How do you deal with a guilty conscience? Left alone, a guilty conscience can have a crushing impact. It can fill you with shame and regret; cause depression, anxiety, or physical sickness; it can disrupt your relationships. And so, we resort to all sorts of ways to handle our conscience:
- Rationalize it: If you snap at someone out of anger, you might try to justify your actions and talk yourself out of feeling guilty. “It wasn’t that bad. She deserved it anyway. Anyone else would have done the same thing or even worse.” You make every attempt you can to justify yourself, blame someone else, downplay it, and talk yourself out of feeling guilty.
- Suppress it: Often we simply try to ignore every memory of what we did wrong. If you click on a shameful online image, you can try to just pretend it didn’t happen. You may do everything in your power to think about other things in hopes that you’ll forget about how you’ve displeased God. You hope the guilt will fade over time.
- Compensate for it: If you feel bad because you’ve been really critical and judgmental toward others, you might try and make up for it. You go out of your way to be helpful and say really nice things about people. After all, maybe you can pile up enough good things to outweigh the bad things you’ve done.
- Take comfort in it: If all else fails, you just get comfortable with your guilt. If you know you’ve been drinking too much, using alcohol to check out, you might feel bad and beat yourself up. Eventually you tell yourself that you should feel bad, because you are bad. You decide you deserve to feel miserable, and begin taking comfort in your guilt. It starts to feel good to feel bad.
But, if you’ve been down any or all of these roads before, you know they are not effective. None of these approaches can actually remove your guilt or cleanse your conscience. And none of these approaches actually solve the biggest problem with your guilty conscience – it cuts you off from God. Your guilt separates you from access to the only one who can truly help you.
And so, if you are wrestling with a guilty conscience – as we all do – don’t rationalize it, suppress it, compensate for it, or find comfort in it – confess your guilt, and let God cleanse your conscience! This is the promise of Psalm 32:
“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” | Psalm 32:1-5, ESV
Happy is the one who takes his guilt to God – he has God’s favor! This person finds that his transgression is forgiven, his sin is covered, and his iniquity is not counted against him. Choosing to hide your guilt and keep silent is crushing. It’s like your very bones are wasting away. Your strength is dried up like the heat of summer. This is the heavy hand of God on you. However, you find relief when you acknowledge your sin to God. Then he can rightly deal with your guilt.
This is why Jesus came to earth, lived, died, and rose again. He came to atone for your sins and for mine; he came to cleanse our guilty conscience. In the book of Hebrews, we see Christ as both our atoning sacrifice and true High Priest. Comparing the work of Christ to the sacrifices of the old covenant, we read, “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works so that we can serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:14, CSB). Only through faith in the work of Christ can you experience a clean conscience. And only then can you gain unhindered access to the living God. So, take your guilt to Jesus and find cleansing and new life!