I have a guilt complex. Big time. I feel guilty about everything: sleeping late, watching two movies on a weekend, a shopping spree at GAP, failing an exam, not calling my sister, things I said to an ex-girlfriend years ago—I feel guilty for it all. And when I happen not to feel guilty, it starts up again just because I know I’m forgetting something I should be guilty of!
I serve in college campus ministry at a church in Des Moines, Iowa. One day after Bible study, one of my students shared that she was feeling low because she too feels guilty about everything.
“Everything?” I asked.
“Everything,” she said, “all the way back until I was six years old.”
“But don’t you know you’re forgiven?”
“I know I’m forgiven,” she said, “but I don’t feel forgiven.”
Ah, there’s the rub. My student’s problem is also mine.
While as Christians we know we’re forgiven, feeling forgiven is an entirely different matter. I belong to a mainline denomination that includes confession and forgiveness in every worship service. The people speak a general confession of sins together, and then the pastor prays for forgiveness for our sins in the name of Jesus. In this weekly sinners’ prayer we say, “I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone.” What I have left undone. That’s the part that gets me. There’s so much left undone, so many things that I want to be doing, things that I should be doing—things that I’m simply not doing. And the guilt kills me.
For instance, I say I want a healthy body, but if it’s too cold or too hot, work goes a little late, or I’m not “in the mood,” I don’t go running and drink a beer instead. (And then I groan when I step on the scale or gawk at myself in the mirror.) I claim I want to enter a Ph.D. program, but you’re more likely to find me watching an X-Files DVD than studying Latin. I say I’m pro life, but I have never gone to a crisis pregnancy center to counsel young girls or make support calls.
Guilt gets me over these and a hundred other things left undone. If I do them, I feel like a good person. If I don’t do them, I feel like a complete loser.
The Apostle Paul sympathizes. “I do not understand what I do,” he writes, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15, TNIV). Paul experienced the guilt pangs of doing and not doing that wrench our own guts. He knew conscience could be more burden than blessing. But Paul also gives us hope. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1-2, TNIV). My sins are forgiven. My guilt is taken away. If Christ doesn’t condemn me, then why do I condemn myself?
Guilt usually comes from the impossible standards to which we hold ourselves. Everyone knows that legalism ruins churches, but we often willingly force ourselves to drink a homebrewed brand of spiritual slavery. Society measures our worth based on productivity, so we set goals and measure our self-esteem by successes. In our outcome based spirituality, if we miss the mark, we beat ourselves up. I’m not saying we should tolerate sin, but I believe we need to forgive ourselves for missing our own expectations. God forgives us for not meeting his expectations.
As human beings, we can’t do anything to improve our standing before God. That would be trying to save ourselves by works. Jesus criticized this attitude: “They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Matthew 15:9, TNIV). God’s grace isn’t about making life difficult for us. God’s grace forgives our failures to measure up, because Christ measured up for us.
Here’s what my pastor says every Sunday after we confess our sins: “Almighty God in his mercy has given his Son to die for you, and for his sake forgives you all your sins.” Amen! And with these words, the things left undone are forgiven. The guilt is taken away. You don’t have to keep living your life as an apology. Christ forgives you for not meeting his standards, and he’ll forgive you for not meeting your own standards. The things left undone aren’t going to ruin your relationship with God.
When you feel guilty about the things you haven’t finished, be assured that at the cross Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30).