QUESTION: Grace says I'm forgiven for my sins because of the perfect and finished work of Christ. I believe this. I am saved not because of my own goodness or efforts, but in spite of myself, based entirely on the goodness and mercy of God. Also, according to my faith, grace should provide freedom from guilt and condemnation. I'm gratefully free of condemnation, but unfortunately, not guilt.
What does the Bible say about the pain and damage my sin has inflicted on others? How can I be free of guilt knowing others may still be suffering as a result of my wrongdoing? I ask this question specifically as a mother. I know my sins have hurt my child and I'm eaten alive with guilt.
Are there promises, and if so, what are they, for God's restoration of those I may have harmed? Knowing I'm forgiven while others suffer because of my actions is hard to reconcile.
-- J., via email
ANSWER: You've asked one of the enduring questions about guilt and grace. Grace (or in Hebrew, hesed) is a gift of expiation we don't deserve. In Christianity, this gift derives from the love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. For Jews, this same gift comes from the unmediated love of God.
I receive many questions about grace but very few about guilt. Guilt, according to theologian and philosopher Martin Buber, comes from injuring a part of creation that we identify as including us. It's therefore a morally and spiritually accurate assessment of how we feel when the better angels of our nature fail to find us.
Buber's eloquent explanation of the origins of guilt is not immediately clear to everyone, however. I've referred before to my way of teaching this existential dilemma to children: I pound some nails into a board. I tell them each nail stands for some bad thing we've done to other people. Then, I pull out the nails with the back of the hammer, explaining that pulling out the nails stands for saying we're sorry to the people we've hurt. Then, I show them the board with the nail holes still in it and I ask, "How do we get rid of the holes?"
That is really your question: How do I let go of my guilt? Seeing that there's really no way to remove the holes, we learn that there's really no way to totally erase the effects of our sins. Even if we're reconciled to God through grace, how can we become reconciled to the people we've hurt, and how can we become reconciled to ourselves? The first answer is that we must own our holes. The idea that we can somehow wipe out our guilt at betraying others and our best selves is naive. In fact, realizing that we leave unfixable holes behind ought to give us even deeper motivation to avoid future sin and express deep repentance to those we've harmed.
Forgiving ourselves and moving on with life is much harder than being forgiven by God or others. There's no cure for the holes in our broken souls, so it's our sacred, moral and spiritual obligation to make as few holes as possible in our passage through life.
The best biblical advice I know to help us cope with guilt comes from the prophet Ezekiel (36: 22, 26-27): "Thus saith the Lord God ... A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them."
I believe God is teaching us about guilt in this passage. Guilt is an emotion that derives from a heart of stone. Letting go of your guilt demands a heart of flesh -- one that accepts our limitations and rededicates our lives to moral virtue.
The stone heart imagines that because we can't completely erase the consequences of our sin, we're doomed forever to a life of guilt and despair. The flesh heart, by contrast, gives us permission, not to forgive ourselves, but to let go of our guilt about being flawed human beings. Read Ezekiel the next time you're tempted to beat yourself up, and thank God that your heart of flesh is already within you.