Revive Our Hearts Podcast

A Light on the Dashboard

Leslie Basham: Guilt can be good if it leads us to repentance. Here’s Nancy Leigh DeMoss.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: Guilt is something that God has given as an engine light that goes on, on the dashboard of our hearts, that says there is something wrong in the engine. There’s something wrong in your heart. There is some way that you have responded to this person or this circumstance or situation that has made you feel guilty.

Now, that’s not to say that we have to take responsibility for what others have done to us. We’re not responsible for that. But if we want to be forgiven, to have a clear conscience, we do have to take responsibility for our sins. Forgive us our sins.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Thursday, November 8.

It’s tempting to take guilt lightly, talking about guilty pleasures or thinking of guilt only in terms of diet and desserts. But guilt is powerful. It can lead you to great condemnation or great freedom. It depends on how you deal with it. Nancy will explain, continuing in a series called, The Lord’s Prayer, Part 3.

NancyJesse Jacobs is a college student who has made it possible to apologize without actually talking to the person that you’ve offended. If your conscience is bothering you, but you’re not really comfortable going and dealing with it in person, you can call an apology hotline and leave an apology on an answering machine.

Apparently, this hotline receives dozens of calls every week—people calling and leaving apologies for everything from adultery to embezzlement. It’s an amazing thing. Jacobs, who created the hotline, says, “It offers participants a chance to alleviate their guilt and, to some degree, to own up to their misdeeds.”

He says, “I’m just hoping that these people will feel better just by getting whatever’s been bothering them off their chest.”

One caller said, “I hope this apology will cleanse me and purify my soul. God knows I need it.” Now, that caller—that person who called that hotline—has tapped into and identified one of the deepest needs and longings of the human heart. Really, when you think about it, there’s no torment like that of a guilty conscience.

You may remember, if you’ve read or seen Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, that Lady Macbeth comes up with a plan to murder the king of Scotland in order to secure the throne for her husband. Then she convinces her husband to carry out the murder. Then she frames the king’s servants for the murder. And then she becomes incredibly guilty, and her guilt over the crimes that she has committed ultimately drives her insane.

There’s a famous scene in Macbeth where Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking, and she imagines in her dream—in her sleepwalking—that a spot of the king’s blood has stained her hands. In this dream, in this sleepwalking state, she’s trying desperately to wash these imaginary bloodstains off her hands.

She says, “What? Will these hands never be clean? Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh, oh!” She’s guilty. She’s tormented by her conscience troubling her over what she’s done.

You remember reading the stories of Martin Luther who was affected by the church's teaching about how to be forgiven—how to be forgiven from sin, how to escape eternal damnation and punishment for those sins.

The church in the Middle Ages required that if someone wanted their sins forgiven, they needed to go to a priest and confess their sins and then the priest would give them some acts of penance and say, "If you want to be forgiven or have less punishment in the afterlife, here's what you need to do. Here are these acts of penance."

Luther took all this seriously from the time he was a little boy. Beginning at the age of seven, he went regularly to confession. He would tell the priests what he had done, but he was still troubled by this deep sense of despair and guilt over his sins, so he thought, "I'll become a monk. I'll become a priest, and maybe God will accept me. Maybe I'll be able to get the forgiveness I want if I take up this religious life."

So he became a monk where they had this rigorous schedule, study, and prayer. He continued to go to confession. In fact, he went to confession so often that his superiors finally got weary of him coming. He was known to go into confession, then he'd leave and come right back and say, "Oh, there is some more I need to confess." He was just drudging up these things that were in his heart and conscience that he couldn't get relief from.

There was not enough that he could do to gain God's pardon or avoid divine punishment. So he went through two years of indescribable physical and mental torment before he finally found peace.

People are desperate for forgiveness. They’re desperate to find a way to be free from the guilt, to have a clear conscience—to be able to sleep at night and know that there’s nothing between them and God, and nothing between them and other people.

