As an eight-year-old child, I had my first memorable experience with a guilty conscience. My father had died a few months before, and Mom, my sister, and I were still adjusting to his loss. Dad had always worn a gold pocket watch, and now that he was gone, that watch was a treasured family memento. Somehow the glass had come off, and my mother had carefully placed the watch on a countertop so she could have it repaired. She told both my sister and me not to touch it at all.
I was consumed with curiosity. When no one was around, I picked up the watch and opened it, examining it and experimenting with it. Suddenly, to my horror, I broke off one of the hands! With shaking fingers, I tried to put the watch back so it would look as if it hadn't been touched.
From that moment on, I kept out of my mother's way, but it wasn't long till she called me. I can still see her gazing into my eyes. "Did you touch Daddy's watch?"
"No!" I answered quickly.
Oh, the guilt! Now it was worse than ever. Not only had I broken the watch, but I had lied as well! It felt like a big rock in the middle of my chest. I stayed out of my mother's sight all day long, but my misery was intolerable. Eventually I decided I would rather take my punishment than live with those awful guilt feelings.
I went to Mom and confessed.
That spanking is the only one I remember from my childhood, and its severity had far more to do with my lies than with the damaged watch. But once it was over, my guilt was gone too. I had received the punishment I deserved. And my mother had forgiven me.
Guilt is that awful feeling that hits us in the pit of the stomach when we know we have done wrong, and we'll do almost anything to get rid of it. Adam and Eve, our first parents, established a human pattern that continues to this day. First comes the cover-up. Then we play the blame game as we try to justify or rationalize our actions. We think that the more we can blame someone else, the less guilty we will feel.
Sometimes we try to escape from guilt through activities, alcohol, or drugs. Or we run to psychiatrists—but secular psychiatry has tried to solve the problem of guilt by saying there is no such thing as sin. Just ignore that guilty feeling, we're told, because it has no basis in reality. We try, but somehow we just can't pull it off. Why not?
We can't escape these feelings by ignoring them because God built into our natures a knowledge of right and wrong—a moral code. God's Word speaks of the moral conscience, which exists even within those who are not aware of His laws.
One example of this is described in Romans 2:14-15: "When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them."
There has never been a civilization on earth that didn't have laws—rules about right and wrong. Even though humankind hasn't always worshiped the living God, the moral codes of every civilization prove that there is an objective authority who has set a standard. The human conscience is evidence of God's existence and His standards for behavior.
God is the One we offend when we sin, and only He can provide a remedy for our sin and guilt. From the third chapter of Genesis on, He required animals to be sacrificed for human beings who wanted to have their sins forgiven. And the New Testament reminds us again, "Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness" (Heb. 9:22).
But the blood of these thousands of animals could not remove sin. It only covered it, until the one perfect Sacrifice was made that completely satisfied the holiness and justice of God. When John the Baptist pointed to Jesus, he said in one sentence the purpose for His coming to earth: "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
Jesus came to earth to die. He was the Substitute for us—He took our punishment in our place so we could be forgiven and made right with God. But what we don't always understand is that God also wants us to be free from guilt. We learn this from His Word.
Through Christ, God has wiped our record clean. He wants us to know it, and to live in that freedom. We're told, "How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!" (Heb. 9:14).
When believers in biblical times put their faith in Christ, they acted like forgiven and cleansed people. Zaccheus, described in Luke 19, is a classic example. Everyone knew Zaccheus was a sinner—he worked for Israel's oppressor, the Roman government. In fact, Zaccheus was head of the equivalent to the Roman Internal Revenue Service. He levied the taxes Caesar required, and he was free to add whatever he wanted for himself.
When Jesus invited Himself to Zaccheus's house, He demonstrated publicly that He even accepted sinners as terrible as Zaccheus was perceived to be. Zaccheus responded by putting his faith in Christ as his Messiah. But notice how he gave evidence of it: "Zaccheus stood up and said to the Lord, 'Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount" (Luke 19:8).
Zaccheus repented—he changed his way of life. He promised to make generous restitution to those he had cheated. The change was dramatic. That's why Jesus could say in response, "Today, salvation has come to this house." Zaccheus's new conduct was evidence of his new faith.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God's eternal remedy for human sin. When we trust Him, He not only forgives our sins, but He also cleanses our conscience of guilt. What happens to our sins? Once God has forgiven them, they are:
Our sins are gone, removed from existence as if they had never happened in the first place. We can start our new life with a clean slate. And God gives us His Holy Spirit to empower us with new strength.
