Biblical Mental and Emotional Health
Lesson 5 b
Let’s examine four Biblical accounts in which people experienced guilt – the stories of Adam and Eve, Joseph’s brothers, David, and Peter. A look at their lives can teach us how to make good use of the emotions.
Adam and Eve
Genesis 3 says that immediately after Adam and Eve disobeyed, they experienced a cluster of emotions, including guilt, worry, and dread. This brought about significant changes in their behavior – they suddenly realized they were naked and hid from the Lord as soon as they heard him coming. Then the following interesting dialogue took place:
God: What is this you have done?
Adam: The woman you put here with me – she gave me some Fruit from the tree, and I ate it.
Eve: The serpent deceived me, and I ate.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, would have called this the first occurrence of projection – a defense mechanism in which people blame someone else for the mistakes they themselves have made. According to Freud, people use projection to defend themselves from excessive guilt and anxiety. That’s true but burdening an innocent person with the responsibility for our actions is immoral.
A story is told of a Chinese prime minister whose handwriting wasn’t very legible. Once he had a beautiful thought that he wanted to commit to writing. He grabbed a brush and wrote his maxim on paper so that it would be immortalized. Then he called his nephew to copy it in beautiful characters, for his nephew was an excellent calligrapher. The young man started to write down the sentence, but coming to a difficult-to-decipher character, took the paper to his uncle for clarification. The prime minister studied the character carefully but couldn’t decipher his own handwriting. Then staring at his nephew, he said, “Why didn’t you ask me before when the sentence was fresh in my mind?”
In the world’s first instance of someone blaming someone else, Adam tried to unload his guilt on Eve. She didn’t want to take responsibility either, so she tried to unload it onto the serpent. But blaming others doesn’t solve the problem and may seriously affect interpersonal relationships. Besides, it poses a barrier to God’s forgiveness. It’s better to accept full responsibility for one’s own action and seek the only One who can provide freedom from guilt: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)
When Jacob sent his sons to purchase grain in Egypt, they were reminded of their sale of their brother to slave traders. They talked about it while standing near Joseph, apparently thinking that this Egyptian ruler” didn’t understand their language. Their conversation reveals that they were still carrying around a load of guilt, and it’s likely that their evil deed had been a recurring topic of conversation over the years. On this occasion they were saying to each other, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us” (Genesis 42:21). To which Reuben, the oldest brother, said, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” (verse 22).
People with intense guilt who do nothing about it may experience guilt-producing event repeatedly. It can recur n the form of intrusive thoughts or flashback images that flood one’s mind, or it may appear in dreams or nightmares. It’s reasonable to think that the image of young Joseph, upset and imploring for mercy, had been replayed numerous times in the brothers’ minds. Joseph knew better than anyone else the root of his brothers’ emotional trouble. So, with a noble attitude, he invited them, “Come close to me. . . . I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:4, 5).
God made provision to free these men from the burden of guilt. After more than twenty years of remorse, the right time and conditions liberated them from their bondage. Joseph forgave them, and with no conditions attached, he urged them not to be angry at themselves any longer.
Guilt can be quite helpful in smaller things as well. A study conducted at the University of Helsinki, Finland, showed that reparative and conciliatory behaviors were more often reported when the subjects were experiencing guilt than when they were experiencing shame. Researcher Silfver selected ninety-seven university students and asked each to provide one to three narratives based on the following questions. (a) What was the situation in which you felt guilty, shame, or both? What did you think, feel, and do in the situation? (b) What kind of thoughts or behavior did you use to alleviate the guilt or shame? (c) Were you successful in alleviating these emotions or did you continue to suffer from guilt or shame? When the data was content analyzed and the responses were classified by their emotional meaning, the following results emerged.
- The majority of accounts (62 percent) described interpersonal situations as the source of guilt or shame. For example, the subject hadn’t been a good friend, parent, spouse, or relative. Others felt guilty for not having helped someone in need (e.g., a drunk or the poor).
- Fourteen percent of the answers showed guilt or shame for violating personal and/or societal norms, such as by cheating on a test, shoplifting, or having illicit sex.
- Thirteen percent of the narratives reported guilt or shame associated with the individual duties – for example, feeling guilty or ashamed for not keeping the house clean and tidy, not spending enough time working or studying, overeating, and so forth.
- Eleven percent of the accounts involved guilt or shame connected with being a victim; having been molested, harassed, or abused.
Guilt was found to motivate the subjects to initiate the follow through on reparative behaviors – to avoid the behavior that had produced the guilt, to reconcile, and so forth. The researches also found that those who were victims don’t have to make reparations, and their guilt is generally unfounded. These cases tend to require professional intervention.
