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Alleviating Guilt

Paul Melton

When the Lord accepted Abels offering of the firstlings of his flock, Cain was angry and his countenance was fallen (downcast).  He felt guilt! (Genesis 4:6,7). If he had done well, he would have been accepted..his countenance would have been lifted up!

Guilt naturally arises within us when we feel responsible for violating a moral or penal law or hurting another individual.  This is because God created us with a conscience, an internal mechanism that screams out at us when we have acted in a way which we believe to be wrong.

Sadly, in contemporary culture, people have been taught to treat guilt as a mere emotion, a psychological issue rather than a spiritual one.  To a large extent, modern sociologists and psychologists educate us to ignore guilt, deny it, minimize it or even transfer it to another.

For this reason, so few today come to repentance. Jeremiah said of his people, “No man repented him of his wickedness, saying ‘What have I done?’ Everyone turned to his own course, as the horse rusheth into battle” (Jeremiah 8:6).

There are three options for handling guilt: First, denial of guilt, minimization of guilt and transference to ameliorate the guilt; second, self-castigation; and lastly, acceptance of God’s forgiveness.  Let us begin with a discussion of three improper ways of alleviating a guilt-ridden conscience.

Relief strategy # 1 – Denial of Guilt

Sigmund Freud referred to the denial of guilt as abnegation in which the person feels no sorrow for the act committed because he/she believes himself or herself innocent.  

Like those in Jeremiah 2:35, “Yet you say, ‘Because I am innocent, surely His anger shall turn from me.’ Behold, I will plead My case against you, Because you say, ‘I have not sinned.’”

Some are like unwashed hogs spiritually, wallowing in their filthiness, yet they believe themselves pure in their own eyes. Proverb 30:12, “There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet is not washed from their filthiness.”

The human psyche, with all its complexity, must rationalize and construct arguments and reasons that “prove” to our satisfaction that we have done no wrong.  This leads to a cauterization of the conscience (1 Tim.4:2).

When the guilty disavow wrongdoing for long enough, they become like the adulterous woman of Proverbs 30:20, “She eats and wipes her mouth, and says, “I have done no wrong.”

Hence, self-deception and negation of culpability are mutually dependent. 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

We delude ourselves into calling “evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).

Guilt dissipates when we convince ourselves that we have not transgressed any law. When “pastors” and “theologians” appeal to our emotions and persuade us, through persuasive argumentation, that the Scriptures condone certain practices which they do not, we fall under the “strong delusion, that they should believe a lie” (2 Thess.2:11). Reassured by the words of the false teachers and the multitudes who stand in unison against the truth, we become so engulfed in deception that we are blinded to our guilt and deny wrongdoing with ease (Jeremiah 6:14; John 9:41).  This palliative to the conscience provides no true healing for our guilt.

Relief strategy # 2 – Minimization of Guilt

The deceitfulness of sin hardens the sinner against its own enormity (Heb.3:13). We have a tendency to mentally minimize our evil deed to evade bearing the full weight of the guilt, which is almost unbearable burden for the human. 

Hence, we diminish the seriousness of our transgression, by dismissing it as commonplace (“everybody’s doing it”), as unintentional (“it was just a mistake”) or as ‘human” (“nobody’s perfect”). To lessen our guilt feelings, we naturally seek to reduce the flagrancy of our sinful action and comport ourselves as if “it is not a big deal.”

An audacious yet not unusual technique used to minimize guilt feelings is to imagine God as a permissive parent who is extremely lenient in regard to sin. Those who view God’s abundant grace as forgiving every sin regardless of repentance have underestimated sin and are oblivious as to the gravity of sin and the holy nature of God.  “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1).  Such people awaken to the astounding insidiousness of sin. In Lam.1:8 we read that “Jerusalem hath grievously sinned.”  Repeatedly, the Scriptures state, “They have sinned against the LORD” (Jer.50:7).

In the Garden of Eden, when Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, God asked her, ‘What have you done?” (Genesis 3:13).  Already knowing what she had done, God asked this question to prompt confession and to spark an awareness of the seriousness of her deed. No doubt she would like to think that she had only plucked and eaten a small piece of fruit. She could have imagined, “What’s a big deal? It’s just a piece of fruit!” Yet God said, “What have you done?!”  “In the day that you eat thereof you will surely die”. Because of her deed, she lost her innocence; she lost her home in the paradise of Eden, and all the joys that accompany innocence.

