When the subject of guilt is raised, we normally have in mind the feelings of guilt. It can be understood in 2 ways: objective feeling and subjective feeling. Objective guilt is when a person experiences a feeling of remorse for having done something wrong—he/she has violated a certain code of conduct or ethics. Subjective guilt happens when a person believes that he/she is personally responsible, directly or indirectly, for something that had gone wrong.
Besides understanding guilt as a feeling we must also realize that guilt is a state; a condition of heart and mind a person is in. Guilt, the feeling, is usually the result of being in a guilty state.
But a person can be a state of guilt without experiencing the feelings of guilt. Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” There are plenty of people out there who are out of Christ, and as such, are the children of wrath (Eph 2:3); but they do not experience feelings of guilt.
The Lord in Luke 17:26-28 drew a parallel betweenthe people of his days with those in the days of Noah, and noted that they were all alike—guilty without experiencing the feelings of guilt.
“And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all. Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded” (Luke 17:26-28).
We have all experienced guilt. For a non-Christian who is suffering from guilt, or has come to a realization of his/her guilt from the Scriptures, the same Scriptures offer the only solution—the gospel of Jesus Christ, the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16).
What about a Christian? Christians can experience guilt as well. Woe to us if our conscience is hardened by sin to the point where we can hardly experience guilt, or that we deny and suppress the sense of guilt whenever we sinned!
The Bible deals with the reality that even Christians may sin. John makes sure no one is fooled. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1Jn 1:8).
But the apostle does not leave us hanging. By inspiration of God, he tells us what we must do. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn 1:9).
Let us be clear that the sense of guilt itself, no matter how intense, is not repentance. Guilt is part of the godly sorrow that comes from realizing and acknowledging that we have sinned against the holiness and majesty of God.
Paul tells us that repentance must follow godly sorrow, without which our sense of guilt would be in vain.Without godly sorrow, of which guilt is a part, there is no repentance; without repentance, there can be no salvation.
“For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (2Co 7:10).
From the preaching of God’s wordon the day of Pentecost, many Jews realised with shock that they had murdered the Messiah whom they had been waiting for so long.
They were cut to the heart and asked, “What shall we do” (Acts 2:37)?Peter told them they needed to repent and be immersed for the forgiveness of sins. Their guilt was not enough to save them; it was not even repentance.
Three thousand of the Jews went on to obey the gospel. Contrast this with the Jews struck by guilt when they heard Stephen’s preaching.
“When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth…Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him…” (Acts 7:54, 57-58).
Our conscience is a good servant to give us a kick when we need it, but it can be suppressed and silenced. It can be hardened as well—“seared with a hot iron”, in the words of the Paul in 1 Timothy 4:2.
When we experienced guilt, do not ignore it. Stop, listen and ponder. Do some soul-searching. Turn to the Lord in prayer. If there is any area in our lives where we need to repent and seek forgiveness, do not delay in doing so.
We can learn from the example of David after his sin with Bathsheba how he did overcome guilt.Read carefully Psalm 51 for the record of David’s confession. Psalm 32:1-5 is David’s beautiful account of the joy of having his sins forgiven. It dovetails perfectly with 1 John 1:9.
“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile. When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:1-5).