The Christian message makes a man conscious of his guilt before God and, in Christ, provides forgiveness of sin and eradication of guilt. Yet many Christian believers whose sins have been confessed and forgiven cannot feel forgiven because they cannot forgive themselves. When the pastor forcefully seeks to stir the conscience of the indifferent, those already overwhelmed with self-condemnation think he is speaking to them and so sink deeper in their feelings of guilt.

This self-condemnation typically stems from a neurotic self-rejection. Those who suffer from it cannot feel that Christ’s forgiveness applies to them. Their overwrought conscience chronically seeks to atone and accepts flagellation with morbid pleasure. These persons, often some of the hardest-working members in the church, are perfectionistic, driving, and intense. Their self-criticism may be symbolized by their hypercriticism of others. They may be excessively generous, apologetic, and self-effacing. Or they may even be apathetic and lazy, as a result of the numbing of despair brought on by unassuaged guilt.

The pastor, who so often must deal with the problems of guilt and sin, needs to be keenly perceptive of the difference between real guilt as a consciousness of sin and neurotic guilt, the response of self-rejection. The role of the pastor is certainly not for the sadist or for one who, because his own feelings of guilt are not resolved, compensates by flagellating himself and others.

Some of the neurotically guilt-ridden cannot forgive themselves for sins of the past. Others keep blaming themselves for things they never did. They may blame themselves for parental quarrels, for the death of a family member, for their inability to get better grades or lack of talents. Some feel guilty for being physically handicapped or sick and think their trouble was given as punishment. Recently I learned of a child of three who believed that an operation he underwent was a punishment. The child is often led to believe that it is “bad” to spill things, to show interest in sex, to forget, to be loud or silly. One little boy asked his mother, “Is it naughty to have fun?”

A person feels guilty whenever he violates whatever he is led to think is acceptable by those whose love he seeks. A child may be taught it is good to steal from the rich but wrong to get caught. Hitler probably lost no sleep over his slaughter of millions of Jews. Whether one feels guilty or not is a poor criterion for judging real guilt.

The laws of God and the laws of man get mixed up in our thinking. We can feel guilty for not having been able to please an impossible father, a nagging mother, a frustrated teacher, or even our childhood peers. The Church itself has a history of erecting taboos that the Bible never mentions. The Pharisees were past masters at inventing yokes ingeniously designed to create a false righteousness for those who could keep up and a false guilt for those who could not.

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Fortunately, the Bible does not condition God’s forgiveness on man’s feeling of being forgiven. Nowhere in the Scriptures is the question treated, What if the repentant does not feel saved? Although many may think they are saved who are not, no one is ever lost simply because he does not know he is saved. It takes no great skill to create feelings of guilt among earnest seekers. All one need do is to make indeterminate rules. A person can always hope to be more fervent, more generous, more burdened.

Some evangelists interpret the passage “as many as received him” to mean that salvation is contingent upon a mystical act of receiving, taking, appropriating, which to the neurotically guilt-ridden person means that the reason he feels the way he does is that he has not “taken” properly. He is led to believe he is supposed to stop feeling guilty in order to be forgiven, but this he cannot do. He can respond quite easily to “come unto me,” “ask,” “confess,” “repent”; but he cannot “receive,” if this means feeling immediately that he has been accepted by God and is no longer guilty.

The Gospel does not attack the problem of guilt from the direction of improving one’s behavior. Man defines sin by what he does, but God pronounces man guilty for what he is; he looks upon the intentions of the heart. Man’s sin (singular) is that he has tried to usurp God’s throne. Whatever his sins (plural) are, they are effects rather than the cause. A man sins because he is a sinner; he does not become a sinner because he sins. But God also pronounces the man in Christ righteous apart from his behavior, because God sees the new heart he has implanted in him and gives his children full credit for all they would like to be. Thus the Apostle Paul could say of his sinning, “It is no longer I that do it,” and of his heart, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man.… So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God” (Rom. 7:17, 22, 25).

The good news of the Gospel is that man can be perfect in God’s sight without being good. If he had to be good to get to heaven, he would never get there. God has taken all the “have to” out and replaced it with a “want to.” As God writes his laws in our hearts, we no longer try to please God because we are afraid not to; we want to please him because we love him. The neurotically guilt-ridden Christian is strongly conscious of his desire to please the Lord. This fact may be used to help him realize that his heart is right with God. The penitent needs to know that because he himself is covered by the blood of Christ, all his trespasses are forgiven—past, present, and future. Because he is clothed with Christ’s own righteousness, all his sins have been charged to Christ and all Christ’s righteousness has been credited to his account. He is now holy (1 Cor. 3:17), righteous (Isa. 61:10; Rom. 4:6, 8), perfect (Heb. 10:14; 12:23)—in a word, a saint (Phil. 1:1). God’s forgiveness is contingent not upon our feelings but upon his own promise. On the basis of God’s Word, we can inform anyone who wants forgiveness in Christ that he has it (John 6:37)! If he still feels guilty after he is committed to Christ, then he is suffering from either a neurotic or an ignorant guilt.

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The treatment of neurotic guilt often requires the aid of a psychologist. It is very tempting for the concerned pastor to feel that Bible verses or sage advice will provide insights to remove guilt feelings. But when these are rooted in traumatic experiences long forgotten, they are usually inaccessible to logic. It is essential, however, that whoever provides psychotherapy respect the patient’s Christian position, so that no conflict will be aroused between his confused guilt and his desire to please God.—WILLARD HARLEY, SR., professor of psychology and director of counseling, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California.

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