No other court in the world can judge a person as effectively as their own conscience. Before and immediately after a wrong has been committed, the “merciless” trial begins.

On two occasions David’s heart pounded, once when the thought of rebelling against God and going against His Word came to him, and the second time immediately after he had completed the work of his unbelief in God[1]. If we were to yield to the first pounding of the heart, we would not have to experience the later ones, which are far more painful and difficult. Feelings of shame make the blood rush to the cheeks. The stomach turns inside out and suffers the stabs of guilt. The face dims and grimaces. The glands secrete poison. The whole nervous system is agitated and trembles under the sense of threat caused by the consequences of the sin or evil committed.

It is useless for man to seek within himself any form of forgiveness or justification. There is no point in seeking a hiding place—in music, drugs, sex, money, fame or power. The Judge goes with him, is unyielding, and continues to confront him with his own deed, demanding that he admit it. The imagination explores terrifying scenarios and the horizon darkens. Gone are the smiles, the happiness, and perhaps even the desire to live.

What the Bible says about the conscience

How is it that the conscience has the ability to detach itself from the being to which it belongs in order to play the role of judge? There is something or Someone in between, outside of the human being. The Bible tells us that “God’s voice in mankind” is the Holy Spirit: “when the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me” (John 15:26). The conscience is the instrument by which God’s Holy Spirit “will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin” (John 16:8). Thus, the conscience is only the instrument that indicates positive or negative values, but the action and reaction are the product of the will under the impulse of God’s Spirit.

Between a curse and a blessing

Nothing can have the capacity to be so great a blessing and so terrible a curse at the same time as this product of the conscience—the feelings of guilt. One is taken out of hell by this feeling, the other is taken there by it. What causes this striking difference? Nothing other than the response one manifests to this supreme and decisive instance of human life. As soon as the sentence is pronounced, two doors open in front of the guilty person.

The first door that opens is the door of repentance—that is, the opportunity to look at the crime committed in a different way from the way it was seen at the time. This means taking responsibility, refusing to look for a scapegoat, even if one could be found. It means looking into the mirror of the Spirit and seeing oneself as one is, abandoning oneself and one’s sin without excuse or explanation into the already open arms of God. “Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for His mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands” (1 Chronicles 21:13)—this is David’s greatest victory in the greatest war that has ever been fought, the war against self.

We are not to flee from the Judge who is “merciless” to our sins, but to flee to that Judge. This is essentially repentance. When we committed the deed, we were driven by the impulse of revenge, lust, selfishness, or cruelty. Once the deed has been done and these sources of evil left behind, we have the opportunity to look at our actions from a different perspective. And although the Holy Spirit’s judgement is “merciless”, we cannot help but recognise God’s goodness even in this lack of mercy towards our sin. It is this goodness that urges us to repent!

The other door, in contrast, opens to denial, rejection, justification, and the perpetuation of evil. It is nothing other than the rejection and nullification of God’s judgement, which demands death—not the death of the sinner (Ezekiel 33:11), but the death of his spiritual health, that is, repentance and life.

Breaking the thermometer that shows us an abnormal temperature or throwing into the water the compass that tells us we are going in the wrong direction cannot solve the problem; it will only make it worse. Paul once asked himself: “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16). Of course, the work of truth does not end until it is acknowledged: “And I heard the altar respond, ‘Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments'” (Revelation 16:7). What is the use of acknowledging at the moment when it is said, “Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy”? No! Let us acknowledge today, when “everything is possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23).

Therapy with a deceitful mirror

In our world, guilt is seen as a figment of primitivism and inferiority. Much investment is made in implementing Freud’s ideas about guilt. The disturbing question that arises is: Have these people distinguished between true and false guilt? By eliminating the idea of God, has not the only criterion that could support this distinction been eliminated? Hasn’t the compass been broken so that we can enjoy “freedom”?