Have you been trying to make it on your own? Perhaps you have done things that have filled you with guilt, and you think if you're sorry enough and if you do enough good things, you can make up for the bad. No way!
Scripture tells us we are washed clean and given new life through faith in Jesus Christ: "But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior" (Titus 3:4-6).
What wonderful words—kindness, love, and mercy! Have you trusted our kind and loving and merciful God alone to save you? If you haven't, talk to Him in your heart and tell Him you're through trying to earn your salvation. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness, eternal life, and a cleansed conscience. There is no other way.
So now we understand what happens to our sin when we ask God for forgiveness—it vanishes! But most of us have to ask another question: What happens when we sin after we have trusted Christ? Can a believer, a child of God, lose his or her salvation? Do we have to be saved all over again? If all our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven because of Christ's death, why do we have to do anything at all?
The answer is this: When a believer sins, something happens that has to be dealt with. Our relationship with God cannot be broken, because we are His children by birth, but our fellowship with Him is damaged. Have you noticed that when you feel guilty because you've done something you know is wrong, you avoid praying or reading your Bible? You don't feel like coming to church, and you may not even enjoy being with your Christian friends as much as usual. These feelings are evidence that your fellowship with God is broken.
Because He loves us, God wants our fellowship with Him to be restored. And He has provided a way for us to continue being cleansed from guilt for sins we commit after our salvation. The apostle John tells us how it's done: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:8-9).
The trouble is, we often don't follow God's directions for our cure. Sometimes we wait a very long time before agreeing with God that we have sinned. All that time guilt eats its corrosive way into our conscience. David's story, in the Old Testament, is an excellent example of this process.
God spoke of David as a man after His own heart; He chose David to be king over Israel. From his teen years, David was devoted to God in an extraordinary way. He followed God's ways. He listened to godly counsel. And when he was a fugitive from King Saul for at least ten years, he constantly found his refuge in God, who rescued him again and again. David was a deeply spiritual man with a well-developed emotional capacity. He was also a man with normal human passions.
He was about fifty years old when he committed the sins that affected him for the rest of his life. Today this is called "going through midlife crisis." David saw another man's wife and lusted for her. It didn't matter that her husband was one of his trusted soldiers who was out on the battlefield fighting for him. David sent for Bathsheba and slept with her. Then, when she let David know she was pregnant, he ordered her husband Uriah to come home so he could sleep with her and thus make it look like the child was his. That didn't work, so David instructed his commanding general to put Uriah on the front of the battle lines so he would be killed.
Uriah died in battle, and after Bathsheba had finished her mourning period, David married her. The cover-up was in place. But then we read these ominous words at the end of 2 Samuel 11: "But the thing David had done displeased the LORD."
God knew all about David's behavior, and He would not let His beloved servant get away with such a flagrant and heartless abuse of power. During the unfolding of the story, about a year went by from start to finish—a year during which David seemed to be without a conscience at all. Remember, David was a believer, a man after God's own heart, a man to whom God had promised a lasting dynasty. His would be the royal line from which the Messiah would come. Didn't he feel guilty for sins as wicked as adultery and murder? Yes, but he had stifled his conscience. He wouldn't listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. But he paid the price for his actions. Here's how he described his experience: "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" (Ps. 32:3-4).
So God sent the prophet Nathan to waken David's conscience with a story that appealed to his emotions. Nathan told him about a poor man who had only one little pet lamb, which he loved like a child. A rich man, who had many flocks of his own, stole this little lamb and made it into shish-kebabs for a dinner guest. Here's how David reacted to Nathan's story:
"David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, 'As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing" (2 Sam. 12:5-6).
Nathan looked into the face of his angry king who had just passed judgment on himself and said to David, "You are the man!"
How would David respond to the accusation and the punishment? He tells us his response in Psalm 32:5: "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!"
David made no excuses; he blamed no one else. He said, "I have sinned against the Lord."
You may be asking, What about his sin against Bathsheba and against Uriah? No, David saw his sin for what all sin is—an offense against the Lord. And he knew the punishment was just, because he knew the truth of this spiritual principle:
Forgiveness does not cancel out the natural consequences of our sins.
