Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Blessedness of Guilt

Despair

Image by fakelvis via Flickr

I am sure glad that God created the capacity for us to feel guilt. Yes you heard me right.  Guilt is a wonderful gift of God.  I believe all of our emotions are a gift from God.  We are fearfully and wonderfully made.  However, just like other emotions, guilt because of sin can lead to increased suffering if not properly handled.  I preached a sermon on this subject a while back on The Usefulness of Sorrow which lays out the basis of my thinking on the benefit of sorrow.  Though the issue of guilt is not directly addressed in this sermon I believe that guilt can be a type of sorrow that is addressed in the passage from 2 Corinthians 7:5-16.  I want to focus specifically on the feeling of guilt. 

Three types of guilt that are soul killers (2 Cor 7:10). 

The first type of guilt that kills the spirit is the guilt of unmerited self-reproach.  In this type of guilt literally everything becomes his/her fault in her/his mind.  A person becomes sorry for everything.  He is sorry for having an opinion.  She is sorry for something over which she had no hand in nor has the ability to control or change.  He is sorry over breathing air.  She is sorry for being an inconvenience.  Everything becomes a opportunity for self reproach and makes the person feel defeated and deflated.  This type of sorrow is very easy to identify.  People that struggle with this type of sorrow almost always start (or end) their sentences on serious matters with the words, "I am sorry..."  Being overly apologetic is a good sign that you suffer from the guilt of self-reproach. 

The second type of guilt is the guilt of being caught.  There are some people who feel this intensely.  Often this type of guilt starts off with projecting blame on to someone or something else.  It then moves on to avoiding the subject all together.  It is pushed away from awareness.  In some respects all forms of guilt touch on this type in some manner.  But for those that struggle with this type of guilt they never move forward.  The are forever feeling badly about being found out.  Many times the guilty behaviors lead them deeper into the thing they were caught doing or a superficial change that is later revealed to not be genuine.  If the truth be told these people would not have considered changing their misdeeds if they were never caught.  Before we start throwing stones we should realize that we all have the capacity to be this way. 

The third type of guilt is one of melancholic guilt.  In this guilt a person feels a deep sense of remorse.  They recount over and over their misdeeds.  "How have I wronged you let me recount the ways."  They cry (with or without actual tears) and carry on for a long time.   This guilt is one of feeling a deep personal loss of self-respect.  It becomes a form of perpetual self-punishment with no relief.  The person believes she deserves to feel this way and so she is going to wallow in her self-pity. 

The problem with these forms of guilt is that none lead to relief or lasting change.  They are soul killers.  They drag a person ever deeper into spiritual death.   They are as destructive if not more than the event/act that triggered the feeling in the first place.  Many times it leads a person to avoid whatever or whomever makes them feel guilty with out a change of heart.  It leads a person to think, "If I can avoid this situation then I never have to deal with or be aware of my guilt."  This avoidance then perpetuates the root issue that is leading to the guilty state.  So what can we do about it?

Godly Guilt

Paul was rejoicing that his words of confrontation led to a feeling of grief dare I say guilt (2 Cor 7:9).  He felt this way because the confrontation led them to feel guilty and then led them to repentance.  Godly guilt is one that brings about change.  Not the superficial change that is seen in the guilt of getting caught, but a true desire to make things right (2 Cor 7:11).  Repentance is a change in heart that leads to a change in action.  This is the true usefulness of guilt.  It leads a person down a road that will reap a harvest of righteousness when God's Grace is applied to the situation. 

Godly Guilt Applied

May I suggest the follow practical application of this:

  1. When ever you feel that familiar feeling of guilt stop and ask these questions:  1) Is this a situation that I should indeed feel guilty about?  Do I have culpability? -Or- am I engaging in unmerited self-reproach?  2) OK I have been caught so do I truly feel remorse or is it just unpleasant that I have been caught? 3) I feel sorrow, but am I willing to turn this around?  Notice that the way out of the worldly guilt starts with acknowledging that you have guilty feelings and then proceeds to look at the issue at hand rather than avoid it.  By asking these questions you evaluate if this is unmerited self-reproach, guilt of being caught, or melancholic guilt. 
  2. The next step then is to turn this guilt into action.  First let it sink down into your soul.  Yes I said let it sink down which is similar to Melancholic guilt, but with one distinction let it produce a desire to change the state of affairs.  Guilt that changes the heart is a precious gift of God.  Repentance starts in the heart.  Let the guilt grow to produce a desire to clear yourselves,  indignation, fear, deep longing, zeal, and desire for just living (2 Cor 7:11)! 
  3. Next offer up a prayer to God and ask with the deepest sincerity, "God what would you have me change?"  Reflect on the matter and see what God reveals to you. 
  4. Then Identify the first step that you need to take to change and do it.  Don't stay stuck in worldly guilt allow Godly guilt to move you to repentance of heart leading to a change in direction.  Do not let one moment of guilt escape you so as to produce inaction and thereby worldly sorrow and spirit death.  In every way seek to commend yourselves to be pure in the matter (2 Cor 7:11).  By doing this you will move into the blessing of guilt. 

If you are able to turn it around (with God's help and guidance) then you will be able to experience the true change and genuine relief from suffering that guilt produces.  In doing this you will be able to produce diligence, comfort, joy, refreshing, removal of embarrassment, affection, obedience, and confidence in your life and the lives of others around you (2 Cor 7:12-16). 

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