Friday, January 18, 2008

Why Does My Conscience Bother Me?

Feeling guilt is a condition that is common to man and has been since the beginning of time. Guilt, is that feeling of shame, remorse, inner gnawing that just wont go away whether awake or asleep. Its an inner voice that wont be silenced. Guilt feelings are as one author puts it “an emotional reaction to our Inner Critic, proclaiming, "You have broken a rule and you should (not), must (not), or ought (not) behave like this. Guilt implies that you did something 'wrong'." If we are being honest about it, who doesn’t have to deal with that “inner critic” who says “you have done something wrong.” Guilt feelings are inside of every man.

Since it’s a universal experience common to men everywhere, its no surprise that it has been a common theme reflected upon by poets –songwriters –authors and artists from time immemorial. Who can forget the poignant image of a guilty conscience captured in Shakespeare’s tragic figure Lady Macbeth who frantically walked about trying to wash the blood stains off her hands – which in reality really weren’t there but were a projection of her sense of inner guilt. The writings of modern poets constitute almost a monument to the problem of guilt. And whether they view it from a religious or secular perspective they all seem to agree, as one writer puts it, “that the world is a guilty world. Not a naughty world, or a bad world, but a guilty one.” This problem has also captivated the attention of the lyricist. Numerous songs muse upon the persistent, painful guilt feelings which we all wrestle with. A particularly gripping song entitled Penance Of Guilt by metal band Steel Prophet shines a brilliant light on the hypocrisy of modern men as they seek to suppress their guilt and attempt to salve their conscience. The song says:

Forgive them father for they have sinned Again and again
Pretending they know not what they do When you know they'll sin again
Many people going down for the ride
On pedestals of fame in filth they hide
Use mean words that cut like a knife
Stabbing the heart and draining the life
Lied and cheated on your spouse
Swore you never did
Your evil stay within your soul
From guilt you can’t be hid

That last line gets to the truth that I want you to think about --guilt feelings can’t be hid. They are there and they just wont go away. And when not dealt with, guilt saps joy and brings with it an awful range of human emotions from depression, to anxiety, to hostility, fear and a whole host of psychological disorders.

Guilt feelings – you and I have them –everyone around us has them – people in the world have always had them. But why? In ancient times guilt feelings were explained away as evil spirits inhabiting the soul, while in modern times they are explained away as negative emotions that we feel when we violate social customs. It is claimed that they occur when we realize that our inner desires conflict with what society has told us is proper conduct. The pioneer of modern psychology Sigmond Frued explained that guilt feelings are irrepressive feelings that have followed humans around since the dawn of civilization. According to Freud, the origin of guilt may be accounted for by an ancient story. The story is about a rebellious son who struck up a feud with his father, who was the head of a great tribe. That feud ended unfortunately with an act of murder. The rebellious son murdered his father, and that primal murder has haunted the human race's subconscious memory ever since. Perhaps Frued was on to something in this explanation that these guilt feelings originate in some primal transgression but what it doesn’t answer however is why did the first murderer feel guilt? After all, if men are the product of natural selection and a billions of years impersonal process where randomly colliding chemicals produced life as we know it, why should the guilt feelings of the primal murder haunt us today? Though psychologists have proposed many different answers they haven’t yet really provided a satisfying answer as to why we feel guilt.

Not only have the psychological sciences failed to provide a satisfying explanation for the origins of guilt feelings, they have not been able to provide adequate relief for them either. Paul Martin points out in a fascinating article entitled “Sin, Guilt and Mental Health: Confession and Restitution As Means of Therapy” that a whole range of psychological maladies which are the result of repressed guilt feelings have proven stubbornly resistant to therapy. Independent tests conducted years apart and multiple times over, reveal that professional therapy for numerous psychological disorders associated with guilt feelings have a surprisingly low success rate. Add to that, the fact that psychotropic medication offers no better success rates than other forms of therapy. Instead of medicine liberating the conscience it actually enslaves it, leaving many trapped in debilitating addiction to legally prescribed medication.

Whether we like it or not, whether we wish we could close our eyes and plug or ears and pretend it was otherwise, whether we attempt to numb the pain within us through drugs, alcohol, legal medication or any other thing that might temporarily distract us, guilt is still there. Guilt feelings are deep down inside every one of us and there is no place to go to ultimately hide from them. Therapy won’t work. Drugs won’t work. Ignoring it won’t work. Desensitizing your conscience to it won’t work. Your guilt won’t leave you alone and allow you any peace. But the questions persist: why do I feel this way and what can you do about it?

We experience these internal feelings because of sin. Sin is the reason for present pain and suffering. On account of sin God has put a curse upon the world and through that, the corrupting, infecting destructive, outworking of sin and its curse, mankind experiences sorrow, suffering, and physical trouble. Deep down inside our hearts we know that this is the real answer for why we are in trouble. One of the most obvious confirmations of this is the unease and guilt we feel internally. Guilt feelings on account of sin are constantly testifying to us that God is angry and displeased with our sins like a parent is with a child’s disobedience, and that relationship must be reconciled or we wont have any peace. But because we live in a state of stubborn rebellion against God, we refuse to accept that and attempt to deal with guilt by covering it up, ignoring it, or applying our own remedy. When we choose to act that way we end up riddled with guilt feelings because we have never resolved the tension deep within us which is, that we know we must be reconciled to God.

So if sin against God accounts for our trouble and our guilt feelings, then what is the solution? Well, fortunately, though psychologists have failed to answer this, and medicine has provided no real lasting relief, there is a solution: CONFESSION. That is right, soul cleansing confession. Its time to be honest with yourself, with the people around you, and most of all with God, and confess your sin. Confession is the only remedy because God is the problem. God is our judge when we sin because ultimately all our sins are against God. Our foolish pride however refuses to humbly admit that, so we fail to confess our sins in order to escape His wrath. But that doesn’t change the fact that confession is the solution.

The only question that remains is, what will you do? Will you continue to allow the tension to boil up inside you? Will you continue to hide your feelings under layers of denial? Will you pretend that these feelings are just an illusion? Will you continue to tell yourself God is not real and your inner pain owes to the bigotry of societal expectation that refuses to accept you for who you are and how you want to live? Or will you liberate your guilty conscience by confessing your sin to God. If you do the former your soul will experience no permanent rest, but if you do the latter, God promises He is faithful and just and will cleanse you from all unrighteousness through the blood of His Son.

1 comment:

Oscar said...

"[G]uilt feelings can’t be hid. They are there and they just wont go away."

This is a powerful truth, Pastor; as unbearable as the experience is, I still welcome it because not only do I know that I can confess and be forgiven, but that I also continue to grow in Christ. As I reflect on my history I see Christ forgiving me, and forgiving me, and forgiving me; and the more I seek Him through His Word, the more I realize that I am a chronic sinner in need of His daily grace.