Nothing else on earth judges a person as ruthlessly as their own conscience, and truthfully, nothing else should. The painful process happens before and after the harm has been done.
David’s heart pounded twice. Once when the thought of rebelling against God and going against His Word crossed his mind, and, again, right after he finished his unfaithful work. If we were to listen to the first pounding of our hearts we would not have to experience the following ones that are much harder and much more painful. The feelings of shame make the blood rush to our cheeks, and the eyes to stare, masking the chaos behind them. The stomach is turned upside down and receives guilt’s blow. Our face darkens, and its muscles move abnormally. The glands secret poison. The entire nervous system is agitated and trembles under the menacing feeling caused by the consequences of sin.
In vain, we seek within ourselves for any form of forgiveness or justification. In vain does one seek a hiding place, in music, drugs, sex, money, fame, or power. The judge goes with us, ruthlessly, and continues to confront us with our actions, demanding that we acknowledge them. Our imagination explores terrifying scenarios, and the horizon darkens. Our smile, our happiness, and even our desire to live fades away.
What the Bible says about the conscience
How does the conscience have the capacity to detach itself from the being it belongs to, and act as a judge? There’s something and Someone outside man who is involved. The Bible tells us that “God’s voice inside humans” 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”. The conscience is the instrument by which God’s Holy Spirit proves “the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment”. In this way, the conscience is just an instrument pointing to positive or negative values. The action and answer are, however, a product of the will under the impulse of God’s Spirit.
Between a curse and a blessing
Nothing can be, at the same time, as big a blessing or as terrible a curse as this product of our conscience—the feeling of guilt. It can lift one out of hell, and send another straight to it. What causes this striking difference? Nothing other than the reaction and answer someone manifests towards this supreme and decisive instance of human life. Once the sentence has been pronounced, two doors open in front of the guilty person.
The first door is the door to repentance; that is, the opportunity to look at the committed act in a different light than it was looked at when it was committed. This means taking responsibility, and refusing to look for a scapegoat even if one is at hand.
This means one must look into the Spirit’s mirror and see oneself as one is, and abandon oneself and one’s sin, without any excuse or explanation, into God’s already outstretched arms. “Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands.” This is David’s greatest victory in the greatest war ever fought, the war with self.
We must not run away from the Judge who shows “no mercy” towards our sin, but run to Him. This is repentance, essentially. When I committed the deed, I was led by the impulse of revenge, lust, selfishness, or cruelty. Once the deed has been committed, leaving behind these springs of evil, we have the opportunity to look at life from another perspective. While the judgement of the Holy Spirit is “merciless,” we cannot help but notice God’s kindness in the midst of this lack of mercy towards our sin. This kindness is the very thing that prompts us to repent.
On the other hand, the door to denial, negation, justification, and the perpetuation of evil in our lives is also opened. To walk through this door would be to reject God’s judgement, which requires death. However, it is not the physical death of the sinner that is required, but their spiritual death—that is, repentance, leading to life.
Breaking the thermometer that shows that we have an abnormal temperature, or hurling aside the compass that tells us we are going the wrong direction into the water, cannot solve the problem. This only makes things worse.
At some point, Paul was wondering: “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” Of course the work of truth will only end in its acknowledgment: “Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments.” What is the point of acknowledgement when men will shout: “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.” Why should I not acknowledge it today, when “everything is possible for one who believes”?
The therapy of the lying mirror
In our world, the feeling of guilt is regarded as a product of primitivism and inferiority. Large investments are made to implement Freud’s ideas regarding the feeling of guilt. The disquieting question that arises is: did these men distinguish between true and false feelings of guilt? Leaving out the idea of God, haven’t we eliminated the only criterion that could have supported this difference? Haven’t we broken the compass that allows us to enjoy “freedom”?
Freud believes that God was guilty of negligence when He created conscience with its feeling of approval or disapproval. In 1930, he wrote: “The price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.”
Demonizing this feeling of guilt is the way in which humans try to preserve the world as “happy”. But does the destruction of the symptoms lead to the elimination of the disease? It’s easy to put makeup on when liver spots appear on your face, but this will not solve the problem with your liver.
It will only succeed in concealing it and, as life and history have proven, death does not fear masks, nor can it be led astray. While the symptoms will be denied, despised, or rejected as being degrading, sickness and death will quietly do their job.
This has been successful and will be even more successful, up to the point where we’ll have, as Hitler’s disputed claim says, “a cruel, heartless generation, with no mercy or qualms of conscience.” The thing that we have lost track of, and which is confirmed over and over again, is that humanity reaps what it sows. People like this will naturally turn against those who wanted them and made them the way they are, and these opinion leaders will be the first ones to get a taste of their own medicine.
