In the 1960s, I met a young man who had come to America from England less than a week before. His name was John Guest, and he went on to become an Episcopalian minister and national evangelist. When we first met in Philadelphia, he had hair down to his shoulders and a guitar strapped to his back; he looked very much like a member of the Beatles, and, in fact, he was from Liverpool, England, just as the Beatles were. John was working as an evangelist primarily on college campuses. He went to campuses with his rock band and sang to gather crowds, after which he preached and taught.
John’s conversion had been something of a Damascus Road event. He went to a meeting where he heard the gospel, and his life was turned upside down. He met Christ and experienced the forgiveness of his sin. He shared with me that when he went home that night, he did not walk down the streets; rather, he skipped like a child, occasionally vaulting over fire hydrants. He was absolutely filled with joy in his new relationship to Christ.
I can relate to that. Knowing that one’s sins are forgiven provides a tremendous relief. All of the burden of guilt is gone. Guilt is fundamentally a depressant. It squelches any feeling of well-being. It robs us of peace. It torments our souls. It is probably the most significant barrier to real joy. Thus, when our guilt is removed, joy floods our souls.
There is a difference between guilt and guilt feelings. Guilt is objective. Real guilt is incurred any time we violate or transgress the law of God. However, our feelings are not always in touch with reality. There are people in the criminal-justice system who are described as sociopaths or psychopaths because they can commit heinous crimes without feeling any remorse whatsoever. Still, their lack of feelings does not alter the reality of their guilt. Guilt is determined not by how we feel but by what we do. Nevertheless, there is often a close relationship between the objective and subjective dimensions of guilt—between the reality of the transgression itself and our subjective feelings of remorse and paralysis.
I see guilt feelings as being somewhat analogous to physical pain. Pain is a symptom that something is objectively wrong in the body. Pain is a tremendous benefit to us medically, because it gives the signal that there is a problem that needs to be treated. Just as there are some people who feel no guilt for their crimes, there are people who have lost the capacity to feel things physically, and they are in grave danger every moment because they do not know when a serious illness has afflicted their bodies. The pain is the warning signal. So it is with guilt and guilt feelings. When I get a toothache, that tells me that something is wrong with my tooth. The pain drives me to the dentist to get my tooth fixed so the pain will stop. Guilt feelings should do the same thing; they should tell us something is wrong and motivate us to seek help. When our objective guilt is treated and the subjective guilt feelings go away, we feel great joy.