What have you done, Eve?  You have brought sin into the world and all of its consequences.  Sickness and death has affected every human since that time all because Eve ate a piece of fruit in disobedience to God’s command. Because of her ONE SIN, she brought sorrow upon women and the pain of childbearing.

One way to measure the heinousness and atrociousness of sin is in God’s punishment of it.  God has assigned the most severe punishment imaginable to the commission of sin. They shall be cast into “hell fire” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 18:9; 8:12). People scoff at the notion of a lake of boiling fire in outer darkness for eternity without end, yet it is as real as heaven and earth.

Let us beware to never view our sin as a light matter, for every commission of sin commit is analogous to driving a nail in the hands of our Savior.

Relief strategy # 3 – Projection of guilt

When we cannot convincingly deny our sinful act or minimize it sufficiently, we impose the responsibility of our actions on another.

Like Pilate, we wash our hands of what we have done, and lay the responsibility of our actions on another (Matthew 27:24). Even in the Garden of Eden, Adam projected his guilt upon God for giving him the woman who gave him the fruit, who in turn, transferred her blame to the serpent, and the only one who made no excuses for sin was the serpent (Genesis 3:12).

In this way, by a disavowal of responsibility and projection of guilt on another, our guilt is temporarily placated. We think, “My genetic disposition is to blame for my alcoholism” or “I hold my parents accountable for my misery and sinfulness.”

The Bible records that Aaron made excuses in order to deny his own part in the gold calf that was built for worship in the wilderness. When Moses descended from the mountain, he irately broke the stone tables of the law, burned the golden idol the Israelites had made, ground it to powder, made them drink it. Then he said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?” (Ex. 32:21).  In other words, “What’s your excuse for this wickedness?”

Now notice that Aaron never accepted personal responsibility for forming this calf of gold. He first blamed the people for their propensity for evil, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil.” (Ex. 32:22).  Secondly, he blamed the fire, “I threw it [the gold] into the fire, and out came this calf” (Ex. 32:24).  How typical of humankind to ease guilt by assigning personal failure to another individual or circumstances.    

The above three defense strategies merely impede us from dealing with guilt. Denial of it, minimization of it, or transference of it cannot remove it from our hearts. The crime or offense was committed, and justice demands punishment.  These merely provide partial assuagement of guilt.

When an individual accept his/her guilt, realizes its gravity, and feels responsible for it, the guilt often becomes paralyzing and almost unbearable, haunting the person at every turn.  This can lead to self-inflicted punishment.


Guilt led Judas Iscariot to hang himself. Matthew records that “when Judas … saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood” (Matthew 27:3-4). Then he threw the money down in the temple and “went out and hanged himself.” He was filled with remorse.  He never intended for Jesus to be condemned to death.  Ironically, he hung from one tree filled with shame, sorrow and sin, while Jesus hung from another tree providing redemption. Judas could have been forgiven, but instead he resorted to self-mutilation. His “worldly sorrow” produced no repentance, only misery and death.

How often do we like Judas, become judge, jury and executioner, inflicting emotional pain upon ourselves for our sins. We give in to guilt, remorse or despair.  Our heart aches because of unresolved wrongs.  We feel the wounds of your mistakes. Our conscience cuts us to the quick, so we punish ourselves.

Often, rather than engage in physical forms of self-injury such as burning or pulling out one’s hair, or cutting one’s self as a punitive measure, many people torture themselves mentally, constantly recollecting their offense. Like Judas Iscariot, they believe they deserve to die, or they feel their suffering is merited. Self-punition in the form of mental torment is to some degree a temporary cathartic experience.

In contrast, Peter chose a different path of coping with guilt. Impetuous Peter, like Judas, committed a grievous sin against the Lord, that of denying the precious Savior. Luke writes that after Peter denied Jesus the third time and heard the rooster crow, he remembered the words of Jesus “and went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62). Like Judas, Peter was filled with regret, remorse, and sorrow for his sins.

Unlike the suicidal Judas who resorted to self-castigation, Peter repented of sin. He returned and rejoined the other apostles. But how did he get past what he had done?  Didn’t it haunt Peter the rest of his life that he had denied the Savior?  I do not think so. He accepted the Lord’s forgiveness. 

How do we accept Christ’s forgiveness?

