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Living free: Part 4

Guilt-free living

By Jeff Brawner

Time magazine ran a feature on a unique business in California — an “apology sound-off” line. The service receives more than 200 anonymous calls each day confessing everything from affairs to crimes including murder, each voicing apologies intended for someone else.

What makes this an idea whose time has obviously come? No doubt it’s the epidemic of guilt that plagues our community — including the Christian community.

Guilt is a pain

The good news is that guilt is a pain. That may not seem like good news unless you understand that pain isn’t always our enemy; it’s a God-given early warning system that can be our best friend.

Dr. Paul Brand co-authored a book entitled Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants. Dr. Brand spent many years working with leprosy patients in the United States and around the world. He explains that one of the worst effects of the disease is that patients lose their ability to feel pain. As a result, they frequently injure their hands and feet without even knowing it.

Pain is a protector. It can alert us to physical problems that could grow more serious if not addressed. Pain is also a teacher. Once we touch something hot, we learn very quickly not to touch it again.

On the flip side, pain can also be a prison. Chronic discomfort that never ends can be absolute torture. So can mental or emotional pain if we have no way to deal with or resolve it.

When it comes to guilt, the way in which we deal with that pain determines whether we live a limited life or a liberated life.

The sources of guilt

There are three basic causes of guilt. We’ll call the first “mess ups.” Face it: sometimes we feel guilty because we are guilty. The Bible puts it this way: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NIV). The guilt we feel inside is a warning signal telling us that there is a problem in our life that needs to be faced and fixed.

We’ll call the second source of guilt “misses.” By this, I mean a failure to meet expectations — our own, or those of someone else. Sometimes those expectations are real; other times they exist only in our imagination.

I’ve titled the third category “manipulation” guilt. It reminds me of the woman who called to check up on her mother. After several rings, Mom finally picked up and said in a weak voice, “Hello?” Concerned, the daughter asked if she was all right. “I haven’t eaten in nearly a month,” Mom mumbled. “I didn’t want to have food in my mouth in case you called.”

All kidding aside, there is such a thing as false guilt. Many, many people have been tormented by remorse over traumatic events in their past over which they had no control, such as abuse or abandonment. Even though victims deserve compassion, not condemnation, we sometimes carry those burdens for a lifetime.

Our strategies for guilt

People have developed a number of approaches to dealing with the problem of guilt, none of which is original. Let’s check out some scriptural examples and see how they worked.

Hiding from guilt

After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve attempted to hide from God. They may have been history’s first hiders, but they were far from the last. The urge to cover up is innate. Think about it: Has anyone ever had to teach their children to hide when they’re in trouble? The problem: To God, we’re just like the toddler who covers up his own eyes and thinks he has become invisible.

Running from guilt

In Genesis 27, we read about Jacob tricking his father into believing he was his twin brother so he could hijack Esau’s blessing and birthright. When the truth came out, Jacob ran. Running hasn’t always been a popular form of exercise, but it’s a perennial favorite when it comes to ducking out on our guilt.

The story is told of a practical joke once played by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Doyle sent an anonymous telegram to a number of prominent acquaintances saying, “Flee at once. All is discovered.” Within 24 hours, each and every recipient had left the country.

Many of us have learned to run without ever taking a step. Our lives run over with activity. We keep ourselves brimming with busyness to avoid dealing with our painful realities. Here’s the fatal flaw: We wind up living life with a full plate but an empty heart.

Burying guilt

Joshua 7 tells the story of Achan who, after the battle of Jericho, violated God’s command to leave the spoils behind. He grabbed some forbidden treasure and buried it under the floor of his tent. Though the evidence of his sin was out of human sight, it was clearly visible to God.

We all have reservoirs of remorse we would like to keep buried. Unfortunately, guilt simply refuses to stay buried. It inevitably makes its way to the surface, eating at us from the inside out along the way.

Paying off guilt

Genesis 42 and 43 describes a group of desperately guilty siblings whose jealousy prompted them to sell their brother Joseph into slavery. Their plan backfired when Joseph eventually became the second in command of all of Egypt during a seven-year famine.

When their father sent them to Egypt to buy grain, the brothers wound up in front of Joseph, but didn’t realize who he was. When they returned for a second visit, they brought along some of the best stuff they could find and double the money they had taken on their first trip. Was it simply a payment or a payoff?

It’s not uncommon for us to try to buy our way out of guilt by doing more or giving more. The problem is that “more” is never enough.

God’s strategies for guilt

At best, human efforts to deal with guilt simply mask its symptoms and delay its consequences. Only God can enable us to overcome painful and imprisoning guilt. Here’s a scriptural plan that works.

We must personally experience God’s grace.

Max Lucado wrote about the two “fires” Peter encountered around the time of Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion. The first fire burned in the courtyard where Peter denied his Lord. The second crackled by the shore where the risen Jesus forgave him.

What got Peter from the first fire to the second? According to Lucado, it took two things: Peter’s tears and Jesus’ cross. “If Peter had shed tears but not seen the cross,” Lucado says, “he would have known only despair. Had he seen the cross but shed no tears, he would have known only arrogance.” Seeing both brought Peter redemption.

Making the trip from the fire of denial to the fire of discovery includes two vital steps: admitting what we’ve done and acknowledging what Christ has done for us.

We must prayerfully examine our guilt.

First Thessalonians 5:21,22 tells us to “test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” Here are some “testing” questions we need to ask and answer:

• Have I violated a command or principle of God?

• Are my feelings lined up with God’s Word and will? (In 1 John 3:20 we are assured that even when our hearts condemn us God is greater than our hearts.)

• Is there an action I need to take or an attitude I need to change?

• Is there an expectation I need to adjust or ignore?

Once you have the answers, if you’re tempted to call your travel agent and book a guilt trip, try scheduling a grace trip instead. That’s the journey God invites us to take.

We must passionately re-enter the game.

When guilt is allowed to dominate, it makes us want to sit on the sidelines of life and let the game go on without us. When we let God replace our guilt with grace, we can’t wait to get back on the playing field where God wants us.

You may have heard the story of Roy Regals, sometimes called “Wrong Way Regals.” He picked up a fumble during a football game and ran at full speed toward the wrong goal line, nearly scoring a touchdown for the opposing team.

At halftime, Roy sat in the corner of the locker room and cried like a baby. He barely heard Coach Nibbs Price announce that the same team that played the first half would start the second, so he stayed behind as the other players marched toward the field. The coach said, “Roy, didn’t you hear me?” Regals replied, “I can’t do it. I’ve ruined you, the university … and I’ve ruined myself. I couldn’t face that crowd if my life depended on it.” Price put his hand on Regals’ shoulder and said, “Roy, get up. The game is only half over.” People who were there that day agreed that Roy Regals played the greatest game in his entire life in that second half.

The game isn’t over.

Just because you may have blown it big time doesn’t mean that you have blown it for all time. God has not given up on you or His plans and purposes for your life. It’s time to let God’s grace overcome your guilt and get back in the game. There’s a second half to win! 

Jeff Brawner is senior pastor of Bonita Valley Community Church (Assemblies of God) in Bonita, Calif.

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