During a counselling course, in the context of an analysis of the feeling of guilt, men were discussing the case of a lady who confessed her immoral acts as well as the feeling of guilt weighing her down to her counsellor. The counsellor listened to her and told her two things: “First of all, what you’re doing is neither a sin nor immoral, it’s just natural and normal. Stop looking at these things as being immoral! Second, just stop feeling guilty altogether. You are not guilty because guilt does not exist. It’s a creation of our ancestral feelings.” To say this to someone who finds themselves in such a situation is the same as telling a blind person: “To be blind does not mean not being able to see. This is an outdated and degrading conception. The world has changed and people think differently. You just have to change your opinion about what it means to be blind and start looking around you, greet people and look at the things in the midst of which you’re moving.” Advice like this will never be able to cancel the strong law of the conscience. It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’” How can someone imagine that they can destroy the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in and through the conscience?
David and Bathsheba
From the rooftop of his palace, David looks at Bathsheba as she is bathing. In a moment, his entire universe is reduced to the sexual sensation inspired by what he sees. The rest is forgotten. God, the kingdom, mankind, the consequences, and history…it’s all disregarded, except for the impulse of possessing that woman’s body. I don’t believe in the slightest that the Holy Spirit didn’t intensely plead with him to prevent the tragedy, but the communication lines seem to have been completely cut off in that moment. Conscience and common human values are extinguished and, in the darkness that sets in, David takes on what he will later call “the guilt of my sin.”
The feeling of guilt subdues the conscience in a desperate effort to limit sin in the life of the sinner. Looking at his face in the mirror, David had a choice between repentance and rebellion. He chose rebellion.
Adultery was followed by lying, then murder, and even genocide within his army. David made an effort to “counsel” Joab, who also suffered the torment of his conscience. I can almost hear the echo of the words uttered by Dr Shuller at 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.” Contrary to this, Thomas Carlyle, more than 100 years ago, concluded that “the deadliest sin is the consciousness of no sin.”
Then David told the messenger: “Say this to Joab: ‘Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another.'” This is strange advice from someone who also said: “I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” That’s a good point—“with Him at my right hand”—but when He isn’t, we have the opposite—“I will be shaken”. If I don’t “keep my eyes always on the Lord”, then “my sin is always before me.”
The news of Uriah’s death filled Bathsheba, his wife who had been raped, with despair. She mourned sorrowfully for her only true and loving husband. She felt extremely guilty because she “did not scream for help”. In her womb she carried the fruit of her rapist and that of a woman who kept quiet, an unwanted witness. Her thoughts continued to invade her weak and helpless mind, like black armies. The sin of silence hung heavily on her. She came to envy her husband for the death that refused to take her too. Then Bathsheba was brought to the palace, like an item of merchandise. She was welcomed at the palace and a wedding took place. David opens his arms and unsurely kisses her cheeks which are still wet from the tears. He cried over her shoulder for the suffering he had caused, comforted her with his words: This is what war is like. So many have died…
David’s heart cannot ignore the tension starting to build up between what he says and who he is. His back shudders under the weight of this monumental disagreement. A sensitive voice follows him ever so insistently. He wishes he could extinguish that “gentle whisper” but it is not possible. Its echo keeps increasing and, eight months later, the fading voice of the child will be heard, who would suffer for seven days and then die. Did Bathsheba’s mourning, days of turmoil and remorse, have a say in the suffering and death of the child?
Did David know that, by killing Uriah, he was actually killing his own child? Meanwhile, David continued to seek for new hiding places, in the palace, in pleasures, in the past, in the future, in wars. It seemed like time had done a wonderful work and covered up the murder. However, I don’t believe there was a single moment when David believed that God didn’t know or see what had happened.
David was asking himself as he ran: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”
God does not want us to hide. He wants the healing and saving of the one who committed evil. All of a sudden, in the midst of apparent certainty and oblivion, at an appointed time, God told the prophet Nathan: “Take this mirror with you and go to David.” Nathan told David the parable of the rich and death-deserving neighbour. David exclaimed, “The man who did this must die!” Repulsive, heartless, cruel, godless, inhuman, murderer, ungrateful, in a nutshell, worthy of death. “Who is this man who is unworthy of my kingdom?” David asks. “He must pay for that lamb four times over.” God’s grace had moved him and taught him that God does not wish for the sinner’s death, but his repentance. Nathan looks him straight in the eyes: “You are the man!” The mirror in Nathan’s hand breaks. David now sees his face in the True Mirror, who is the Lord. “You caused God’s enemies to blaspheme Him.”
To the left and the right of David’s judgement hall, two doors open: one is the door of repentance, the other is the door of rebellion. David did not hesitate for one moment. “I have sinned against the Lord.” In other words, David admits: “I am the one who is worthy of death!” Nathan told him: “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.” For almost a year David tried to “forgive” himself, but could not find peace for his soul. He now had another refrain at hand: “The Lord forgives your sin!” The echo is found in David’s words: “And you forgave the guilt of my sin.” “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”
Is it possible to confess and still feel guilty?
