Over the years I have received numerous phone calls from people reaching out for prayer or for counsel. Where to turn when your spirit is troubled? Some people turn to a pastor. (In the days of phone books, our church was one of the first listed in the yellow pages, and I was convinced this brought more phone traffic our way.) Most of the time when these calls come, no name is given. Anonymity sometimes helps when the subject is heavy, or confessions must be made. And anyone who reaches out in this way is carrying a heavy burden, so I in turn carry that person in prayer for some time following the call. Last week a woman called for prayer because something that she had done 20 years ago, a sin which she had confessed back then, had come back to haunt her. It got me thinking about guilt.
What a great thing guilt is! I think of it as the end of a long chain, which has held us prisoner for some time. But the chain is so long, and we’ve gotten so comfortable with it, that we’ve taken full advantage of its latitude—and so we keep on roaming. Until, of course, we come to the end of it (and there always is an end), and it brings us up short. Guilt is that jerk at the end of the chain that lets us know that we cannot continue the same path we have pursued to our own detriment. Guilt is the strongest signal that something is wrong and must be corrected.
It’s at this point that we suddenly realize we cannot undo the past. Regret, the close kin of guilt, sets in. This is a good place to be, because only here, when we are brought to our knees, can change occur. Only here can we discover the forgiveness of Jesus Christ which leads to new life. There is not one follower of Jesus who has not walked this trajectory to salvation: sin → guilt → regret → repentance → forgiveness → new life.
St. Paul recognized this when he said, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” II Cor. 7:10 The only permanent solution to guilt and regret is a godly grief that produces repentance. For the Christian, once guilt has done its intended job, jerking us to a stop and turning us to repentance, it is no good to us anymore. Guilt is only meant to be a temporary pivot point—once we’ve turned to Jesus we get to leave it behind.
Living in regret and guilt sucks the life out of us. And 20 years of carrying a sin forward is a heavy burden. Someone once said, “When the past comes knocking don’t answer. It has nothing new to tell you.” That’s good advice to someone who has been forgiven of that past. Even better is the knowledge that God has permanently separated us from the sins we’ve confessed to him: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has [our Heavenly Father] removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:13 Living in the mercy of God is our permanent resting place.
– Pastor Connie