How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences (Hebrews 9:14 NIV)
For the sadness that is used by God brings a change of heart – and there is no regret in that! (II Corinthians 7:10 GNT)
As stories go, I read about a man who drove by the humble farm of a Christian young woman, Nancy McDonald. A sudden gust of wind caught this traveler’s black derby hat, hurling it onto the McDonald’s property. He looked in vain for the hat and drove off bareheaded. Nancy retrieved the hat, and for forty-five years various members of the family wore it, and wore it out. At the end of the those years, Nancy McDonald finally advertised in a newspaper, attempting to find the owner of the hat. She said it had been on her conscience for forty-five years. Although this kind of guilt is beyond what we should carry with us even briefly, let alone for years, it gives us an anecdotal exaggeration of how people adversely react when they feel guilty.
The truth is, if we are honest, we have all made some pretty big mistakes and some of us have made bigger ones than others; in our relationships, our finances, careers and employments, spiritual lives and many more that we could slip into other categories of serious blunders and missteps. Saint Augustine cataloged the more memorable sins in his life in the classic work The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Recently, I revisited this work while on retreat. It is an inspirational piece of literature revealing that even the best of us have much to work through, and much to gain from doing so. As in Augustine’s case, guilt is a clear sign that we are passionate about our faith, sorry for our past and looking forward to a better future where we are hopeful that our choices will be more in line with God’s intentions for us. Guilt is a way for us to feel genuine. Guilt does not work against our faith; ironically it authenticates our faith.
When we feel guilt for past or present failures we are also motivated to get closer to God. God has chosen many pathways for us, the desire to clear the conscience is one of them. When we feel guilt when reading the Bible or some spiritual writing this should drive us to a fresh and up to date repentance. In prayer, we might remember poor choices we have made or are making. This often gives us the energy we need to get serious about asking God for guidance and strength so we can make better choices now and in the future.
It is contrary to God’s remedial purpose for us to hide like Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden when they felt guilty and were confronted with their failure. Running from God, prayer, church or any other spiritual activity is not the answer. Yielding to God clears the conscience and makes us right with God. We find refreshment, comfort and forgiveness in His presence. God created guilt. It is designed to be the occupation of the conscience. Guilt works to drive us nearer to Him.
This short essay should not end without this last consideration: Guilt has made us feel genuine in our faith and it has driven us closer to God. But unfortunately you have felt guilt for something specific for a very long time now. It is time to let it go! It has been my experience that it is easier to accept that God has forgiven us. A little harder to accept that the people we have hurt have forgiven us. Much harder to forgive those who have hurt us. And it is hardest of all to forgive ourselves. Yet it can be done. It must be done. Although you do not need this invocation from me: God has forgiven you, you have forgiven others. So I would like to give you the permission to forgive yourself. Guilt has done its work, it needs to be over with once and for all!
Joseph C. Hutchison, Rochester Hills, Michigan April 2019
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