The Motivating Power of Guilt
Guilt, Joseph, Jacob
If your dog is like ours, you can always tell when she has done something wrong. As son as we walk into the house we will find Ariel looking at us with her head down and with her tail literally between her legs. If we find a torn up piece of paper on the floor (her way of expressing anger) all we have to do is say, “What did you do?” And she will get down in a position that looks like she is begging for mercy.
Dogs may be transparent when they feel guilty, but people are not. We express feelings of guilt and shame in many different ways.
Christian Psychologist Gary Collins writes,
Talk with people who are depressed, lonely, struggling with marriage problems, homosexual, alcoholic, grieving, dealing with middle age, or facing almost any other problem and you will find people who experience guilt as part of their difficulties. One writer has even suggested that guilt in some way is involved in all psychological problems. (CHRISTIAN COUNSELING p. 116)
Before I go further there are some clarifications I need make when talking about guilt. First, we need to see the difference between objective and subjective guilt. Objective guilt is when you have done something wrong. . . . you ARE guilty. You have broken a law, hurt somebody, you have done what God told you not to do or not done what He told you to do. Objective guilt is a verdict. Subjective guilt is when you feel guilty.
Now it is possible to have objective guilt without subjective guilt, and visa versa. You can be guilty of doing something wrong and not feel any sense of remorse or guilt. We have read stories of those who commit a horrific crime but show absolutely no signs of remorse. They have “turned off” their conscience.
You can also feel subjective guilt without objective guilt. A person who misses a plane that crashed sometimes feels guilty for not dying with the others on the plane. A person who survives a fire when others were killed may feel guilty. Someone is sexually assaulted and feels guilty because of what happened to them (even though they were victims not the offenders). In these cases they feel guilty but they are NOT guilty. They feel they should be punished but there is nothing to punish them for.
We are talking about guilt this morning because in our study of Genesis we have been watching the feelings of guilt (the subjective guilt) of the brothers of Joseph rise in response to what they did in the past to Joseph (objective guilt). And from their experience I think we can learn some things about guilt.
HOW PEOPLE GENERALLY DEAL WITH GUILT
Basically, people generally deal with guilt in one of four ways. And we see some of these with the brothers of Joseph.
The most common way of dealing with guilt is to try to Redirect it. In other words, we do what we can to keep from admitting any (objective) guilt. We do this by rationalizing our behavior or by blaming someone else. I suspect we may have heard the brothers of Joseph saying things like, “He had it coming” or “That should teach him to walk around like he’s better than the rest of us.” Or maybe, “It was for the boy’s own good. Someone needed to put him in his place.”
We are a society that is especially skilled at rationalizing and blaming. When someone is caught in wrong you might hear,
- I come from a dysfunctional home (I’m not responsible . . .blame my upbringing)
- This is just the way I am (I’m not responsible . . . blame my genes . . . or God!)
- They started it (I’m not responsible . . they are)
- I didn’t know that was against the law (I’m not responsible . . . you didn’t tell me)
- I have been oppressed (I’m not responsible . . . society is)
Some people are so good at rationalization that they don’t take responsibility for anything they do. These are among the most dangerous people in the world. We hear about them as they defend themselves for doing sometimes horrendous things. But it is not a tactic reserved for just the horrific criminal. We do it too.
If that doesn’t work we might seek to bury the guilt. The principle is simple: if you deny the guilt maybe it will go away. For 20 years the brothers of Joseph sought to bury their guilt. It is my belief that they never talked about it. The problem is, that you can bury guilt but you can’t get rid of it. We’ve noticed that as soon as the pressure began to build with the brothers of Joseph their guilt for the past rose to the surface. We hear them bickering with each other, “Didn’t I tell you not to harm the boy?”
You can bury guilt deep but like toxic waste it eventually works it’s way to the surface in some form. It may manifest itself in strained relationships. It may rear it’s head in physical ailments such has high blood pressure, depression, nervousness to name a few. And guilt may reveal itself in a constant state of dread that comes from the fear of being “found out”.
Do you see that with the brothers?
They hurried down to Egypt and presented themselves to Joseph. When Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he said to the steward of his house, “Take these men to my house, slaughter an animal and prepare dinner; they are to eat with me at noon.” The man did as Joseph told him and took the men to Joseph’s house. Now the men were frightened when they were taken to his house. They thought, “We were brought here because of the silver that was put back into our sacks the first time. He wants to attack us and overpower us and seize us as slaves and take our donkeys.
Guilt was lurking just beneath the surface of their lives . . . just as it does with many of us.