If Peter had not already been a disciple of Christ, he would have needed to hear the saving words of Jesus, believe them, repent of his sins and be immersed in water in order to have them remitted (Romans 10:9,10; Acts 2:38). He would have needed to be baptized for the remission of his sins since baptism is said to be “the answer of a good conscience towards God” (1 Peter 3:21). In this way, Peter could have procured the reconciliation provided by Christ’s sacrificial death, since he became our “guilt offering”, thus reconciling us to the Father by His blood.

However, Peter was already baptized; he was already a disciple of Christ and as such he could evoke the second law of pardon and prayerfully ask his Father’s forgiveness (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9).

Step 1 – Confession

A Christian who has offended another can only find relief from guilt through confession to the offended party. Meaningless apologies do nothing for the soul. Dr. Greg Smalley suggests that there are four parts to a genuine apology:  “I was wrong” “I’m sorry” “Please forgive me” and “I love you” These four phrases can be very powerful. 

Isn’t this what James had in mind in James 5:16 when he commands us to “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”

In other words, confess your sin to the person you’ve offended, and graciously accept their clemency. If they refuse to grant you forgiveness after a genuine apology, then you has done all you can do.  Since they have an unforgiving spirit, you simply ask God’s forgiveness and pray to God to soften their heart.

Since every sin we commit is offensive to the Lord, confession to him is invariably essential.  David apologized to God in 2 Samuel 24:10 “And David’s heart condemned him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O LORD, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.”

Step 2 – Repent and make restitution.

Repentance (Gr. “change of mind”) is always necessary to procure forgiveness. An unfaltering resolution to amend your ways produced by genuine contrition has a healing effect upon the soul (2 Chron.7:14; Acts 8:22,23).

If you’ve stolen or damaged another person’s properly, often it is necessary to make restitution. Prov.6:30,31 states, “People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy himself when he is starving. Yet when he is found, he must restore sevenfold; He may have to give up all the substance of his house.”  Unwillingness or a lack of desire to do so demonstrates worldly sorrow.

Step 3 – Accept God’s forgiveness.

I’ve heard several people suggest that we need to forgive ourselves. I have searched the Scriptures, and nowhere does it ever mention forgiving one’s self.

The concept of “self-forgiveness” is very well explained in the following comments,

Ordinarily when someone talks about forgiving himself, he means forgiving himself for something he did to somebody else. So Jack insults me and then apologizes and I forgive Jack. Then why would Jack forgive Jack when Jack didn’t insult Jack? . . . It starts to muddy the waters of what forgiveness really is: a wronged person forgiving a person who wronged him, not a wronging person forgiving a wronging person. That doesn’t make sense (John Piper, audio transcript of sermon “Should We Learn to ‘Forgive Ourselves’?”, Episode 643, July 20, 2015).

Rather than self-forgiveness, we need to humble ourselves and admit we have no right to take the role of judge and pronounce the death sentence on ourselves.  Only God has that right. And He wants to forgive us.  He is saying, “I forgive you for what you did”, yet in these cases we are so proud that we refuse his forgiveness and set ourselves up as the new judge and punish ourselves for what we did.  So it is not a failure of self-forgiveness. That is not a biblical category. It is an arrogant failure to trust in God’s verdict in Romans 8:1 “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”

Accept God’s forgiveness. As a child of God, you have this avenue of prayer at your disposal. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God has promised to blot out what we’ve done, and if we hold on to the sorrow and guilt, isn’t that questioning God’s faithfulness to do what he promised, which is to forgive us?   He is not only FAITHFUL to forgive but is just (equitable).  He will forgive you, just as he has forgiven penitent men and women FAR worse than you through the years. So ask him to heal your broken heart.  Psalm 41:4 “I said, “LORD, be merciful to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.”

 Recommended articles:

Introducing the Church of Christ – Ronny Wade

God’s Sevenfold Unity – Jerry Cutter

Repentance – J. W. McGarvey


The Ancient Faith website is a thematic collection of scholarly yet simple Bible essays and sermons, many of which were composed by Restoration preachers such as J.W. McGarvey, Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Campbell. These courageous men of faith through hours of Bible investigation studied themselves out of denominationalism, asking for “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16) and seeking to return to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We hope you will join with these men in their fervent plea to restore “the ancient order,” “the ancient gospel” or, as it was sometimes called, “the ancient faith.”