Freud believed that God was guilty of negligence in creating conscience with its sense of approval or disapproval. In 1930 he wrote: “The price we pay for our advance in civilisation is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.”[2]

Demonising this sense of guilt is the way mankind tries to keep the world “happy.” But does the destruction of the symptoms lead to the elimination of the diagnosis? It’s easy to put on make-up when you have red blotches on your skin, but that will never cure your scarlet fever. It will only succeed in masking it, and as life or history itself has shown, death is not afraid of masks, nor can it be deceived. No widespread idea will remain without an effect on the world that transmits it. While the symptoms are denied, scorned or dismissed as humiliating, illness and death will quietly do their work.

This has happened and will continue to happen to the point where, in the controversial statement attributed to Hitler, we will have “a generation of young people without conscience—imperious, relentless and cruel.”[3] What has been lost sight of, and what the millennial history of mankind confirms, is that what we reap is what we sow. Such people will naturally turn against those who wanted them to be what they are and who made them what they are, and those who promote such opinions will be the first to be given the taste of what they have served to others.

In a counselling course, in an analysis of guilt, the case of a woman was discussed who confesses to a counsellor her immoral acts and the guilt that weighs upon her. The counsellor listens to her and tells her two things: “First, what you are doing is neither sinful nor immoral, it is only natural and normal. Stop seeing these things as ‘immoral’! Secondly, just stop feeling guilty! You are not guilty because there is no guilt. It is a creation of our ancestral feelings.” Saying this to someone in such a situation is like saying to a blind person, “Being blind is not the same as not seeing. This is an outdated and degrading idea. The world has changed a great deal and people think differently now. Just change your mind about what it means to be blind and start looking around you, saying hello to the world and looking at everything around you.”

Advice like this and similar advice will never be able to override the powerful law of conscience. For it is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God'” (Romans 14:11). How can anyone imagine that they could abolish the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in and through conscience?

David and Bathsheba: a case study

David watches Bathsheba bathing from the roof of his palace (2 Samuel 11:2). In the blink of an eye, his whole universe is reduced to the sexual sensation that what he is seeing is arousing in him. Everything else is forgotten—God, the kingdom, humanity, consequences, and history—everything is lost sight of except the urge to possess this woman’s body. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit was working with him intensely to prevent the tragedy, but the lines of communication seemed completely cut off at that point. Common human conscience and values are extinguished and in the darkness, David is burdened with what he would later call “the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).

The sense of guilt subdues the conscience in a desperate attempt to limit sin in the sinner’s life. Staring at his face in the mirror of conscience, David had a choice between repentance and rebellion. He chose rebellion. Adultery was followed by lying, then murder, and even genocide among his army. David went to great lengths to “counsel” Joab, who also had troubles of conscience. It reminds me of the words of Dr Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral in California: “I don’t think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and, hence, counterproductive to the evangelism enterprise than the often crude, uncouth, and un-Christian strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.”[4] In contrast, more than a hundred years ago, Thomas Carlyle observed that “the deadliest sin were the consciousness of no sin.”

David said to the soldier: “Say this to Joab: ‘Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another. Press the attack against the city and destroy it'” (2 Samuel 11:25). Strange advice coming from the same one who said: “I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With Him at my right hand, I will not be shaken” (Psalm 16:8). Well said—”With Him at my right hand”—but with Him not there, it is the opposite—”I shake”. If I do not “keep my eyes always on the Lord”, then “my sin is always before me” (Psalm 51:3).

The news of Uriah’s death fills his raped wife with despair. She mourns bitterly for her only true and loving husband. She felt extremely guilty because she “did not scream for help” (Deuteronomy 22:22-24). In her womb lay the fruit of the rapist and the woman who remained silent, an unwanted witness. Thoughts like black arrows continue to rage in her increasingly fragile and powerless mind. The sin of silence weighs heavily upon her. In the end, she comes to believe that her husband is at peace in death; a death that refuses to hide her.