It is possible that, after you have confessed your sin, you still continue to feel guilty. If you have fully understood you have sinned and you no longer love the sin you confessed, if you forgave yourself together with God and you surrendered your sin wholly to Jesus, instead of burying the silver plate or the mantle from Shinar in the midst of your tent, if you are not living the fake life that John speaks of—“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”—then, only if you haven’t truly taken God at His word, can you still feel guilty. The Lord says: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud.”
Other detours we should avoid
Out of all human attempts to quiet the feeling of guilt, one stands out in particular. It is the attempt to avoid acknowledgment and repentance by doing something good and useful to compensate for the harm done. I can still see myself as a child, after several days after running away from home with no explanation, coming back with a piece of wood on my back and coming into the yard to meet my mother’s tired gaze. Or I can hear King Saul: “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king.” Still, all the victories and courageous acts in the world cannot cover the cry of disobedience.
As long as our guilt is not found and treated by the Great Physician, it will remain in our lives as a foreign body. It will affect our health, our relationships with those in our home, or outside it, and our faith and walk with God. It literally “sets the whole course of one’s life on fire.”
Explanations and justifications don’t help either. David could have said something about the way Bathsheba was dressed or the fact that his one hundred wives were cold and indifferent towards him, but such an excuse wouldn’t have been convincing even to him, let alone God. David, however, took full responsibility: “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions.’” Read Psalm 32 carefully and prayerfully, and I can assure you God will speak to you personally. I know this from experience.
The gap at the end of the road
Jeremiah describes the rebellion and rejection of the offer of forgiveness as follows: “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.” In other words, despite the message, the answer is not necessarily positive. Having “the brazen look of a prostitute” means ignoring shame and perpetuating evil. A person may or may not want to be ashamed. It is an act of the will. Nobody can be coerced to be ashamed even if it is the Holy Spirit Himself who acts. It is a deliberate choice that leads to an intentionally chosen destination.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a world of fakes, in art, science, and religion. A false experience sometimes resembles the real one, until the confrontation. One of the most curios experiences of the kind is false pregnancy. It comes with all the post- and prenatal manifestations. The case of Queen Mary I of England (1516-1558) is well known, who seems to have twice gone through this “fata morgana” kind of experience of becoming a mother.
A false sense of guilt exists and we can experience it all to easily. It can be the product of our thoughts, our emotions, or of psychological disorders, or it can be induced from without, individually or collectively, by the individual themselves, society, or the church, in order to subdue a person or group. A false sense of guilt is a satanic creation, and it proves very effective since the Devil himself applies this to his victims unceasingly. The Devil is defined in Revelation as the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them day and night before God (Revelation 12:10). This accusation is what destroys a person’s self-image and makes one reject God’s grace based on an induced feeling of unworthiness.
It’s no wonder that the Christian church itself is guilty of this dark practice through its unbiblical doctrines or doctrines that are not interpreted biblically. The idea of death was also used very efficiently to keep people in bondage “all their lives” (Hebrews 2:15).
Mihai Eminescu’s lyrics—“Religion: a phrase invented by them/So that by its might they can lay a yoke upon you”—are a pointed reference to this particular false sense of guilt that ecclesiastic or political dictators confer on those over whom they rule.
The Pharisees were no strangers to the power and efficiency of this feeling, and they used it to rule over people. This is why they laid “cumbersome loads” on their consciences, thus keeping 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 condemns all of them: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Anyone who comes experiences this amazing liberation.
The pain that heals
The feeling of guilt, in its positive aspect, is reflected in the principles that have been exposed in the book by Philip Yancey and Paul Brand, The Gift of Pain. Those with spinal fractures, for example, are divided into two main categories: the happy ones, who are in pain, and the sad ones, who have no pain, but are paralyzed. The former are happy because their pain indicates that they are not paralyzed, but the latter are marked by a sadness that does not seem likely to leave them soon. The feeling of guilt, when understood properly and cherished, is like this “gift” of pain.
There is, perhaps, a place where you would not want for all the world to go to, because the pain you would experience there seems too big. The things that are related to that place are only known by you and God. Jacob’s sons, who had sold their brother Joseph into slavery, knew that Egypt meant salvation for their father and their families, but for them it meant horror—that was where they had sold their brother. In the end, they were forced to go where they never wanted to go.
God shuts all the paths, except for one—that of true healing. He will lead us into the Egypt we avoid, not so that we perish, but so that He would win us for Him. He Himself goes before us and we will walk in His footsteps.
He sends us to our Brother, because there is no peace with God without going to our Brother. He asks us to give back, because we cannot free ourselves without giving back.
However, great and troubling questions still arise in the human mind: “Who can bring what is pure from the impure? No one!” “What are mortals, that they could be pure, or those born of woman, that they could be righteous?” The answer is obvious. The big question is, however, the following: “What can I do with the feeling of guilt that hangs heavy on my soul? How can I fight a foe who is much stronger than I am? Is there, still, a door open for me in front of a past or a present reality that I cannot change?”
Yes. “Therefore Jesus said again, ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.'” The one who enters and goes out through this door will have a unique experience: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”