Eight possible reasons
You were in the wrong and you know it. You’ve sinned. What should you do? Confess your sins to God. Be honest with God. Come clean. Don’t make excuses.
Tell God that you know you’re wrong and you need His forgiveness. If you do this, scripture promises, “…if we confess our sins, God will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (see: I John 1:9).
But what should you do if you still feel guilty? Why do people struggle with guilt after confessing their sins to God? Why do they have difficultly accepting God’s forgiveness? Let me suggest eight possible reasons:
1. Unfinished business
Sometimes guilt remains because you need to finish things — to complete the circle of confession and make restitution. If a store clerk gives you too much change and you keep it or you speak hurtful words to someone and walk away; if you were dishonest in a business deal, in each case, feelings of guilt are tied to unfinished business. The circle of confession should equal the circle of offense (see: Proverbs 28:13).
2. Inability to bring closure
How do you finish the circle of confession when you’ve lost contact with the one you hurt or he has passed away? This is a common struggle for those who’ve had an abortion. They carry unresolved guilt because of an inability to bring closure. The damage is irreversible. In these cases, we must remind ourselves that the only thing we can change about the past is how we allow it to affect us in the future. If we remain bound to guilt, we’re more likely to multiply pain in the lives of others. Some have found help in writing a letter of apology and reading it to a trusted counselor. When dealing with deeply painful regrets, we often need the assistance of a wise and godly counselor.
3. Unwillingness to accept forgiveness
Many feel too wicked to be forgiven. Others can’t believe in forgiveness because they don’t feel they could forgive someone who did the same thing. Those who nourish an unforgiving spirit toward someone else will have difficulty believing in the possibility of being forgiven (see: Matthew 6:14-15). Remember Jesus extensive promise in Matthew 12:31 “And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” The surest sign you have not committed blasphemy against the Spirit is concern that you may have committed it! Memorize and believe the promise of I John 1:9!
4. Desire to punish ourselves
Some carry guilt as their payment plan for their sin. But the desire to punish ourselves contradicts the fact that Jesus took our punishment for us (II Corinthians 5:21). It is right to make changes in relation to the wrongs we’ve done but these changes should not be viewed as payment for our sins (see: Isaiah 53:6; Galatians 2:21; Ephesians 2:8-9).
5. Working to deserve forgiveness
Sometimes we feel a need to off-set our sin with good deeds to make ourselves worthy of forgiveness. Sometimes a woman who gets an abortion will devote herself to crisis pregnancy work as a kind of repayment for her choice. Parents also fall into this trap when looking back with regrets. This is a spiritual snare for one who seeks forgiveness and restoration after having an affair. Though forgiven, he feels he has a mortgage that will never be burned. We must not accept performance-based forgiveness. This insults the grace of God by failing to take the sacrificial death of Christ seriously (see: Galatians 2:21).
6. Struggling with “What ifs” and “If onlys”
Some get trapped in guilt when they struggle over the “what ifs” and “If onlys.” We all have a list of “what ifs?” and “If onlys”. Some are worse than others but wallowing in them holds us hostage to guilt. This is a choice to live in past regrets and miss the present and future joys of life. It honors God when we do our best to make things right and then move forward in a positive, other-centered direction.
7. Equating forgiveness and reconciliation
When a relationship has been severely damaged, people will struggle with guilt if they think that forgiving requires immediately restoration to their offender. Unprepared to reconcile, they feel they are also unable to forgive. This leads to guilt—especially for those who know God commands forgiveness. Yet it’s possible to forgive an offender without being reconciled to him. Unlike forgiveness, reconciliation is often a process that requires rebuilding trust.
8. Consequential reminders
Although God forgives the guilt of our sins, he doesn’t promise to remove the consequences. It’s common to battle feelings of guilt because of consequential reminders. But God will graciously carry us and comfort us through these painful circumstances. Guilt is positive when it corrects us; negative when we never move beyond condemnation to forgiveness. Destructive guilt is past-oriented, based on a refusal to receive forgiveness and move forward in freedom. Constructive guilt, when it leads to confession and forgiveness, is grace-based, future-oriented and other-centered.
Unresolved guilt brings turmoil and misery. Forgiveness brings peace and joy. Scripture says, “…if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:1-2). To gain freedom from guilt, we must refuse to hold against ourselves the sin God has forgiven.