The Persistence of Guilt

Someone recently came to this site from the search question, “Is it a sin to think about hurting someone?” The question really struck me.

I don’t think this is an emotionally neutral question. I don’t think someone ponders it idly, as if considering whether or not to engage in it later on. “I might want to think about hurting someone later. Let me check to see if someone out there can tell me whether or not that’s a sin first.” I suppose it’s possible. It might also be a question of knowing what’s good for someone but feeling unable to follow through because it might hurt, but the phrase, “think about”, makes me think that this isn’t quite right either.

Let me propose a hypothetical situation. I suspect that this searcher came, having been in some kind of conflict with someone. Maybe it was a single instance, or maybe it was a series of things that had been happening over a long time. Either way, it made her (or him) angry or frustrated, and she wanted to hurt the person in return. That desire kept popping up, and she’d think about hurting the person, even when she didn’t want to. But that not wanting to keeps cropping up, too. In fact, it’s not just not wanting to, it’s feeling like she shouldn’t – she’s not supposed to.

Does this seem to fit? Would this produce an internet search for whether it’s a sin to think about hurting someone?


If this is true, though, then the assumption underneath is that it’s already a sin. He already feels like he’s done something wrong, and he’s not looking for an answer to a hypothetical question, but a confirmation that he’s been bad or a release from the guilt and fear that’s already there. He wants someone to tell him he’s okay.

Whoever you are… you are okay.

I could cite Bible verses telling you that there’s no condemnation for the believer, even if you have sinned, particularly if you’ve confessed, but you probably already know them. And I don’t think it would help anyway because even if you understood them and took them in, the feeling of guilt would probably still hang around, and you’d still be there with this nagging sense that you’re bad.

What this may be, however, is an opportunity that God is offering to you. That sin is forgiven, you probably understand. What you might not understand is why you still feel guilty even when you’re forgiven. The discrepancy between the two is something worth exploring with God. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is inviting you to talk with Him (and others) about how you learned and internalized this kind of guilt reaction in your heart, even though Jesus already died for your sins.

Whoever is forgiven much, loves much. Perhaps you haven’t experienced a lot of forgiveness directly. Perhaps God is inviting you to seek forgiveness directly from good, safe people that you have wronged in the past or when it happens. As you experience forgiveness so directly, perhaps you might internalize more soundly that you really are okay.

Maybe I’m wrong about where this all came from. It’s pretty hard to tell from just a search entry. But maybe it might help someone else who really is coming from this place. Here’s hoping that God’s love gets in where it needs to.

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4 responses

  1. Benjamin Bryant

    Jesus is both propitiation AND expiation of sin. As the former he removes our guilt, in this case (possible) evil thoughts/intentions; he pays the penalty of our sin.

    But Jesus as the expiation of sin is also often overlooked. As expiation he removes the shame of sins committed against/upon us. When relationships explode because of sin the party sinned against often wants vengance. “Somebody is gonna pay!”, “Head will roll!” Or “There will be blood!”

    Jesus was sinned against. He has paid. He has shed his blood.His sacrifice was enough, there doesn’t need to be anyone hurt anymore.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    • Ben,

      Thanks for your thoughts, but while nothing you’ve said here is technically wrong, it doesn’t get at the issue of the emotional realities to which the post was aimed. Both guilt and shame are removed at the cross, but their removal doesn’t necessarily eliminate the feeling of being guilty or ashamed.

      Thus, this post isn’t about ontological realities; it’s about experiential ones. If I’m not guilty anymore, why does it still feel like it? That’s the issue at stake here that some people wrestle with.

      Providing information, even sound theological information, is not generally a cure for this. Rational, intellectual errors need rational, intellectual cures, but experiential, emotional struggles require experiential, emotional cures. The Word of God is not a text to be read; He is a person who is to be experienced and related with.

      Therefore, while the reality of guilt and shame is cured through the reality of forgiveness and welcome, the experience of guilt and shame is cured through the experience of forgiveness and welcome. Those who have experienced little of this from Christ’s body, as well as others under common grace, will find it difficult to feel and believe in their remedy at a heart level. They need to have that experience, not merely hear and know about it.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:58 pm

  2. Benjamin Bryant

    Could it be that our “experiental-emotional” struggles are a result of not understanding the “onotlogical realities”? Emotions and experiences affect rational thoughts. The goal is to bring them under the control of the will.

    i.e. Why do I doubt? Why do I feel guilty? Why does sin persistently batter me? Because I, a sinner, live in a sinful world, among sinful systems, people, and powers. There is no escape… except, praise be to God, through Jesus Christ, Lord of ever system, power and person. Victor over every sin. A mind is irrational without fixed (intellectual) thoughts on Jesus Christ’s person and work. Emotions cannot be dealt with otherwise.

    Or we could say simply that people need Jesus.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    • Ben,

      You seem to say that I am denying the existence of Jesus or the work of the cross. We, of course, need Jesus. That was never in question.

      True, experiential-emotional struggles can be a result of a failure to understand ontologies. However, it is not always true. You said yourself, “Emotions and experience affect rational thoughts,” which suggests not that emotions are influenced by understanding, but rather that understanding is influenced by emotions. They affect each other, and studies have shown that our thoughts are more influenced by our emotions than vice versa.

      I have heard the argument that the goal is to bring our thoughts and emotions under the control of the will, but I’m very uncertain of its complete accuracy in such simple terms. The human body is not a hierarchy; it is absurd to argue that the heart is in control of the liver, which controls the kidneys, which control the large intestine, etc. No, the body is a collection of cooperative elements. Likewise the soul. Reason, affect (emotions), and volition (will) affect one another, but no one should dominate the others.

      In fact, to argue that the will should control the emotions is a recipe for numerous mental disorders both serious and slight. Obsessive compulsive disorder, clinical depression, and somatization disorders, among others, are all results of the use of the will to feel differently than one is feeling. We cannot choose what to feel so easily without hurting ourselves and our souls.

      Likewise, the will is not in control of the intellect. Try not to think about an elephant, or try to not think of anything. It’s exceedingly difficult, even impossible for most. The will does not have ultimate control. Each of these three faculties should influence and cooperate with the others, not control them.

      Guilt, doubt, and the experience of them and other conditions are indeed the result of bearing sin and living amidst sin. Yes, we are trapped in them apart from the work of Christ. Yes, absolutely, we need Jesus! Far be it from me to say otherwise! But to say to someone who struggles with guilt and shame that such matters have been taken care of by Christ on the cross is no better than telling someone with measles that doctors cured it a long time ago. It’s not wrong, but knowledge is not enough here. And if they beileve that is enough, they will walk away, praising doctors, and then die of the measles. (“Go; be warm and well fed,” right?) The existence of a cure is not a treatment, and making that mistake can damn people to injury and death of various sorts. You are providing here only the one without the other.

      You’re quite adamant in saying Christ is the solution and then stopping there. Does it make you uneasy that dealing with emotions and experience has more to it than just knowledge?

      August 29, 2011 at 4:24 pm

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