When we don’t have a clear conscience, when we have a guilty conscience, it affects us not only spiritually, but it affects us mentally and emotionally as well.

Karl Menninger was a famous psychiatrist of the mid 1900s. He said that if he could convince the patients in his psychiatric hospitals that their sins were forgiven, seventy-five percent of those patients could walk out the next day. That guilt was such a huge thing; it put such bondage on these people. He said the issue is not so much mental disease as the fact that their conscience isn’t clear, that they’re carrying this weight of guilt that they don’t know how to deal with.

Let me ask you to turn in your Bible to Psalm 32. This is a familiar passage, where David has committed a great sin with Bathsheba, adultery, and has murdered her husband. This was weighing heavily on his conscience. For some period of time, he held this inside. And he describes in verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 32 what it was like when he was being tormented by this guilty conscience.

He says in verse 3,

When I kept silent [when I refused to confess my sin, when I didn’t have God’s forgiveness] my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me. [That’s God’s hand of conviction.] My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

He’s saying, “Spiritually, I felt this intense conviction. But it’s like my tongue got parched; my bones were dried. Emotionally and physically I felt the weight; I felt the effect of this guilty conscience.”

Have you ever been there? You know what it’s like when God is piercing, convicting your conscience about something? Nobody else can see it by looking at you. It may be happening to somebody in this room as we’re talking here about this issue of guilt and forgiveness. But we know that there’s something we’ve done, that something isn’t right between us and God.

Is there something you’ve never been able to get off your chest, something you’ve done, maybe some deep regret, some past failure?

Maybe it’s not past. Maybe it’s something in the present. It’s some private sin, but you’ve never told anyone else; you’ve never really dealt with it. Maybe it’s a besetting sin. It’s something that you’ve confessed, but you keep committing it. And there’s this guilt in your conscience.

We’re talking about the petition in the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts.” As we pray that prayer—as we say, “Lord, forgive us our debts”—first of all, we’re acknowledging that we are debtors. We’re acknowledging that we have sinned against God.

I’m not going to pray, “Forgive me of my debts,” if I don’t think I have any debts. If I think I’ve done nothing, then why would I pray, “Forgive me”? But we are debtors. We have done things. We have sinned. And so we pray, “Lord, we have sinned. Please forgive us.”

So the petition is an acknowledgment that we’re debtors. And then it’s a plea for forgiveness. It expresses a desire, a request, a pleading to be released from our debts, to be released from the guilt of our sins.

Also implicit in this request, “Forgive us our debts,” is the faith that we’re talking to Someone who can and will forgive us our sins. Forgive us our debts. We’re going to God, and we’re saying, “Lord, please forgive.”

He’s the only One who can forgive. He’s the One who has the power to forgive. He’s the One we’ve sinned against. He’s the One we’re indebted to. So we go to Him, and we say, “Lord, You can forgive. You alone can forgive.”

So, Lord, I have sinned, and I need forgiveness. I’m coming to You and saying, “Would You please forgive me?”

This request, interestingly, is found in the same sentence as the request for daily bread: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:11-12). When you first hear it, you think, “Why would you put a request for something so practical and simple as daily bread in the same sentence as a request for something as profound as forgiveness for sins?

But I think it’s not by accident that those appear in the same sentence. It’s obvious that we can’t live without daily bread, that we need food for survival. And as we saw in that portion of our study of the Lord’s Prayer, we’re not just talking about literal bread. It’s talking about our daily, basic needs—material needs, physical needs, practical needs. There are things we need for survival, and Jesus taught us to tell God those needs, to acknowledge those needs to Him.

But if you think just about daily bread, about food in particular, if you go a prolonged period of time without food, ultimately you’ll die. We can’t live without it. It’s a necessity.

In the same way, we cannot live without forgiveness. We cannot live without forgiveness. The wages of sin is what? Death. If we don’t get forgiveness for our sins, we will die in our sins.