Third, we try to pay for it. What I mean here is that some of us know we are guilty and try to “buy ourselves out” by doing good things as payment for the bad. But the problem is, how much does it take to pay for,
- the child that was aborted
- the person (often a parent) you refused to be reconciled to before they died
- the children you abandoned
- the immoral relationships you were involved in
- the unknown person you stole from
- the classmate from years ago that you belittled and abused before they moved away
- the dishonesty you engaged in
- the teacher (or student) you tormented
I don’t have to tell YOU that trying to pay for the past by working harder is a frustrating and discouraging way of handling guilt. These kinds of people beat themselves up. They work themselves until they are exhausted. They can’t say “No” to anything. They are driven by a guilt they can’t seem to erase. The result is a lingering depression or a frustration that comes out in a negative attitude or an angry spirit.
Perhaps the brothers were trying to do this when they brought gifts for the Prime Minister (Joseph). There is nothing wrong with trying to make things right. That’s appropriate. However, it is impossible to undo the past by doing good things in the present.
This leads us to the fourth (and best) way of dealing with guilt, that is to confess it. The brothers have tried the other ways. Now they are reaching the point of dealing with their sin. They are confessing it before the Prime Minister (who they don’t realize is their brother).
We have a responsibility to confess our wrong to the people we offend (when possible) and to God. Ultimately every offense is an offense against God. The Bible promises that “if we confess our sin He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) But it is important that we understand what it means to “confess” our sin. It means to “agree with God”. In other words it means that we must recognize the horror of what we have done and we must have a desire to turn from such behavior and never engage in it again. The Bible calls this an attitude of Repentance.
Merely saying we are sorry is not enough. If a person offends you, says they are sorry, and then does the same thing again and again, don’t you question the sincerity and depth of their sorrow? God promises to forgive those who sincerely confess their sin. It’s not so much the words . . . .it’s the attitude of the heart.
THE VALUE OF GUILT
Now, I hope you see from this discussion that Guilt is not necessarily an enemy. Most counselors today see guilt as the problem. Their goal is to eliminate any and all guilt feelings (subjective guilt). The goal is that we not feel bad. But they miss the point. Guilt is not the problem . . . it is what we have done that is the problem (the objective guilt). Feelings of guilt can be a good thing.
First, It awakens us to a problem. I’ve told you many times about the blessing of pain in our bodies. Pain alerts us to the fact that there is a problem. Pain in our eye warns us that a foreign body has entered that can do damage. Pain in our heart may alert us to problems in our arteries. Pain in our back alerts us to an injury of some sort. I know that pain sometimes alerts me to the fact that I have eaten too much!
The brothers of Joseph had to come to see that what they had done was wrong and it revealed a problem in their lives. God, (through Joseph) put these brothers under duress in order to provoke guilt. They needed to address a problem. And the same is usually true of us. Guilt may alert us to a problem that needs to be addressed.
Instead of trying to extinguish guilt, we should try listening to guilt. We should ask the question: “Why do I feel guilty?”
Secondly, Guilt motivates us to make necessary changes. Just as pain sometimes makes us address physical problems, guilt can lead us to address spiritual and relational problems.
Do you see the changes that are beginning to take place in the lives of the sons of Jacob. Let me list a few,
- they feel remorse for what they did to Joseph
- the same brothers who lied to their father and broke his heart are now doing everything they can to reassure him and protect him.
- the brothers who used to act with deception and treachery now are seeking to act honorably in returning money that they don’t feel is theirs.
- the brothers who hated the children of Rachel (Joseph and Benjamin) are now promising to protect Benjamin with their life.
The guilt they experienced pushed them to change. And it is designed to do the same for you. God’s desire is not only to love us . . . but to change us. A gospel that does not result in a change in your everyday living is no gospel at all. Guilt is designed to move us to holiness.
- the guilt you feel over a promiscuous relationship is designed to move you toward the joy that comes from a relationship based in purity.
- the guilt over a strained relationship is designed to push you toward reconciliation and a true experience of Christian brotherhood.
- the guilt over a dishonest act is designed to spur you on to integrity and godliness
- the guilt over a task left undone is designed to help you live more responsibly
- the guilt you feel over promises you made to God that you did not fulfill is designed to get you to take God seriously.
- the guilt you have over behavior that you can’t “seem to help” is to get you out of a destructive situation.
- the guilt you have for your anger is designed to lead you to more productive ways of handling frustration.
So, I’m suggesting that instead of running from your guilt . . . you should listen to it.
DEALING WITH GUILT
So let me be practical. How should we deal with the guilt feelings that haunt us?
First, we must face the situation squarely . . . are we guilty? Have we really done something wrong or are we suffering from a self-imposed and unjustified guilt? If the guilt is groundless then it is time to let it go. It is time to realize that even though things may not have turned out as we hoped . . . we did everything we could. And even though it doesn’t feel like that is enough . . . it has to be.
