Guilt from Past Memories

Memories of Your Past Sins: For Believers

You and I both sin on a daily, even hourly basis—God says so. 

1 John 1:8 & 10 If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us…  If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.

But the good news is:                                                          

1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness.

It is no surprise to God that you and I have sinned. And He’s created a solution to guilt: Jesus paid for your sin and guilt on the cross. Therefore, you confess; He forgives. To refuse to admit you have sinned, you are deceiving yourself and making God a liar. To refuse to believe the truth of verse 9 is to trample underfoot the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

“But I can’t forgive myself.” I hear many in my counseling practice say “I just can’t forgive myself.” I believe this is a wrong belief rooted in popular culture. The Bible never says you need to forgive yourself. You need forgiveness from God more than you need air to breathe. Even though David had sinned against Bathsheba (adultery and deception) and against her husband Uriah (murder and deception), he prayed in Psalm 51 that he had sinned against God and God only (Psalm 51:4). It was forgiveness from God he needed most.

I’ll say it again: To refuse to believe the truth of verse 9 is to trample underfoot the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. In effect, you are saying, “Jesus’ death was not enough. It may be enough for someone else’s sin, but not mine.” It elevates your opinion and power to forgive above God—and that is dangerous territory! If you have held onto guilt because you can’t forgive yourself, first confess that to God. Then confess your wrongdoing as sin against God and ask for His forgiveness.

“Sort of sorry.” A second theme I run into in my counseling practice is a tepid sort of repentance. Perhaps you are sorry only that you got caught, or that there have been consequences for your sin. Another way this presents is as a victim mentality. Paul talks about godly sorrow that leads to repentance (II Corinthians 7:10). Godly sorrow is an ache in the belly. It mourns for sin. True repentance requires a broken and contrite heart. There is no rest or joy or gladness.  It longs for God’s forgiveness. If you’re not there yet, God can even soften your hardened heart and give you the gift of repentance.

Guilt serves a function. A third theme I see is a person somehow benefitting from guilt. Their guilt serves some sort of function. It may present in co-dependency or addictions. Somehow the person comes to believe (usually not at a conscious level), “If I hold onto this guilt, I’ll get the acceptance I long for.” This kind of guilt is usually deeply entrenched because it’s become a style of relating that feels normal. It is frequently passed down from one generation to the next.

By the way, do you see a pattern here? Guilt can erode self-confidence and relationships. No wonder guilt is a major theme when people coming for counseling!

God’s desire. It is God’s plan and desire for Believers to live without guilt, without condemnation, and to feel safe and loved in His presence. The Bible speaks of having a cleansed conscience (Romans 8:1, Hebrews 9:9 & 14, 10:22). What joy and peace to know God’s forgiveness and to live with a clean conscience!

John Ensor has encouraging words:

In learning to live by a clear conscience, we must learn to follow a few of God’s guiding principles. Among them are:

1)      Allow a season of sorrow for sin. It’s godly sorrow. It leads to the actions of repentance. It means my conscience is working. We do well to consider the shame of bad behavior.

 2)      Rest in the truth of the gospel. It’s a special foretaste of hell to be convicted of the evil of sin without trusting in the righteousness of Christ’s sacrifice for sin. A good conscience weeps for a short time, then comes to rest again in the gift of God in Jesus Christ. In this way shame spurs change but doesn’t become persistent or disabling or demeaning to the work of Christ. We must trust Christ as both “author and perfector” of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).

 3)      Restore what is restorable… Making restitution where possible cleanses the conscience.

 4)      Remember that God forgets. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Corrie ten Boom once said in her wise and childlike way, “He posts a sign, ‘No fishing allowed.’” In striving for a good conscience, we need to remember to forget.

5)      Endure hardship as God’s discipline, not damnation. We experience the conviction of God as He fashions us into His holiness and likeness, but there is not condemnation.

 6)      Bear your scars graciously. We may choose to hide the scars of our past sin in shame and guilt, or bear them graciously as a testimony to the grace of God. They are our testimony to our need for forgiveness and the sign of having received it… For what guilt and shame once used to blackmail us into silence, God now uses to make our testimony ring authentic and glad of heart.¹

But if, after you have confessed your sin and you still struggle with guilt, Robert D. Jones may be of some help:

…Let’s briefly consider how God wants us to think about “memories.”

First, realize that God was “in” your past. He was not asleep or on vacation when you did or said the sinful things that now trouble you. Whether you committed those sins before or after you became a Christian, the sovereign God was on site. He now designs to turn your past into something good. This is the perspective Joseph powerfully models in Genesis 50:20, when he reflected on his brothers’ treacherous sins: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” (See also Gen. 45:5-7; Acts 17:25-31; Rom. 8:28-29; Eph. 1:4,11; and Jer. 29:11).

Second, realize that while your past might influence your present beliefs or conduct, it does not determine them. You are not a victim of what you did or what happened to you. You are not doomed. Instead, as a fully human person, you are an active interpreter and responder to your situation. You are fully responsible for your present choices no matter what memories linger (see Gen. 37-50; Prov. 4:23; Mark 7:14-23; and James 1:13-15).

Third, your memories result from your act of interpreting your past (see Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28-29; Num. 11; Ps. 78:11, 106:13; and Ezek. 16). What you actually remember are not the past events per se, but the past events as-you interpret-them. They are not bare facts, but interpreted facts. As such, they are capable of reinterpretation. Herein lies hope. God can help you put the right interpretation—a biblical spin—on your past and make your past even a good thing for you.²

John Ensor closes his chapter on “Forgiveness Experienced” with this:

“Experiencing God’s forgiveness in the form of a clean conscience moves us another step forward from guilt to gladness. We cleanse our conscience by putting our faith in the sufficiency of Christ and the punishment He endured on our behalf.”¹

There is no sin so great that He cannot forgive, cleanse your conscience, and free you from guilt. He has already provided the remedy. All He asks is that you come.

¹Experiencing God’s Forgiveness, Ensor, John (1997). Colorado Springs: NavPress.

²Redeeming the Bad Memories of Your Past Sins, Jones, Robert D. (2003). Journal of Biblical Counseling.

About Brooke Seager, Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist

As a Christian marriage and family therapist, my goal is to help you uncover your true potential in Christ and lead a life that is worth celebrating. While we can't change difficult situations of the past, we can work together to better understand and resolve challenges in your life. By applying complementary therapy approaches and techniques, we will unearth long-standing behavior patterns or negative perceptions that may be holding you back from experiencing a more fulfilling and meaningful life that brings glory to God. For more info:
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