So Jesus is saying, “As essential for survival as it is to have food, water, air, or breath, it’s that essential for our souls to have forgiveness.” We need forgiveness as much as we need air to breathe and food to eat. In fact, we need forgiveness more than we need food. Food just feeds our physical body, and our physical body is only temporal. But forgiveness sustains our souls, which will live forever.

Forgiveness is necessary for us to have access to God. We cannot approach a holy God if our conscience is guilty. We can’t have a relationship with Him. We can’t have fellowship with Him. He is holy. If we are impure, it cuts off our fellowship with Him. Forgiveness is what allows us to approach God debt-free, with a clear conscience.

Now, both these requests—Give us our daily bread and forgive us our debts—show that we are dependent, utterly dependent on someone or something other than ourselves. And we’re not just dependent on others. Others can’t provide, ultimately, the things we need to sustain our bodies or our souls.

But God can. He is the source of our provision. He provides our daily bread. He is the source of our pardon for sin. So we need to look to Him. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray this prayer, to say, “Lord, I’m looking to You. There is no human being on earth that can ultimately pardon me from my sin.” Pardon from sin ultimately comes from God.

So this prayer is an acknowledgement of our desperate need for God. It’s saying, “Lord, I need You. I can’t live without that which only You can supply.”

In the last session we referenced two frequent views of sin. I said that people tend to struggle more with one or the other of these perspectives. I identified myself more with the first one, where we tend to minimize our sin—to perhaps compare ourselves and our sins to other people whose sins seem to be greater. We think, “I’m not that bad.”

Now, we may not consciously think that. But some of us kind of grade ourselves on a curve. And so, by comparison to some of the things that other people are out there doing, we think, “Well, these things that I deal with—a critical spirit, talking too much, jealousy—I wouldn’t say they’re not bad, but they’re not that bad.” And we talked about how God takes all sin seriously.

Some tend to minimize sin, and then some others tend to minimize not their sin but the grace of God. I find that many, many women today have this perspective. They know that God can forgive. They have the theology. But in their hearts they minimize the power of God’s grace. So that leads them to think, or at least to feel, “God can’t forgive what I’ve done.”

They might never say that. Their theology tells them He can forgive. But they never feel forgiven. They struggle with guilt. They struggle to be free from the guilt. Those are the people I want to talk to in this session and the next: those who tend to minimize the grace of God and to say, “What I’ve done is too great. I don’t really know that I could feel forgiven.”

In order to come to the place where we receive the grace of God, where we receive pardon for our sins, first we have to acknowledge that we have sinned. We can’t be forgiven for something that we don’t think we’ve done or that we haven’t acknowledged doing.

We have to acknowledge wrongdoing. So much of modern psychotherapy tries to help us deal with guilt by convincing us that we’re really not guilty, that somebody else did this to you. You feel this way—you are this way—because of what a parent did to you when you were a child, because of a traumatic experience you had, because you’ve been treated unjustly, or because this husband is dealing with you this way.

Now, those things happen, and those things affect our lives. But a really liberating truth is when we come to realize that we feel guilty because we are guilty. Guilt is something that God has given as an engine light that goes on, on the dashboard of our hearts, that says there is something wrong in the engine. There’s something wrong in your heart. There is some way that you have responded to this person or this circumstance or this situation that has made you feel guilty.

That’s not to say that we have to take responsibility for what others have done to us. We’re not responsible for that. But if we want to be forgiven, to have a clear conscience, we do have to take responsibility for our sins. Forgive us our sins.

I was reading recently about the whole matter of presidential pardons. As you study this, you realize that a presidential pardon does not imply that the person was innocent.

It’s not the president saying, “You were wrongly convicted.” Now, that has happened. That’s a different issue.

But when a presidential pardon is issued, or a governor’s pardon if it’s a state situation, it’s not saying you didn’t do the crime. In fact, in order to get the pardon, you have to admit in writing that you were guilty. You have to write a letter and say, “Here’s what I did. I was guilty of this crime.”

