Sunday, October 31, 2010

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Your Guilty Conscience: a Blessing or a Curse?

When is it good to feel guilty?

Of course, the Spirit of the Age says "Never!  Guilt is a negative feeling ... a psychological weight to be lifted by channeling positive energy and living in the now."  Even in Christian circles, there are libraries full of victorious-living strategies for the believer to "find healing from guilt" (interestingly, a phrase unknown in Scripture).  Is guilt merely a psychosis, a disease upon self-esteem, or perhaps a symptom of demonic oppression?

Well, certainly there is "bad" guilt, if we define it as the refusal to accept and believe that, "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death."  (Romans 8:1-2)  To the extent that Christians--we who have had our sin fully paid for by Christ's blood--continue to carry the stench of condemnation, we suffer needlessly and hold Christ's glorious sacrifice in contempt. It is for us that the Scripture promises confidence, hope, and a clear conscience!
"Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful." (Hebrews 10:19-23)
On the other hand, there are at least two kinds of guilt which are entirely appropriate.  First, the guilt of the unbeliever who has not been delivered from his sin is entirely valid and necessary.  For him to feel no guilt is self-deception of the deadliest sort, since there is then nothing to chase him into the arms of Jesus.  "... to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted." (Titus 1:15) Guilt for the lost sinner is the smell of gangrene in the wound, warning the patient that his infection will claim his life if he does not seek aggressive treatment.  To provide him superficial "healing" in the form of soothing words and psychological comfort is not ultimately to love him, but to watch him die of negligence.

For the Redeemed of the Lord, there is yet another kind of guilt--that of unrepentant sin.  It is the guilt of David when confronted by the prophet Nathan ("You are the man!") or when he penned Psalm 32:
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, "I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD"
and you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
This guilt also is necessary, for it alerts the Christian to his fault.  It says to him, "confess, repent, and be forgiven your guilt!"  It is not the guilt of condemnation--for indeed Christ's blood has fully and irrevocably paid for every sin--but rather of rebuke and correction.

On the other hand, when I am guilty of sin and fail to respond in repentance, it is not God's benign approval I am experiencing, but rather the numbness of a seared conscience.  Because He loves me, God will chip away at that numbness until I return to him in humility.  Back to the medical metaphor:  like pain in a wound, I need my guilt to alert me to the problem.

So how can I tell whether my guilt is a blessing or a curse?  Well, perhaps a better question is, "Does my guilt draw me nearer my Savior, or does it merely drive me into depression or denial?"  For truly, it is my response rather than the emotion itself which bears the most consequence.

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