A few years ago, I almost drowned. It was horrible.
I was hiking with a friend up through some rocky canyons where there were several waterfalls and pools of water. We went prepared to swim. Lots of people were already there playing in the waters, eating, talking, having a good time.
My friend was tall, lean, in great shape, and a great swimmer. I was not (and still am not) any of those. Feeling adventurous, however, I followed him.
We went up the rocks, slid down the first waterfall, and popped into the first pool. Fun! Then I jumped into the second pool after him and found myself stuck after he’d jumped out.
I tried desperately to get out. I felt like a pencil twirling in a whirlpool. The sides were sheer rock and there were no branches to grasp. The water rushing from the waterfall down into the pool was too strong for me. I couldn’t grab the side I was supposed to jump over or use my legs to push myself against the opposite rocks to catapult myself over.
That’s when the realization that I might drown hit me. I tried not to panic.
I yelled but didn’t know if I could be heard over the water and the noise of the people below. I stuck my arm up and flailed it around before going under once. I struggled back to the surface and flailed my arm again. I was having trouble even staying afloat in this rushing water trap and felt myself sinking. I thought, This is it. This is how I’m going out.
The water was heavy and bubbly and frothy and turbulent. My swimsuit top was coming off in the mad scrabble. I tried desperately to tug it on and claw my way back to the surface.
Right at that time, an arm slid under my waist and jumped with me over the next waterfall. Something said don’t move, don’t struggle; it came to mind that sometimes both the victim and the rescuer drown when the victim panics and scrambles to break free. I felt myself flop like a wet towel on this arm as he trudged through shallow water. He plopped me down on a wide, flat rock. I had just enough time and returning sensibility and strength to pull my swimsuit over my chest as my body went backwards.
It wasn’t my friend who rescued me, however; he couldn’t get there before this stranger. The stranger was slim, wiry, and tattooed, like a new military guy. The stranger made sure I was coming to and left. I tried to find him and catch his name later, but I never did. I’ve asked the Lord to bless my angel dozens of times since that incident.
That was one scary day! It probably lasted just a few minutes, but it felt like 30 while I was desperately trying to press my way out of turbulent waters that couldn’t hold my weight but was heavy enough to drown me.
You ever felt like you were drowning? Drowning in guilt?
Guilt, that feeling of heavy, shamed condemnation that you would do anything to get out of. The feeling that you did something wrong and got in way over your head, but didn’t know it till you couldn’t get out. That trapped, terrorized, exhausted, overwhelming, anxiety-provoking, people-pleasing tension that fills you and surrounds you and presses you in till you can’t stand it any more, but you have to keep moving.
Guilt might drive you to drink, use illicit substances, or indulge in some other addiction as you try to remove the awareness that you sinned, or that someone else sinned against you, from your scarred soul. I see this regularly in my field. A British psychologist once told Billy Graham that most patients in their mental hospitals could be instantly released if they could be forgiven (Decision magazine, November 2015).
Sometimes you weigh your own self down with guilt. Sometimes others put it on you, and sometimes society puts it on you.
You try to give gifts to bribe the guilt monster to go away. It gobbles up your sacrifice and comes roaring back for more. Guilt is never satisfied. Certain religions have a reputation for motivating people by guilt.
Why do we do it to ourselves, or let others make us feel guilty?
As children of God, we just never need to feel guilty or react from guilt. You wanna know why?
Because… if we are really a child of God, then we have been forgiven. We are no longer guilty!
Let that sink in. Sometimes we forget. The devil would sure love it, if we would forget our forgiven state!
Romans 8:1 says, Therefore there is now no condemnation [no guilty verdict, no punishment] for those who are in Christ Jesus [who believe in Him as personal Lord and Savior], Amplified Version. If we have become trusters and followers of Jesus, then we are no longer guilty.
A review of how that happened: Each and every one of us committed the ultimate sin and crime of rebellion against a completely holy and righteous God, according to Romans 3:23. Jesus voluntarily paid the ultimate penalty we should have paid by His death on the cross; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. We have been given the ultimate pardon because our debt was paid; Colossians 2:14. Jesus paid for us so we would no longer have to exist in a state of guilt, shame, and condemnation; Romans 8:1; Colossians 2:16-23.