And when you get the pardon, it doesn’t erase the record of your conviction. It just is a sign, an evidence that you’ve been forgiven, not that you didn’t commit the crime.

I know the analogy breaks down at a point, but there is some truth there in our relationship with the Lord. God pardons us for sins we acknowledge actually having committed. And then, having acknowledged that we are sinful— that we are guilty, that we have done wrong—we want to come to the place where we recognize that the Father we’ve been praying to, our Father in heaven, is a forgiving God. He is willing to forgive.

This whole thing is very amazing, if you really stop and ponder it, because God is a holy God. He would not have to forgive any of our sins, much less all of our sins. In fact, He would be entirely righteous if He refused to forgive any of our sins. But not only is He willing to forgive; He is able to forgive.

Look back at Psalm 32, if you still have your Bible open there. We saw David with that great, intense conviction of his sin, and how God’s hand of conviction was heavy upon him. Look at verse 5: He says, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”

How does it feel to be forgiven? We saw how it felt to feel guilty, to have a guilty conscience. But how did David feel once he’d been forgiven? Look at verses 1 and 2 of chapter 32: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”

David is saying, “I sinned. I sinned greatly. And God brought conviction when I was not willing to repent—or before I was willing to repent, before I had confessed it. God laid His hand heavy on me. It affected me spiritually, mentally, emotionally, relationally.”

Thank God for that conviction. Because if it weren’t for that conviction, we’d take our sin lightly, and we’d never go back and deal with it.

Then he says, “I confessed my sin. I didn’t try to cover it. I didn’t try to defend. I didn’t rationalize. I didn’t blame. I got honest about it. I confessed it to God.” We see in Psalm 51 that he did it with a penitent heart, a broken heart, a repentant heart. This was not just verbalizing, “I have sinned.” This was a heart that was grieved over how he had sinned against God.

And what did God do? God forgave. David says, “As painful and burdensome as it was to have that guilt weighing on me, it is that joyful—that blessed, that wonderful—to be released from the burden of my sin.”

Listen, David didn’t call an apology hotline. You can call an apology hotline. But you know what? It won’t deal with the guilt, because only God can forgive sin. David said, “I confessed my sin to You.”

I love that passage in Micah 7 that says,

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression . . . He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (vv. 18-19)

Do you believe that? Have you experienced it? God has promised. Our Father that we’re praying to has promised full and complete pardon for guilty sinners. There is no other God like Him. There is no one else who can forgive sin.

So we pray as David did in another Psalm, Psalm 130: “O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” (vv. 1–2). Forgive us our debts.

Then he says, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities”—if you were keeping track, if you were holding them against me—“O Lord, who could stand?” (v. 3). Who would have a chance? And then I love that verse 4 of Psalm 130: “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.”

That raises in my mind a big, big question. We say God can and will forgive sin. So we go to Him and say, “Forgive us our debts.” The question in my mind is, how can God forgive us? And that’s what we want to talk about in the next session.

Leslie: The Lord’s Prayer leads us into a discussion of the most important issues of life. Nancy Leigh DeMoss has been guiding us through these meaningful words in a series called, The Lord’s Prayer, Part 3. She’ll be back to pray with us.

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How can God forgive sin? Does it mean He’s just letting people off the hook? We’ll talk about it tomorrow. I hope you’ll be back.

Now, let’s pray with Nancy.

NancyAmazing grace it is, O Father, that You have extended to us. I thank You that we can go before You—that You have told us we should go before You—and, as much as we can, pray to You and ask You for provision of our daily needs. We are urged to go to You and pray for pardon, pardon for sin.

Thank You that You are a pardoning God, that You are a forgiving God, and that we can be released from the guilt, the weight, the burden of our sins. And I pray, Lord, that each of us might experience the blessedness, the joy, the freedom of having a clear conscience and knowing that the guilt has been removed. The penalty has been paid. We have been set free from our sin. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version.

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