Reality of Guilt
Close your eyes and think of the last time you did something you know you shouldn’t have done. It could be a big thing, it could be a small thing. Think about it – now answer me this: why did you do it? If you knew it was wrong, then why?
The truth is we all do that. Sometimes we do wrong things because we really don’t know they’re wrong, but often we know exactly that what we are doing is wrong, but just do it anyways. When I was four or five, I knew that stealing a candy bar from the grocery store was wrong, but I did it anyway. Why? Because I wanted candy. My desire for candy outweighed my desire to do what was right. As I have grown, my sins have grown to greater consequence than stealing a Snickers, but it is still the same problem. Paul seems to struggle with this as well,
For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. – Rom. 7:18-19
Now, the interesting thing that Paul says here is “I have the desire to do what is right”. And when Paul says “right” he is referring to being obedient to God’s Law (Rom. 7:12-15). Before you and I are Christians, we do not actually desire to be obedient to God’s Law (Rom. 3:11), so if Paul is really desiring to obey God, that means that he is writing verses 18 and 19 after he has converted to Christianity. That is both encouraging and sobering. It is encouraging because if you have ever said anything similar to what Paul is saying in those verses, you are in good company and don’t have to worry about not being a real Christian. If you desire to be obedient to God and hate sin, that itself is evidence that you are really a child of God. It is also sobering, because it means that just because you become a Christian, you are not out of the battle of sin. You do not shift into cruise control – you fight. You will still struggle, and will fail often. If you are thinking about it, and can’t think of anything that you are feeling guilty about, then you are either not a Christian, or have become blind to the sin your life. Paul rightly says,
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. – Romans 7:21-23
Caveat: This inner war that rages inside of us is more than just a struggle between what we know is right, and what we really want. It is a struggle between our sin-dominated flesh and our Holy Spirit regenerated heart. It is a struggle between what our flesh desires, and what we will delight in in our “inner being” – obedience to God’s law. It is a fight for joy, true fulfilling joy; and our flesh lies to us by saying that it offers joy, while God offers less. We are fighting to tune the appetite of our souls to what true joy is, and away from the “deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22) of our flesh. End Caveat
Because God has regenerated our hearts, we truly do find joy in obeying God, but because we are still sinners, we never perfectly obey. And that is what creates guilt in the life of a Christian. When we sense that inner conflict of what we desire, and what we know we should do, but don’t want to, we experience guilt, however, when we act upon our sinful desires, that is what creates shame.
Admit our Guilt
Even though Paul really was a shining model of moral goodness and obedience to Christ (1 Cor. 4:16), he had the honesty to admit his failures. And until you will, you will never be free from them. Here’s what I mean: guilt is to the soul, what pain is to the body. When your body hurts, it is your nervous system trying to alert you to go get help. Could you imagine what would happen to someone if they broke their leg, and did nothing but take pain killers to numb the pain? Their leg soon would become unusable. The pain is a part of your natural defense system to preserve your health. Guilt is the same way – it is there as an alarm for the health of your soul, telling you that something isn’t right and you need to get it taken care of. If every time you feel guilty you just try and silence it, I don’t want to admit that or I don’t want to give that up, your soul will begin to deteriorate. Paul is very open with his struggles here, and in another place calls himself “the chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). When we are free to admit our guilt, we are on the first step towards healing.
Now, is it possible to feel guilty over something that isn’t really sin – yes, definitely. And if you are unsure, pray about it, read the Word, and ask wise counsel. But definitely don’t just assume that it is probably okay if you have a conviction that it may not, track it down.
Paul cries out, Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Paul admits his guilt, and cries out for help.
Christ, Your Deliverer
Where do you go when we reach that point where your flaws are so present before you, that you can’t pretend they don’t exist. That’s where Paul is here in this verse; when Paul cries out that he is “Wretched” that is only used one other time in the Bible. It is found in Rev. 3:17, and it comes from the mouth of Jesus criticizing a spiritually dead church, “For you say, I am rich, I prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.” The term “wretched” is kind of defined by the rest of those words: miserable, poor, blind and naked. That is what Paul is feeling in the face of his colossal failures. I wonder how you feel when faced with your biggest failures. And what does Paul immediately cry out? Who will deliver me from this body of death? He needs a deliverer.