Nathan told David, "The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the Loin show utter contempt, the son born to you will die" (2 Sam. 12:13).
The death of the child was just the beginning. David lived to see his son Amnon rape his half-sister, Tamar. Then David's son Absalom killed Amnon and later tried to seize David's throne, and he was also killed. In fact, from this time on, David's life deteriorated until the day he died. His one act of unbridled passion permanently marked his family and his kingdom. But his fellowship with God was restored. After Nathan came to him, David wrote Psalm 51, which eloquently describes his sin, his repentance, and his forgiveness.
When Elena's husband Sam made a major change in his profession, it put their marriage under a great deal of pressure. He got home late, left early, and barely spoke to Elena when they were together. Sam's stress level was astronomical, and he was irritable and rather mean to his wife. He was so wrapped up in his problems that, for the first time in their marriage, Elena wanted to make love when Sam didn't. She felt rejected and unattractive.
During this time, a married friend named Steve began to call Elena "just to talk." She openly welcomed Steve's calls. She was feeling lonely and abandoned, and she had come to the conclusion that Sam simply didn't love her anymore. It was a great relief to know she was still attractive to someone, and Steve was very open about his admiration for her.
Calls became lunches, and the lunches lasted into the afternoon. Before long, Steve and Elena were making love at least once a week. Fortunately, it didn't take more than a month for Elena's conscience to convict her of her adultery. Even though in some ways she felt entitled to her little fling, her Christian faith was too strong to allow her to carry on with Steve any longer. She broke off the affair and confessed it to her husband.
Sam forgave Elena and begged her to forgive him for his negligence and selfishness. They went to work in an attempt to heal their marriage. But Elena just couldn't get over the guilt she felt. When she came into my office, she kept repeating "I never dreamed I would ever do anything like that! I just can't forgive myself. I've hurt my husband so much, I don't know how he can forgive me. I cry all the time. I'm very depressed. I read the Bible and pray for hours, but I just can't get over it."
We talked for a long time. I reminded her of the promise expressed in 1 John 1:9. Of course she had confessed her sin over and over. But then I read Hebrews 9:14 to her: "How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!" (emphasis mine).
If God had forgiven Elena, yet she couldn't forgive herself, I suggested to her that she was setting herself up as a better judge than God. It's pride that tells us we would "never commit such a sin." We were each born with a sinful nature, and every one of us has the capacity to commit any sin in the book.
I instructed Elena to go back to 1 John 1:9 one last time and to agree with God that her actions were sin. Then I asked her to tell God she accepted His forgiveness and His cleansing of her guilt. "Elena," I explained, "we have to act with our wills to apply what God's Word says. Then He will eventually take care of our emotions."
Elena said she would do what I had suggested. She thanked me, and I didn't hear from her for about a month. Then she came to see me again.
She smiled, "I just want you to know that I'm doing much better. Oh, I have my moments, but I'm healing. You know, I listen to Christian radio for hours every day, and they talk about forgiveness, but I've never heard anyone mention Hebrews 9:14. That verse has changed my life!"
I've seen stories like Elena's happen many times. Some women carry a burden of guilt over a sin they committed years ago. They've confessed over and over, but they just don't think they deserve to be forgiven and have a cleansed conscience. The missing link is the act of the will to accept what God offers: We accept God's forgiveness with an act of the will.
Hebrews 9:14 provides an interesting insight about the result of our cleansing and forgiveness. God does this, the writer of Hebrews explains, "that we may serve the living God."
Guilt keeps us from serving God. Yet God can even use the sins we have committed to make us more effective in our work for Him. Only when we refuse God's provision for forgiveness, for cleansing, and for a new beginning are we incapacitated by our past sins. That's why it is important for us to remember:
Satan wants us to be immobilized by guilt.
We have an enemy whose main purpose is to keep us from serving the Lord. In Scripture he is called the "accuser" of believers. If you continue to feel guilty for forgiven sins, you are hearing the voice of the enemy, not the Holy Spirit. Satan is a liar. Reject the fiery darts he shoots at your mind by holding up the shield of faith in the finished work of your Savior, and the devil will flee from you.
If guilt is the obstacle that has kept you from growing in your spiritual life, won't you lay down your burden at the cross? Accept God's forgiveness. Let Him cleanse your conscience. And commit yourself to living in obedience to God's Word and to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who lives within you. Your burden of guilt will be lifted—once and for all.