In the Bible, God has included (at least) two books that help us better understand guilt. One of these is Lamentations. The other is the book of Job. God gave us these two books for a reason and there are important differences between them. Job and Lamentations stand as the ‘bookends’ on the spectrum of guilt. In Job, guilt plays no part at all in the suffering described in the book, while, in Lamentations, guilt cries out in every chapter.
Guilt plays absolutely no part whatsoever in the book of Job
Job was a righteous man. The Bible says he was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). But when Job suffered, his friends didn’t believe that.
They felt sure that this could not be the case.
The friends were convinced that God brings blessing to the good and that he brings trouble to the wicked: “Look at what has happened to you, Job. Bad things don’t happen to good people. Come clean and confess! Some secret sin must lie at the root of your suffering. Why don’t you own up to whatever it is?” But Job would not relent. “I am in the right,” he said (Job 9:15, 20). In fact, he insisted, “I am blameless” (Job 9:20, 21).
At the end of the story, God stands with Job, and not with Job’s friends. God says to Eliphaz, one of Job’s friends, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). God says, “What you said misrepresents me – that all suffering is the result of sin.”
“One of the Harshest Acts”
Walter Kaiser says, “One of the harshest acts we mortals inflict on one another is the flippant way in which we automatically assume that any pain, anguish or suffering visited upon another person must be the result of that person’s sin.”
When I read that I immediately recalled something from the Gospels. I thought, Oh yes, the Pharisees did that. So I looked it up only to discover it wasn’t the Pharisees, but the disciples of Jesus who showed harshness towards a man who was blind from birth:
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:2-3)
That’s what happened with Job. When he suffered, the glory of God was revealed to him: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). The glory of God was also revealed in him and through him. Down through the generations, God has used his testimony for the comfort and for the strengthening of millions.
Guilt is written all over the book of Lamentations
The LORD is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word (Lamentations 1:18).
Look, O LORD, for I am in distress; my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious (Lamentations 1:20).
Deal with them as you have dealt with me because of all my transgressions (Lamentations 1:22).
We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven (Lamentations 3:42).
These confessions of guilt run all through the book. Lamentations is like the thief on the cross who said, “We are getting what our deeds deserve” (Luke 23:41 NIV).
In Between Job and Lamentations
Most of us, when we go through grief and loss, will experience something in between the story of Job and the story of Lamentations. Grief usually comes with some guilt attached. Ask yourself:
What should I have done that I did not do? What did I do that I should not have done?
Grief invariably has its ‘if onlys.’ If only I had called the doctor sooner. If only I had visited my loved one when I could. If only we had not argued as we did.
A bereaved person will often find that things said or done years ago come back to mind, even though they had been long forgotten—harsh words you spoke and now wish you had never said, foolish things you did long ago that that now bring a fresh sense of guilt.
Sometimes there are issues related to the death of a loved one. A loyal spouse keeps watch for days by a bedside, steps out of the room for a few hours, and cannot forgive him or herself for not being there at the end.
And then, on top of this, there is the awful feeling of unfinished business. Especially if a loss has come suddenly or unexpectedly, “We never got to say goodbye.” Grief usually comes with guilt attached.
True Guilt and False Guilt
Now there is an important distinction between true guilt and false guilt. False guilt comes when we take responsibility for something that was not our calling or is not under our control. True guilt comes when we shirk responsibility for something that is the call or command of God.
But sometimes it isn’t easy to tell the difference between true guilt and false guilt, and here’s what often happens. A grieving person feels a weight of guilt. It runs deep and it isn’t easy for her to speak about this. But when she does, she is told, “This is false guilt. You weren’t actually responsible for this. It’s not your fault.”
That doesn’t help. Even if the guilt is without foundation, it is very real to the bereaved person. So it doesn’t help to say to the person on whom the weight rests, “There’s nothing for you to be guilty about.” Saying this doesn’t normally remove the weight.
When a person is struggling with what I may think is false guilt, I have found it more helpful to say something like this:
“Let’s put the discussion of whether this guilt is true or false aside. The point is what you are experiencing is real. Your conscience is burdened. You believe there is something you should have done and didn’t, or vice versa. If this were true guilt, what would you do with it? You would confess it to God and put it under the blood of Christ. So let’s do that now.”
The Answer to Guilt
The answer to false guilt is truth. The answer to true guilt is grace. And how wonderful it is that our Lord Jesus Christ is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In other words, everything that is needed to deal with guilt is found in Jesus Christ.
Christ offered himself not only so that your sins would be forgiven. The blood of Christ was shed so that your conscience could be cleansed (Heb. 9:14, 10:22). So bring your ‘if onlys’ to God. Confession is a wonderful gift when you know that grace is waiting for you on the other side.
If your conscience is burdened, here’s what you can do: Bring what you experience as guilt to God. That’s what we have here in Lamentations. The guilt in Lamentations is real, and it is brought before God and confessed.
If your conscience is burdened, here is what you can do: Write out what weighs on your conscience and bring it to God. Tell God what you did – confess it, repent of it, place it under the blood of Christ, and let your conscience be clean, so that you can once again experience the peace of God.
Don’t live with a burden of guilt hanging round your neck.
[This post was adapted from Pastor Colin’s sermon, “Guilt and Grievance,” from his series For All Who Grieve: Light and Hope in Lamentations.] [Photo Credit: Unsplash]
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., A Biblical Approach to Personal Suffering (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982).