If we continue to confess and forsake the sins and shortcomings that we have in our hearts and lives, that same blood that delivered us from the ultimate penalty will cleanse and heal us from all unrighteousness, not just past sins or our own sins (Proverbs 28:13; 1 John 1:9). The fear of the Lord is an awestruck awareness and respect for Who He is that will keep you from sinning; it is not feeling fearful and guilty, waiting for God to strike you with lightning for feeling good about legitimate things (Proverbs 1:7, 8:13, 9:10).
So remember, technically, guilt is a legal state, not just a feeling.
Before you became a Christian, either you did it or you didn’t do it.
If you did, whether you felt bad about it or not, you were guilty. If you didn’t do it, whether you felt bad about it or not, you were not guilty. Does that make sense?
If you are guilty of an actual sin or crime and you don’t acknowledge the sin or crime, you’re just a jerk. If you feel no remorse for especially a heinous crime, we have other names for you: evil, a real rat, a bully, thug, sociopath, or psychopath.
If you feel guilty of something that is not an actual sin or crime—let’s say a difference of opinion on how to do something not Biblically significant or a simple matter of differences in taste—then you may be differing from someone’s opinion, but you’re not guilty of an actual sin or crime. I think of such examples as how to decorate your own apartment as opposed to your best friend’s, what to take to the next church potluck, or whether to buy this car or that one.
It might even involve your refusing to react to a family member’s ranting, raving, unreasonable demands. Or not caving into society’s screams and the church’s insistence that you should be married and raising children by a certain age or there’s just something wrong with you, so prove you’re normal and get married! Desperation makes very poor decisions.
So, if we are not guilty and God is not condemning us, what is that negative sinking feeling we get when we sin a real sin?
It’s our awareness of sin displeasing the Lord when the Holy Spirit convicts us (John 16:13-15). Unlike that stranger who rescued me and walked away, the Holy Spirit will never leave you. He’s living in you, trying to conform you—mold you, shape you, grow you up—into the image of the living Christ, according to Romans 8:26-29. The conviction of the Holy Spirit is the confirmation that you belong to Him because His Spirit is living inside you, reminding you when you have done something that goes against His Word and His Spirit, John 14:23-26; Romans 8:9-14.
We no longer have to operate out of guilt, react from guilt, or live in guilt. That’s like living in that turbulent pool I almost drowned in. Drowning in guilt is a terrible way to live. We are free to obey God!
Realize that, sometimes, other people experience their guilty state and they are trying to pass it on to you. It’s never worked, this blaming game.
Do you remember Adam tried that in the Garden of Eden? It didn’t work then, just like it doesn’t work today, because guilt is a legal state. Many sins are against other people, but all sin is against God. We can forgive each other the sins that are committed against us, but only God can forgive sin (Mark 2:5-12).
Adam could not pass his fixed state of having committed a sin to anyone else because it was his sin. Though his wife Eve had also eaten the forbidden fruit, her sin was considered distinctly different from his, and she could not pass her fixed state of having sinned onto either her husband or the serpent in the garden.
Beware of anyone trying to unload their awareness of their sin and heavy, shamed condemnation onto you. Even the devil will try to sneak into your conscience in your alone moments to remind you of past sins, if you are not firm in your forgiveness.
When someone demands—tries to coerce or manipulate or guilt—you into giving them money, time, energy, gifts, or confessions you don’t want or need to give, remember who you are: you are forgiven. When others try to pressure and conform you into their image and their demands instead of the image of Christ, remember Whose you are: God bought you. You belong to Him. Obey Him, not them.
Stand firm in your forgiveness and kneel softly at His feet in His love. Pray for them and share the gospel with them, if God presents you an opportunity to share.
We’re not talking about your being unreasonable, selfish, and stubborn in the face of others’ reasonable requests and genuine needs. Being forgiven is not a justification for your carnal behavior and a sense of entitlement. We’re talking about setting limits against others’ unreasonable demands that you play their twisted version of God in their lives and cave in to all their demands.
You don’t have to live drowning in guilt. Drowning is a terrible way to live. You have been rescued and pardoned from an eternal weight of guilt and sin. Live the reason you were pardoned and obey the Lord (John 5:14).