In this age of affirmation, old-fashioned guilt has gotten a bad name. Secular society dismisses it as hazardous to self-esteem. Many Christians also condemn guilt, considering it a needless assault upon their assurance of salvation. They may not want a Father in heaven but a semi-senile grandfather up there who serves as their master of ceremonies, amiably applauding everything they do. "God loves you!" they proclaim. "No need to give in to guilt."
Before we bid goodbye to guilt, how ever, let's remember that condemnation is scriptural. Understood properly, guilt can be a blessing.
This world would be a better place if those who trample upon God's law in hurting others suffered some guilt. If only Hitler had felt guilty about Auschwitz! Mas s murderers ought to feel guilty, along with serial rapists and the drug addict who stole my mother's car radio. Guilt can make us take stock of ourselves as sinners. But too many people have no sense of sinfulness. The carnal mind manages to suppress guilt, deny it, or project it onto others.
In 1983, my family moved to be close to the Adventist Media Center in California. We soon found a house we wanted. To raise the 5 percent down payment, we sold most of what we owned, even my computer and our trusty Mazda GLC. Needing something on wheels beyond my bicycle, I bought an old Rabbit diesel, one of those leftover energy crisis specials with the extra gas tank. If you know anything about diesels, you know they have trouble when they run hot. You had better keep the radiator water level up, or you risk mechanical disaster.
One morning I had worship at the Pacific Union Conference office. Wanting to get there on time, I drove hard and fast. A red light flashed, indicating a low water level. Running late, I suppressed the warning. It was a $600 mistake, just in time for Christmas. My failure to heed that little red light brought expensive grief to the Weber family.
Guilt is like that red light. It indicates a problem we need to confront as we speed along the highway to heaven. Without quick action, a spiritual break down occurs.
Now, what if you heed the warning and the red light remains on? Determined to have a perfectly running car, you check the cooling system for leaks. The mechanic insists everything is fine, yet that stubborn red light keeps lying to you. Now you've got a different problem: unnecessary harassment, like hyperactive guilt that doesn't go away after you confess and forsake your sins.
Guilt can be good or bad, helpful or harmful. Condemnation is appropriate in a life running low on loyalty to Jesus Christ. Conviction of sin gives us a wake-up call to repent and be cleansed at the cross. Serious problems arise, however, when one who is already faithful in Christ still suffers unresolved guilt. Such spiritual harassment is worse than unnecessary it's deadly. Ellen White counseled an uncertain believer, "The feeling of guiltiness must be laid at the foot of the cross, or it will poison the springs of life." 1
Feelings often fool us. I remember feeling bad about a scholastic aptitude test I had taken in high school until I got notice that it had qualified me for a scholarship. Feelings can work the other way, too. My friend down the hall felt great about his chemistry test until he saw that big red D.
Spiritually as well, feelings often fail to tell the truth. We might feel confident about heaven while yet in an unrepentant, unsaved state. Or we might suffer guilt even after sincerely entrusting ourselves to Christ.
How can we know for sure whether the guilt we suffer is justified or merely imagined? First, we must realize that guilt is more than an unpleasant emotion solved by positive thinking. Guilt is legal condemnation suffered equally by all sinners in the presence of a holy, sin-hating God. There is no distinction among us in our personal righteousness, since "there is none righteous, no, not one." "There is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:10,22, 23). When you compare our characters with Christ's, none of us have grounds for boasting: "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God" (verse 19).
What a terrifying thought: guilty before God! Life's basic problem is not that we need a bigger house or a new job or more friends. It's not even our need of a happy self-image. Our basic problem is guilt before God. And everyone on Planet Earth stands guilty before God. "But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God which is through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe. ... For all have sinned... being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (verses 21-24).
Praise the Lord, Christ's sacrifice on the cross enables Him to accept us and adopt us into His family. When we exchange what the world offers for what Christ offers, we stand clean before the law, just as if we'd never done wrong in fact, just as if we'd always done every thing the law requires.
Many Adventists imagine themselves under the partial curse of God. If they get grouchy, they feel 5 percent condemned; when they lose their temper, perhaps 20 or 30 percent under condemnation. But either we are outside of Christ and 100 percent guilty before God, or we are safely in Christ with no guilt. "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:1). No condemnation in Christ zero guilt before God's holy law.
Balanced Christianity honors both law and grace. The law keeps us humble, and grace keeps us happy. Humble and happy that's the way we ought to live.
* All Bible passages in this article are from The New King James Version.
1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain View, Calif., Pacific Press Pub. Assn.),p. 518.