David’s Sapped Strength
David is most creative in expressing the consequences of guilt as well as in showing the way to escape it.
When I kept silent,
My bones wasted away
Through my groaning all day long . . .
My strength was sapped
As in the heat of summer (Psalm 32:3,4).
In referring to the results of guilt, Psalm 38 uses expressions like overwhelming, a burden too heavy to bear, loathsome, mourning all day long, searing pain in the back, feebleness, utterly crushed, anguish of heart, pounding heart, vision problems, and social rejection. The language depicts not only the anguish that sin produces, but also the physical weakness and pain that it brings. Guilt affects the body as well as the soul – states of mind produced by emotional turmoil, such as continuous guilt, may cause variety of psychosomatic reactions.
A team of researchers led by Nicholas Hall made important break throughs in the field of psycho-neuroimmunology. They found intimate mind-body connections in the following illnesses: AIDS, breast cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, the common cold, melanoma, multiple sclerosis, and tuberculosis. Psychotherapists know that providing clients with an opportunity to express their feelings to an empathic listen puts them on the path to healing. In Psalm 32, David says his Lord is the most understanding Person – and One who also has the power to grant complete forgiveness. He says that relief comes as soon as confession takes place.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
And did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
My transgressions to the Lord” –
And you forgave
The guilt of my sin (Psalm 32:5)
A historic example of the burden guilt produces is the experience of Charles IX, king of France who ordered the massacre of the Huguenots (French Protestants) on St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572. Several thousand Protestants – men, women, and children – were killed in Paris and the provinces. Afterwards, the king complained to his physician, “I don’t know what ails me, my whole frame seems in fever. I see nothing around me but hideous faces covered with blood. At night I awake to a concert of screams, groaning, howling, and furious voices, menacing and blaspheming just as they were heard on the night of the massacre.
Peter’s Bitter Weeping
God emphatically disapproves of His children making a formal statement of commitment or a gift and then reneging on their word. Peter’s impulsiveness led him to affirm his faithfulness to the Lord at all costs. First, he contrasted himself with the other disciples; “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (Matthew 26:33). Then he contradicted Jesus, who had told him that he would disown Him three times. No Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (verse 35). But hours later he did deny Jesus – and he did so not because he was being coerced by powerful soldiers or people in authority, but because two girls and a servant of the high priest asked him whether he was one of Jesus’ disciples. He repeatedly said that he didn’t know Jesus, and eventually swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” The rooster crowed right after Peter spoke those words, and he instantly reminded of the Master’s statement that he would disown Him three times. And when Peter recognized what he had done, he wept bitterly.
In the 1870s, a man who had been involved in spiritualism and was going through a severe trial explained to him that he needed to suffer for a while so he could serve others adequately. He was told that in denying the Savior, Peter went through a very bitter experience, but those painful moments were crucial for his transformation and preparation for future ministry.
Peter afterward repented and was reconverted. He had true contrition of soul and gave himself afresh to his Savior. With blinding tears he makes his way to the solitudes of the Garden of Gethsemane and there prostrates himself where he saw his Savior’s prostrate form when the bloody sweat was forced from his pores by His great agony. Peter remembers with remorse that he was asleep when Jesus prayed during those fearful hours. His proud heart breaks, and penitential tears moisten the sods so recently stained with the bloody sweat drops of God’s dear Son. He left that garden and converted man.
Solving the Problem of Guilt
Paul expressed his struggle with sin and the law in multiple ways in Romans 7. Then, in the very next chapter, he made a categorical statement that offers great hope for humanity: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
The solution to guilt arising from either an offense to God or to a fellow human being can come only from Jesus. His grace allows us to repent and go to our brother or sister for reconciliation (James 5:16). His sacrifice also entitles us to God’s forgiveness (I John 1:9). With the exceptions of the pathological guilt mentioned above and any person under the burden of guilt must repent and confess his wrong to the offended neighbor to obtain forgiveness. This is to be done before the sinner makes any attempt to reconcile with God (Matthew 5:23, 24). Then, the person must confess to God. As a result, full pardon takes place.
If guilt is weighing you down in any way, examine the origin of the trouble and see if any other person is involved. If so, take responsibility and repent, made a concerted effort to obtain forgiveness and reconciliation, and then go directly to God to obtain the forgiveness He promises. Remember, He wants to forgive. He takes no pleasure in the death of anyone; He wants you to “repent and live.” (Ezekiel 18:32).