Guilt, Shame, Regret…and Grace Part One
April 1, 2013
“The Benediction Project”
Not long ago a friend told me that the area of her biggest spiritual struggles concerns matters of guilt, shame and regret. She has been a faithful follower of Jesus Christ for many years, knows her Bible well and has a close daily walk with God. She is not living a defeated life, but the evil one knows how and when to bring certain issues to her mind in order to rob her of the joy and peace of the Lord.
As I thought of her remark I thought of my own struggles in these matters, and those of others I know or have known. Probably all of us have dealt with guilt, shame and regret at certain times in our lives, not necessarily all at the same time but quite possibly so.
The more I thought about this realm of the Christian life the more I realized—from long experience and decades in the scriptures—that these matters deserve far more attention than they receive in Christian preaching, writing and conversation. In fact, I recall thinking previously, often, that this cluster of issues is one of Satan’s most powerful weapons for keeping sincere Christians from serving Christ more actively in their churches, their neighborhoods and even in their homes. That weapon is the enemy’s constant whispering in our ears such accusations as: “you are not living as you should in order to serve God in an active way—you would be a hypocrite; you have sinned so much in the past that you are not qualified to teach, preach, pray, witness or be in any other way, in front of others; forget any thoughts of teaching your children about really knowing and following God by holy living, as you have been such a poor example to them.”
I believe that by considering these matters biblically, though briefly, we may come to live as “more than conquerors through him who loved us,” for “we are not unaware of [Satan’s] schemes” (Rom. 8:37; 2 Cor. 2:11).
The word “guilt” will be considered first. Here I am going to do something I have never done before in almost six years of writing these blog postings: I am going to quote extensively, verbatim, from an expert whose presentation I could never improve upon. Dr. S. Bruce Narramore is the author of the article “Guilt” in Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology, edited by David G. Benner, 1985. Here are his valuable insights.
“Guilt can be used either as a judicial term referring to violation of a law or to designate an emotion that follows judging oneself in violation of a standard. The first usage refers to an objective state or condition. When individuals break a civil law, they are objectively guilty whether they feel guilty or not. The second usage refers to a subjective experience. People may feel guilty even though they are not legally guilty.
“Objective and subjective guilt can be further divided into two types. Objective guilt can refer to one’s condition in relation to either a human law or to God. In reference to God all persons have been judged guilty (Rom. 3:23 Isa. 53:6) whereas only some people are guilty before human law. Subjective guilt can be divided into self-condemning emotions called neurotic guilt (false guilt, punitive guilt, or simply guilt feelings) and love-based corrective feelings variously called true guilt, ego guilt, existential guilt, or constructive sorrow.
“Much confusion has been created by the failure to distinguish among these four types of guilt. Theologians have sometimes been alarmed by psychologists’ efforts to eliminate neurotic guilt feelings because they were not aware that psychologists wanted to replace these punitive feelings with healthy love-based moral motivations. Similarly, some psychologists have viewed Christianity as a neurotic guilt-inducing religion because of its stress on humanity’s guilt before God. Not realizing the difference between objective and subjective guilt, they assumed that the concept of guilt before God meant that people should experience punitive feelings of guilt. Unfortunately, some Christians have also failed to differentiate between objective and subjective guilt and have assumed that since they are objectively guilty before God, they should experience feelings of guilt.
“Guilt in the Bible. Although the Bible has a great deal to say about humanity’s objective guilt before God, it has surprisingly little to say about punitive feelings of guilt. In fact, not one of the three Greek words translated as guilt in the New Testament refers to the subjective experience of guilt feelings. They refer instead to our objective condition of guilt before God or to being under judgment or indebted to another person. This fact and the scriptural teaching on the atonement has led some (Bonhoeffer, 1955; Narramore, 1984; Thielicke, 1966) to conclude that guilt feelings are not a divinely ordained type of motivation. Since Christ has already paid for the believer sins and made us acceptable to God, there are no grounds for continuing to punish and reject oneself by feelings of guilt (Rom. 8:1).
“Since the believer’s sins have been paid for by Christ, any further self-punishment can actually be seen as a form of self-atonement, which is ultimately based on a rejection of the efficacy of Christ’s atoning death. From this perspective guilt feelings are seen as legalistic efforts to satisfy the demands of conscience apart from Christ. This perspective is supported not only by biblical teachings on justification and forgiveness but also by John’s explicit statement that ‘we shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before him, in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart, and knows all things’ (1 John 3:19-20).
“Whereas punitive guilt feelings are a self-centered form of punishment designed to atone for one’s failures, constructive sorrow focuses on the damage done to others and the desire to make things right. Feelings of guilt are focused more on past failures, whereas constructive sorrow is oriented toward future changes. And feelings of guilt are based on anger, whereas constructive sorrow is motivated by love. Paul wrote of this type of motivation when he spoke of the sorrow that is according to the will of God ‘that produces repentance without regret in contrast to the sorrow of the world that produces death’ (2 Cor. 7:8-10).
“For Christians this constructive sorrow (or true guilt) is encouraged by God’s loving care and provision. Before Paul wrote of a godly or constructive sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7:8-10, he reminded the Corinthians of a number of God’s Old Testament promises (2 Cor. 6:16-18) and then wrote, ‘Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God’ (2 Cor. 7:1). His appeal was not to avoid the pain of guilty condemnation, since that issue was already settled. Instead it was to respond in love to the work of God. It is this positive motivation that is the biblical alternative to guilt feelings.”