As a gifted art student on scholarship, Tracy didn’t have time for an unwanted pregnancy. Desperately seeking help, she visited a women’s health center. The very next morning, she succumbed to the coercive sales tactics of a woman she thought was a counselor and returned to the clinic for a second visit. When she left that day, she was no longer pregnant. Eventually she and her boyfriend got married and started a family. But a vague, relentless sense of guilt had taken root in her that fateful day. And she couldn’t get rid of it.
Kevin didn’t need anyone to tell him he needed forgiveness. An online sting had sent him to prison for crimes he thought no one could forgive. Now, living on the inside, he could expect only the hatred and derision of other prisoners. Alone with his regrets, he had years to endure his personal mountain of guilt. Even if he made parole, where could he go? His arrest and conviction were big news. Everyone would look at him as “that guy.”
It was just a little thing—certainly nothing that would send her to prison. Yet after all these years, Lexie couldn’t forget. She’d seen a magazine in a bookstore, and on impulse she’d slipped it into her backpack. No one saw her. She had stolen something just for the sheer thrill of doing so. And she had gotten away with it. But not really. Now, decades later, it was far too late to make restitution—and it still bothered her! Could Lexie be forgiven?
Everyone respected Justin. A natural leader, he got things done in church, at work, and in the community. Selected to direct his parish’s charitable giving program, he enjoyed the recognition that came from helping the less fortunate. But he often shook his head at the mistakes people made to get themselves into such dire situations. These people are pretty blessed to have me around to help them, Justin thought to himself. He couldn’t help feeling just a little bit superior. After all, wasn’t he?
After serving time for his role in the Watergate scandal, Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, took a Christian publishing group on a tour of a prison. During the visit, Colson addressed the inmates. Gesturing toward his guests he said, “The only difference between them and you is that they haven’t been caught.”
Our personal stories may seem drastically different from each other, but we are all far more similar than we care to admit. We all sin. Some sins are hidden. Other sins are thrust into the glaring light of public scrutiny and condemnation. Some misdeeds don’t seem like a big deal. Still others don’t seem to qualify as real “sins,” yet they do immense damage. The truth is, each one of us is in desperate need of forgiveness. But where can we find it?
When King David had a sexual affair with the wife of a war hero in his army, he soon scrambled to cover it up. Failing in that effort, he slipped into panic mode and arranged the murder of her husband (2 samuel 11). Was this conniving, adulterous murderer who betrayed his God, his army, and his nation capable of being forgiven? Consider these words, penned by David himself: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me (psalm 51:1-3).
God’s mercy was bigger than David’s sin (see 2 samuel 12:13ff), and his story is a timeless reminder that a repentant person can find inexhaustible mercy in the forgiveness of God. But how far will God go in showing mercy? For instance, would He forgive a serial killer? Wouldn’t such forgiveness revictimize the families and friends of those murdered?
As sensitive as those considerations are, there is a more important truth here: The grace and forgiveness of God are bigger and more powerful than any sin.
The Effects of Guilt
When we sin and refuse to come to Christ for forgiveness, our guilt may express itself in a number of different ways. Before David repented of his terrible sins of adultery and murder, he experienced physical, emotional, and spiritual anguish. In Psalm 32:3–4 he described how his guilt affected him: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long [emotional]. For day and night your hand was heavy on me [spiritual]; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer [physical].”
Unresolved guilt can affect us physically. It may manifest itself in listlessness, illnesses real or imagined, headaches, stomach disorders, vague pains, and exhaustion. Justin and Lexie show us two ways of responding to this, both of which will exact a toll on us. If we try to run from our guilt by immersing ourselves in work or turning to sin in reckless abandon, we will pay a price.
For reasons he may not even understand yet, Justin throws himself into his work in an effort to cover up his own perceived inadequacy. Eventually he will pay a price. His body can’t keep up the relentless pace his “perfect” life demands of him.
Lexie responded in a different way. By crossing a clear line of sin with that one act of shoplifting, she found it much easier to cross more and more lines. Two drunk-driving arrests and several failed relationships later, she finally returned to God with her whole heart.
Psychologists and counselors see the emotional effects of guilt, including depression, anger, self-pity, feelings of inadequacy, and a denial of responsibility. Worst of all, unresolved guilt will have a spiritual effect on us. We will sense an alienation from God, struggle with our prayer life, lose our desire to read the Bible and to be with other believers, and lose our joy.
A lack of forgiveness will impact our relationships. We’ll become irritable, blame others, withdraw from friendships, alternately offer profuse apologies or refuse to accept compliments, and be unable to relax. We’ll find fewer and fewer people are close to us—and God designed us for relationship with others.
David’s entire life was affected by his guilt. It touched him physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. But he cried out to God, found the assurance of forgiveness, and was restored to wholeness. Would David have been more honorable not to seek God’s forgiveness? Would he have been more respectful of his victim’s survivors to refuse any mercy? Would self-condemnation or suicide have been a more noble course of action? Only if there is no life beyond the grave. Only if the rest of us were not sinners. Only if a forgiven person has nothing to offer. But God loves us even at our worst and longs to restore us! He still has great plans for our lives.