But, if there is a problem, and most of the time there is, we must admit the wrongdoing. It is foolish to run from guilt. It is time to stop rationalizing, excusing, and blaming others, time to stop trying to bury or compensate for what you did. Come clean. Admit that YOU are the problem.
There is an old story about the time Emperor Frederick the Great visited Potsdam Prison. He spoke with the prisoners, and each man claimed to be innocent, a victim of the system. One man, however, sat silently in the corner.
The ruler asked him, “And you, sir, who do you blame for your sentence?”
His response was, “Your majesty, I am guilty and richly deserve my punishment.” Surprised, the emperor shouted for the prison warden: “Come and get this man out of here before he corrupts all these innocent people.
Second, we need to ask for forgiveness. We are called by God to ask for forgiveness first from those we have offended. In fact, Jesus tells us that if we are offering our gift at the altar and remember that someone has something against us . . . we should FIRST go and be reconciled to our brother and then offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23) The principle seems pretty clear: Confessing our sin to God is not a way to sidestep our responsibility with each other. True sorrow involves making right what we can. And God will only forgive TRUE sorrow.
But make note that we must not only confess to each other . . . . we must also confess our sin to God. And when we confess our sin to God we should avoid the excuses, rationalizations, and blame. We must tell the truth and accept responsibility for our actions. This kind of confession results in an experience of the mercy and grace of God.
Finally, leave the matter with God. The problem we often have is that we confess our sin, God extends forgiveness and then we continue to beat ourselves up. Let me say something very direct: When you continue to punish yourself for what God has forgiven— you sin! You are saying through your actions that God’s judgment was insufficient. You imply that the sacrifice of Christ was not sufficient to pay for your sinfulness. To be forgiven and to continue to beat yourself up is a grave sin.
But, you say, I can’t forget what I did. Who said you have to forget? Peter remembered his denial. David remembered his adultery and the murder he was party to. Paul remembered the way he executed Christians. But as they remembered their wrong they also remembered God’s mercy. As believers, as we look back on the foolishness, recklessness and sin of our past it should not provoke feelings of guilt (our guilt has been dealt with by Christ on the cross), instead it should stimulate feelings of gratitude.
In our country we have a law called the law of double jeopardy. We find this in the fifth amendment to the Constitution. Double jeopardy means you cannot be tried for the same crime twice. If you are declared innocent of a crime no one can try you for that crime again. If you have been sentenced and serve your time, the matter is closed.
In like fashion, once we have been declared forgiven by God . . . you cannot be tried again. The verdict has been declared. The price has been paid. The matter is settled. And you and I need to remind ourselves of this every time someone. . . or our own conscience begins to accuse us again. As someone has written, “God has cast our sin into the sea and he has posted a sign that says, “No Fishing”.
The best way to deal with guilt is to take it before the throne of grace and leave it there.
In the gospel of John we read the story of Peter. After Jesus was arrested, Peter stood by a fire and denied the Lord (with great vehemence) three times . . . after he had specifically claimed that would never happen. He was crushed with the weight of guilt.
After the resurrection of Christ, Jesus had breakfast one day with His disciples. At that time, Jesus talked to Peter. Three times he asked, “Peter, do you love me?” In humility and sorrow Peter said, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Our Lord forgave him and told him to “feed the sheep”. Guilt vanished but Peter never forgot what it meant to receive mercy.
Max Lucado comments on Peter’s story with these powerful words.
Guilt is the nerve-ending of the heart. It yanks us back when we are too near the fire. Godly sorrow “makes people change their hearts and lives. This leads to salvation, and you cannot be sorry for that” (2 Cor 7:10)
To feel guilt is no tragedy; to feel no guilt is.
What if Peter hadn’t dealt with his feelings of guilt? What if Peter had dismissed, denied, or distorted his sin?. . . How many sermons would have gone unpreached? How many lives would have gone untouched or epistles gone unwritten?
Please note, there are two fires in Peter’s story. The first is the fire of denial, but the second is the fire of discovery. The first fire was built by men; the second was built by Christ. At the first fire, Peter denied Jesus. At the second, Peter confessed him.
What took Peter from one fire to the next? How did he journey from the fire of denial to the fire of discovery? In between the fires are two events: the tears of Peter and the cross of Jesus. Both are essential. If Peter had shed tears but not seen the cross, he would have known only despair. Had he seen the cross but shed no tears, he would have known only arrogance. But since he saw both, he knew redemption.
Mingle the tears of the sinner with the cross of the Savior and the result is a joyful escort out of the canyon of guilt. [A GENTLE THUNDER p. 172]
My prayer is that each of you will know the joyful journey that takes you from guilt to grace.