How to Be Free from a Lingering Sense of Guilt and Shame

What should you do at the end of the day when you feel an acute sense of the guilt and shame of recent sin? Each day we go into the world like young school children in a fresh set of clothing. Yet, by the time the day finishes, what was once white and clean is tarnished by the scrapes, spills, and stumbles of a messy day. Although it is true that the sin of a believer is washed away once-and-for-all through a single act of salvation, there is another sense in which we must bathe our consciences regularly in order to maintain a sense of freedom and intimacy before God. How does a person do this? What is the process that we need to go through in order to be freed from a reoccurring sense of the shame and guilt of sin?

An older generation of Christians used to talk about having a daily ‘reckoning  with God’. What they meant by the term was a kind of spiritual bath at the end of the day through which the smear of recent sins was rubbed off and the freshness of communion with God restored. For those unaccustomed to this practice, here is some guidance on how to end your day feeling a renewed sense of freedom from sin.

Step 1: Weigh the Guilt of Unconfessed Sin  

A lot of modern Christians struggle to appreciate the evil of sin. We look around at the state of the culture around us and weigh our sins against the measure of the actions of our neighbours. Using this standard, we begin to feel as if our sin is not too big of a deal. Yes, we might lose our temper or feel a touch of envy, but we are not getting drunk on Saturday night or flirting with a co-worker. If we are honest, our sin often feels like a light and trivial matter.

The purpose of weighing the guilt of unconfessed sin is to overcome such naivety. Regarding this practice, the great Puritan, John Owen, says,

Sense of pardon takes away the horror and fear, but not a due sense of the guilt of sin. It is the daily exercise of the saints of God to consider the great evil that is in sin…They set sin before them, not to terrify and affright their souls with it, but that a due sense of evil of it may be kept alive upon their hearts.

Owen here is reminding us that there can be no sincere repentance without godly sorrow. If we want freedom from sin, we need first to recognise the evil that all sin is – no matter how ‘big’ or ‘small’ it might feel.  

Step 2: Silence the Accusations of the Evil One

Satan is the arch accuser. He will do anything to keep us from walking in the freedom of knowing that sin is forgiven and shame overcome. Thus, anytime we are confessing sin before God, we need to be on guard against a whispering voice that would try to convince us that there is lingering condemnation for the children of God, or that the Father is still deciding whether or not He loves us, or that our standing before God is in some way determined by a recipe of Christ + obedience = salvation.

If anyone is feeling assaulted by the fiery darts of the Evil One, there is no better refuge than to sit down and read Romans 8. The chapter begins with a declaration of ‘no more condemnation’ and ends with a finale of rhetorical questions reiterating the triumphant point that God’s love is inseverable.

Step 3: Listen to the Voice of Jesus

Jesus’ voice has a way of cutting through time and space. His words in Matthew 11 are an invitation to any feeble heart that is burdened by sin. When struggling under the weight of guilt, or feeling defiled by the shame of sin, we need to still our hearts and heed the invitation of Christ: ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’

In saying this, Jesus is reminding us that he has made an agreement with his Father to carry away the burden of our sins. In effect, Jesus is saying, ‘Hand me your sins – all of them. You are too weak to shoulder their load. I know what to do with them. Give them to me, and I will carry them away so that you will never have to look at them again.’ Who could resist such an invitation?

Step 4: Lay Down Your Sins at the Cross

There is a ritual in Leviticus whereby a penitent sinner places his hand on the head of an animal that is being presented as an offering to atone for sin. We need to keep this image in mind as we confess our sins before God. If we want to experience the freedom of knowing that our sin has been buried – never to be dug up again – then spiritually we need to go through the act of laying our hand on the person of Jesus and recognizing that his death is the atonement for each and every particular sin.

Isaac Watts captures this very act in a wonderful hymn on the priestly ministry of Jesus. He says,

My faith would lay her hand
on that dear head of thine,
while like a penitent I stand,
and there confess my sin.

My soul looks back to see
the burdens thou didst bear,
when hanging on the cursed tree,
and knows her guilt was there.

Step 5: Receive the Righteousness of Christ

Confession by itself is insufficient to maintain close communion with God. If we want to walk in the freedom of grace, we need to move through confession to the place of standing confidently on the ground of the finished work of the cross. We reach this condition by embracing the full message of the gospel, which is not just that we have been forgiven, but that we have been justified – that Jesus has placed his own robe of perfect righteousness on our shoulders.

It is only after we have taken off the soiled garments of sin and put on the spotless robe of Christ that we can rest in God’s embrace and enjoy the peace of knowing that our sin is as far from our persons as the east is from the west.

For more on this topic, listen to the Equip session on ‘Knowing Jesus as High Priest’.