Then Bathsheba is brought as a commodity to the king’s court. She is welcomed into the palace and the wedding takes place. David opens his arms and kisses her tentatively on her cheeks, which are still wet with tears. He cries on her shoulder for the suffering he has caused, proffering words of consolation for her—”This is the way of war, so many others have died…” Yet David’s heart cannot help but feel the tension between what he says and what he is; a monumental discrepancy. A delicate voice presses on him more and more insistently. He wishes he could erase this “gentle whisper” but it is not possible. Its echo grows louder and louder, and in eight months’ time it will speak alongside the muffled voice of his offspring, who will be born, suffer for seven days and then die. (I sometimes wonder: Did Bathsheba’s days of mourning, with their turmoil and regret, have an influence on the child’s suffering and death?)

Did David know that by killing Uriah he was killing his own child? Meanwhile, David continued to look for new hiding places in the palace, in pleasures, in the past, in the future, and in wars. For a while it seemed as though time had done a wonderful job of covering up the crime. But I don’t think there was a moment when David thought that God didn’t know or see what had happened. As he fled, David wondered: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7)

God does not want concealment, but healing and salvation for the one who has done evil. Suddenly, in the midst of apparent safety and oblivion, at a time known only to Him, the Lord said to the prophet Nathan: “Take this mirror and go to David.” Nathan told David the parable of the rich neighbour who took his poor neighbour’s only lamb. “The man who did this must die!” exclaimed David, burning with anger at the thought of the man’s actions: repulsive, soulless, cruel, godless, inhuman, murderous, ungrateful—in short, worthy of death. “Who is this man who is unworthy of my kingdom?” groans David. “He ought to be put to death, but he must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” God’s grace had impacted him and taught him that the Lord does not desire the death of the sinner, but his restoration.

Nathan looked him straight in the eye: “You are the man!” The mirror in Nathan’s hand shatters. David now sees his face in the true mirror, which is the Lord. “You have shown utter contempt for the Lord,” says Nathan (2 Samuel 12:7-14). On the right and on the left of the judgement hall of David’s conscience two doors open: one is the door of repentance, the other is the door of rebellion. But David never again hesitated: “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). In other words, David confesses: “I am the one who deserves to die!”

Nathan replied: “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.” For almost a year, David had tried to “take away” his own sin, but he could not find peace for his soul. Now he heard something different: “The Lord has taken away your sin.” The echo is found in David’s words: “And you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:5). “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven and whose sins are covered” (Psalm 32:1).

Can you confess and still feel guilty?

Can you confess your guilt and still feel guilty? If you have fully understood that you have sinned and no longer love the sin that you have confessed, if you have forgiven yourself alongside God and surrendered your sin in its entirety to Jesus, then you will no longer feel guilty. The Lord says, “I have swept away your offences like a cloud” (Isaiah 44:22).

However, if you ‘bury the silver plate or the mantle of Shinar in the middle of your tent’ (Joshua 7:21), and you do not live the falsehood of which John speaks—”Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God” (1 John 3:18-21)—then only if you have not truly believed the word of God, you will still feel guilty.

Some other detours to avoid

Of all the ways people try to suppress their sense of guilt, one stands out. It is their attempt to avoid acknowledgement and repentance by doing something good and useful in return. I still remember how, when I was a child, after being away from home for several days without a valid excuse, I would return with a piece of wood on my back and go into the garden, where I was greeted by my mother’s worried gaze. I think of King Saul saying: “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king” (1 Samuel 15:20).

But all the victories and acts of bravery cannot hide the reality of our disobedience. Unless guilt is confronted and dealt with by the Great Physician, it will continue to linger in our lives like an oxidising foreign body. It will affect our health, our relationships with those inside and outside our homes, our faith and our walk with God. It literally “sets the whole course of one’s life on fire” (James 3:6).

Explanations or justifications don’t help either. David could have said something about Bathsheba’s clothes or the fact that his other hundred wives were cold and indifferent to him, but such an excuse would not have convinced even him, much less God. Instead, David took full responsibility: “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.'” Read David’s words in Psalm 32 carefully and prayerfully and I assure you that the Lord will speak to you personally. I know this from experience.