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! – Romans 7:25
Paul, in the reality of his guilt, admits it and cries out for Christ to deliver Him. That is the Christian model of deliverance. But here is the problem: most of us don’t look to Christ. We just flat out don’t – here is an example: In the Rocky movie, the night before Stallone’s big fight, he is talking with Adrian and admits that he is nervous, then finally he says, “I just wanna go five rounds with the champ, that’s it, then I’ll know I’m not a bum.” What is Rocky doing? Rocky is overwhelmingly aware that he is flawed, that he doesn’t measure up to those around him, but he has found something he is good at: boxing. And Rocky is going to use his boxing as a means of dealing with those inner feelings of “being a bum.”
Because guilt is a reality for us, we all at some point have to deal with it. And we all have a choice of answering the question “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” with stuff that we are good at, so we can stay in control of our lives. Rocky knows he is good at boxing, and he thinks that if he can last five rounds with the world champion, he will be validated enough to overcome his inner feelings of guilt.
Maybe I know that I fail at living up to the kind of life I should live up to, but it is really easy for me to make friends and to get people to like me. So, I self-soothe myself saying Yea, you’re not perfect, but look at how many friends you have, look at how cool you are. You may be flawed, but your social-goodness outweighs your badness. Every friend I gain, I feel more secure about life, and every friend I lose I feel less certain. When life is lived like this, there is a constant balancing of the scales of our self-worth going on inside, and we are desperately hoping that we are impressive enough to not be crushed by our faults.
You can put your hope in: your competence, your intelligence, your relationships, your romantic relationships, your family, your morals, your religion, your personality, your looks, your sense of humor, etc. You can put your hope in anything. And the longer that you keep running to those things to answer the question who will deliver me, the longer you will be ensnared by your guilt, because none of those things have the weight needed to tip the scales.
Christ is what you need, dear friend. Why does Paul run to Christ as his deliverer? Because unlike any of those other false deliverers, Christ’s deliverance of me is by grace alone; meaning that Christ’s commitment to serve as my deliverer doesn’t have anything to do with me keeping up my end of the bargain. If I make my looks my deliverer, I have to constantly stay thin and pretty, and if I ever lose that, I have no hope. If I make my competence my deliverer, I have to always be the best, and if someone does it better than me, I have no hope. Only Christ, and Christ alone, says I will deliver you from your guilt and your shame, no matter what. Everything else forces you to pretend like your guilt and shame aren’t there – only Jesus says “I will take it from you.” Why do we know that? Because 2,000 years ago Jesus got on the cross and experienced your guilt and your shame. God devised a plan to punish sin, without destroying sinners like you and me, by coming Himself and taking the blow for it. All the punishment that your guilt and shame deserved have been fully poured onto Christ’s shoulders, so you and I could experience His blessing and reward. We now are clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness, as if we were as sinless as He was (2 Cor. 5:21)
One of my favorite hymns says it best, “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.” So run to him, throw all of your dirty laundry at the foot of the Cross, admit your guilt, admit your shame, trust that Christ as paid for it and walk in that freedom.
Here are a few practical outcomes that will happen to you if you daily run to Christ as your Deliverer:
- Even in your guilt – there will be joy. “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” – Rom. 4:7-8, Notice how it does not say “Blessed are those who have no sins to be forgiven” because Jesus as atoned for our sins, even when we are struggling in sin, we can have confidence that our sins are forgiven.
- Freedom to be honest and confess. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to cleanse us of all unrighteousness. If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” 1 John 1:9, 2:1. Because my identity no longer rides on me trying to appear awesome, but in Christ’s righteousness, I can be free to honest with myself, God and others about areas of failure.
- Repentance blossoms. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” – Matt. 3:8. Because you have the freedom to now admit your guilt, you can begin the process of healing and repentance. You can admit where your flesh is desiring the wrong thing, and ask for God to grant you a heart that desires Him.