult sins. This is one reason for deathbed confessions and anxious deaths – or end of life good works to make a last atonement. Guilt can sometime contribute to digestive issues, nervous ticks, insomnia, and hypertension. Guilt harms our relationships, can make us sullen or manipulative, withdrawn or aggressive. When Jesus Christ said, “But you will not come to me, that you may have life” (John 5:40), he meant it in the widest possible sense. Sin kills us; guilt is the aroma of death.
Sins there will be, and with those sins guilt. By God’s wonderful mercy and grace, he provides a remedy for our guilt in the satisfaction of his Son on the cross. We must be constantly applying this to ourselves, speaking of his grace to those whom we live. Guilt for past sins – God may forgive and forget, but we remember – must be buried in the wounds of Christ and carried to him at the throne of grace.
Our children must be warmly drawn to the same Savior. This is not accomplished by long harangues and a domestic environment of criticism and condemnation. Jesus Christ was condemned for us so that we would have forgiveness and peace. We must lovingly communicate that his mercy is greater than our sins. We can and must show them that there is peace in Christ. The Christian life is not a long, lonely attempt to atone for our sins but the living sacrifice of thankfulness that Jesus Christ has atoned for them. Our Father would not have us live in paralyzing guilt but in the freedom of his children – blood-washed, forgiven, accepted, and helped by him.
Each one of us must come to Jesus Christ daily for forgiveness. This is the only way to silence a guilty conscience. We must lay all our guilt upon the Lamb of God and believe God’s promise of mercy. He does not forgive us because we are good enough and measure up to his word. We never shall. He forgives us because Jesus Christ measured up, perfectly obeyed for us, gives us his righteousness, and cleanses us by his blood. Then, conscience is satisfied, for God is satisfied with us. He loves us not because we are good, but because he is merciful. Believe and rejoice! Believe and proclaim!