May Healthy Guilt Do Its Good Work in Us
Psalm 38 is titled A Penitent Sufferer’s Plea for Healing. It is a psalm that is filled with the suffering of guilt:
“There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.” (Verses 3-4)
“My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness; I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all day long I go around mourning.” (Verses 5-6)
“I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.” (verse 8)
“My heart throbs, my strength fails me; as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.” (Verse 10)
Guilt over sin is troubling the psalmist greatly. It is the God-designed nature of guilt to trouble us…within proper limits.
Dr. John M. Grohol states, “Guilt is an emotional warning sign that most people learn through their normal childhood social development. Its purpose is to let us know when we’ve done something wrong, to help us develop a better sense of our behavior and how it affects ourselves and others. It prompts us to re-examine our behavior so that we don’t end up making the same mistake twice.”
Tim Stafford explains, “The instrument that tells you that you’re guilty is usually called the conscience. It communicates through your emotions and warns you when there is a problem in your life. It is very much like your body’s pain-sensing system…. When you cut your finger, the cut, dripping blood, is an indisputable fact. Anyone can see that it needs attention. But the pain that comes with the cut makes it urgent. This can be very annoying if you are doing something you want to do…. You would rather put off dealing with your cut. But pain won’t let you.
“Your conscience is designed to respond the same way to sin. If something is obviously wrong in your life, you need to deal with it. Guilty feelings force your attention onto the sore spot, making you drop everything else until you deal with it. It is God’s way of making you feel the same way about sin that he feels about it.” (Unhappy Secrets of the Christian Life, p. 46-47)
Healthy guilt prompts us to change bad behaviors and wrong behavior, to right our wrongs and to become better people. Unhealthy guilt, however, can damage our souls. Brennan Manning comments, “Unhealthy guilt is self-centered; it stirs our emotions to churn in self-destructive ways, leads to depression and despair, closes us in upon ourselves, and preempts the presence of a compassionate God. ‘The language of unhealthy guilt is one of harshness,’ observes therapist Vincent Bilotta: ‘It is demanding, abusive, criticizing, rejecting, finding fault with, accusing, blaming, condemning, reproaching and scolding. It is [a language] of impatience and chastisement. Persons are shocked and horrified because they failed. Unhealthy guilt becomes bigger than life. It is seen as the beginning and the end. In unhealthy guilt, the image of the childhood story ‘Chicken Little’ comes to mind. Guilt becomes the experience in which people feel that the sky is falling.’” (A Glimpse of Jesus, p. 19)
Healthy guilt nudges us toward God for forgiveness and restoration. Thus the psalmist, after expressing the suffering that guilt has caused him, concludes the psalm by turning to God with a straightforward plea: “Do not forsake me, O Lord; O my God, do not be far from me; make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.”
When guilt troubles our souls, we can and should do the same: Turn to God with a straightforward plea: “Do not forsake me, O Lord; O my God, do not be far from me; make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.”