The abyss at the end of the road

Jeremiah describes the rebellion and rejection of the offer: “Therefore the showers have been withheld, and no spring rains have fallen. Yet you have the brazen look of a prostitute; you refuse to blush with shame” (Jeremiah 3:3). In other words, despite the message, the response is not necessarily positive. Keeping the brazen look of a prostitute means ignoring shame and continuing the evil. A person may or may not want to be ashamed. It is an act of will; no one can be forced to be ashamed, even when the Holy Spirit is at work. It is a conscious choice leading to a consciously-chosen destination.

False guilt

Whether we like it or not, we live in a world of falsities—in art, science and religion. False experiences are sometimes so similar to real experiences that we mistake them for the real thing. One of the most curious experiences of this kind is false pregnancy. It is accompanied by all the pre- and post-natal manifestations. A well-known case is that of Queen Mary I of England (1516-1558), who is said to have had this “Fata Morgana” experience of motherhood twice.

There is something called false guilt, and we may be struggling with it. It can be the product of thoughts, emotions, and mental imbalances, or it can be externally induced, individually or collectively, by the individual, society or the Church, with the aim of subjugating a person or a group. False guilt is a Satanic creation and is particularly effective because the Devil himself uses it incessantly on his victims. The Devil is defined in the Book of Revelation as the accuser of our brethren, who slanders them before God day and night (Revelation 12:10); it is this slander that destroys people’s self-image and causes them to reject God’s grace on the basis of an induced sense of unworthiness.

It is no surprise that the Christian Church itself, through unbiblical or unbiblically-interpreted teachings, is guilty of this evil practice. The idea and reality of death have been used effectively to keep people in bondage “all their lives” (Hebrews 2:15). Mihai Eminescu’s line—”Religion, a phrase invented by them / To subdue you with its power”—is a great reference to precisely this false sense of guilt that ecclesiastical or political dictators create in those they rule.

The Pharisees were no strangers to the power and efficacy of this feeling with which they became masters over the people, and so they placed “heavy, cumbersome loads” on their consciences and thus kept them in bondage. Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). He called them all: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

The pain that heals

The positive aspects of guilt are reflected in the principles outlined in Philip Yancey and Paul Brand’s book, The Gift of Pain. People with spinal fractures fall into two broad categories—the happy, who are in pain, and the sad, who are not in pain because they are paralysed. The latter are marked by a sadness that doesn’t leave them any time soon. The feeling of guilt, if properly understood and cherished, is like this gift of pain. It is a gift because it gives us hope that something can be done about it.

There may be a place where you do not want to go under any circumstances because the pain you would experience there would seem unbearable. There are things associated with the name of that place that only you and God know. Jacob’s sons, who had sold their brother Joseph into slavery, knew during the time of famine that Egypt meant salvation for their father and their families, but for them it meant horror—that’s where the brother they had wronged was. In the end, they had to go where they never wanted to go.

God is closing all the other roads to us except for one—the road of true healing. He will take us to the Egypt we avoid, not to lose us, but to win us. He will go there before us and we will walk in His footsteps. He sends us to our brother because there is no reconciliation with God without going to our brother. He asks us to give back, because we cannot be set free without giving back.

Nevertheless, great and unsettling questions arise in the minds of human beings: “Who can bring what is pure from the impure? No one!” (Job 14:4); “What are mortals, that they could be pure, or those born of woman, that they could be righteous?” (Job 15:14) The answer is very clear. But the big question is: “What can I do with the guilt that weighs me down? How can I fight against an enemy so much stronger than myself? Is there, however, a door open to me in the face of a past or present reality from which I cannot turn back?”

I want to assure you that there is. “Therefore Jesus said again, ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep…whoever enters through me will be saved'” (John 10:7, 9). Whoever enters and leaves through this door will have a unique experience: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).

[1]“2 Samuel 24:10, counting the fighting men.”
[2]“Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’, Vienna, 1930.”
[3]“Quoted by Ravi Zacharias in ‘The End of Reason’.”
[4]“Robert Schuller, in an interview for Time magazine, 18 March 1985.”

“2 Samuel 24:10, counting the fighting men.”
“Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’, Vienna, 1930.”
“Quoted by Ravi Zacharias in ‘The End of Reason’.”
“Robert Schuller, in an interview for Time magazine, 18 March 1985.”