The new year is upon us, and that means resolutions! Many of us are making promises to ourselves to initiate changes in our lives. I have heard mixed reviews regarding the effectiveness of such commitments. The vast majority of us give up on the pledges made on January 1st before the month is even over. Vows to lose weight, get in shape, spend more time with family, or stay off social media start out strong but lose steam as old habits reassert themselves. But there are pathways to success. So don’t give up trying!
The past is often our enemy when it comes to making healthy changes for the future. Bad habits seem to have deep roots. Patterns of past failures and discouragement push their way to the forefront and work to derail our good intentions. How realistic is it to simply forget the past and move into a brighter tomorrow? If we’re trying to do it with pure will power, the chances for success are not very good.
A powerful phantom of the past is guilt.
The weight of yesterday’s mistakes and sin does not just drop off our shoulders because we decide we want it to. It can be a burden that is never lessened. Or like quicksand, it makes us feel as if we are being constantly sucked lower and lower. Either way, it is a real force that keeps many from experiencing freedom and making positive changes for the future.
First of all, it’s not all bad. There are things that I have done where it was appropriate that I felt guilt afterwards, like taking something that didn’t belong to me, speaking harshly for selfish reasons, manipulating another’s emotions to get what I wanted, or betraying another’s trust. Guilt is good when it leads me to humbly acknowledge my sin and make appropriate restitution. Yes, it’s painful. But all pain isn’t bad. Discomfort that addresses bad behavior has a life-giving purpose.
We actually need some pain in our lives. Hansen’s Disease, also known as leprosy, is a physically painless illness. One of its symptoms is nerve damage, particularly to extremities like the hands, feet, and face. Among the many problems this disease imposes is damage to one’s body due to loss of feeling. I remember hearing a story from a missionary, when I was young, of a man with leprosy who woke one night because of a strange sound. It was only when he opened his eyes that he realized that a rat was gnawing on his fingers. Do you think he was glad that at least he was pain-free?
Pain, in its rightful place, is an alarm system. It tells us that something is wrong and needs attention: a cut that must be cleaned and bandaged to prevent infection, or abnormal cells growing inside the body that can take over and end my life.
What pain is to my physical body, guilt is to my soul.
Such discomfort tells me that all is not well in the nonmaterial part of who I am. And if I don’t take remedial action and seek out and deal with the source of guilt, there could be long-term negative ramifications that affect every aspect of my life. It is a real condition.
Repentance is God’s answer for dealing with guilt (read post on repentance). It involves agreeing with God’s standard for how He intends us to live; acknowledging where we have failed; and then turning around to go the way He is directing us; cutting off all that connects us to and feeds the sin. It’s a powerful remedy when sincerely and humbly followed.
Unfortunately, many of us look for any other possible way to ease or ignore the discomfort and not have to submit ourselves to God’s way (read post on humility). All we end up doing, then, is burying the guilt. And like a corpse in a shallow grave, sooner or later it resurfaces, often taking on a more debilitating form, like depression, or anxiety, or physical illness, or even more sin. Humility is so painful to our pride. But it is oh so healthful and healing to our souls when it leads us to confront our sin head-on through repentance.
But there is also something that I would call “false guilt.” Just as there is physical pain that outlasts its usefulness, not all continuous agony of the soul is redemptive. We may acknowledge wrongdoing and seek forgiveness for our bad behavior, but sometimes the remorse and regret linger to torment us. Often, this occurs when we feel that we cannot forgive ourselves for what we’ve done. There’s something (not of God) within us that wants to continue to punish long after God has forgiven.
Ultimately this is a twisted manifestation of pride and unbelief that seeks to convince us that it is somehow more noble that we continue to accuse ourselves, even after God has paid the ultimate price to release us. We must fight this false guilt and choose to put our trust in God’s forgiveness. It’s time to give up trusting in our own self-righteousness through self-punishment.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV).
Freedom and cleansing are what I believe our Heavenly Father desires for each of us in this coming year. The ability to truly leave the past behind and walk into the future washed clean of the burden of undealt-with remorse or bad behavior. It is an awesome gift. And it is ours for the taking if we will first honestly look at the source of our guilt and recognize it for what it is: pride, unbelief, sin. We can then address it with the tools He has provided: humility, repentance, forgiveness.
Make effective resolutions unhindered by the past. And pursue God’s will for your life with a renewed hope for real change. It’s an opportunity to experience a truly Happy New Year!