Pastor, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I believe the Bible. I know we have a God of love. But sometimes I feel as if I cannot be forgiven.” This confession, coming from a sincere Christian, produces a difficult counseling situation for a young pastor.

Often, the feeling of not being forgiven indicates real guilt, either because the person is under the condemnation of unbelief (cf. John 3:18) or because, having been overtaken in a “trespass,” he needs restorative assistance (Gal. 6:1). But sometimes the fear of being unforgiven exists when no cause for guilt is apparent. Then the wise counselor will look for an emotional disturbance that can create a feeling of guilt and lead to an ineffective and unhappy Christian life. In my experience, every believer with this fear caused by neurotic guilt (using this term to distinguish the condition from real guilt) has been helped by the recognition that he has transferred into the spiritual realm a feeling caused by interpersonal relations, an emotional wound.

Some examples will help to distinguish between the two types of guilt feelings. After an evangelistic service, a man in a “crying drunk” condition asked, “Can I be forgiven, preacher? I’ve done some awful things. But I had to do them.” He showed real guilt for his sinfulness, guilt from which he sought to escape not only by means of alcohol but also through self-pity and self-justification. He needed to repent, to turn to Christ with humble confession for forgiveness.

Quite different was the case of a Christian mother. Her life appeared above reproach. She had led many to Christ, including all her family, one of whom was now in college. Nevertheless a troubled look clouded her face as she said tremblingly, “Pastor, I sometimes feel as if I have committed the unpardonable sin, and it disturbs me greatly. But I can’t for the life of me think of why I should ever feel that way.” She needed to see how her feeling of guilt was caused by a traumatic social experience in her past. The painful and damaging fear she experienced is one of the most needless difficulties that can assault the human soul.

Although God’s glorious forgiveness heals both kinds of guilt, the counselor must treat each differently. To be effective, he needs to know, first, some basic facts about guilt and fears; second, general guidelines for achieving full forgiveness; and third, how to recognize and overcome the fear of being unforgiven caused by emotional trauma.

Guilt And Fears

Guilt is a pain that warns of mental and spiritual ill health. It is conscious at first, but it can be submerged or repressed. Shakespeare portrays repressed guilt in Lady Macbeth’s attempt to rub an imaginary spot out of her hand. An atrocious act might destroy the objective enemy, but not the subjective one, guilt. Some people, like Judas (Matt. 27:3 ff.), resort to suicide in efforts to rid themselves of guilt. Others seek escape in alcohol and other drugs.

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Fear is an emotional agitation aroused by a threat. Some fears are irrational. Psychologists list many, including claustrophobia (fear of narrow places), agoraphobia (fear of open places), and even triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number thirteen). Usually when a person learns what has caused his phobia, the principal difficulty disappears. For example, when a man with claustrophobia connects the feeling with his childhood mishap of getting caught in a drainage pipe, the morbid fear vanishes, though he might occasionally feel restless in close places. Just so, if a person who has experienced God’s forgiveness for sin learns what makes him sometimes fear he is unforgiven, he makes the mental adjustment.

Other fears, however, are reasonable—fears of sickness, traffic accidents, and moral corruption, for example. Indeed, the Bible and true gospel preaching raise fear. The fear of guilt is usually healthful. It is also a correct work of fear to awaken a person to his guilt; this should result in his recognizing his need for Christ’s forgiveness, and then repenting and living the Christian life.

Guidelines To Forgiveness

In dealing with guilt caused by specific sinfulness, as in other matters of evangelism, the counselor will use the Bible as skillfully and prayerfully as he can and depend upon the leadership and power of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, he will permit the counselee to talk. Although statements may be couched in tones of self-protection, the pastor must depend upon these expressions to reveal the cause and cure for the pain.

Sometimes the underlying source of guilt will not readily come to light. The counselor must be not only gentle but firm. Occasionally he may need to say outright, “There is evidence you’ve either been doing something you should not do, or failing to do something you should do.” Christians do sin, after all, and need to confess to God in order to rid themselves of the pain sin causes.

Indeed, every Christian should be aware of forgiveness in three spheres, or at least not have unforgiven transgressions in those areas. First, he should have forgiveness from, and be in a complete attitude of forgiveness toward, his fellow men. Forgiveness from other people and forgiving other people go together (Matt. 6:14 f; Mark 12:1 f.). Second, he must forgive himself. Third, he must have a deep realization that God has forgiven him.

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A big, strong young man came into my study, trying to control himself emotionally but admitting he had a dreadful, undefined fear. He said he had recently made claims of atheism and spoken derogatorily of the Christian faith. A small New Testament he carried had actually become a fetish to ward off danger. Calling attention to certain passages, I showed how he really needed and could have the Christ the Testament tells about. After a while he knelt and asked the Lord to forgive him. Within a few minutes he said, and then kept repeating, “I can’t understand why I feel so much better.”

Another young man declared he had sought God’s forgiveness but still felt guilty. We talked a few times about it but seemed to make little progress as he continued to say, “I don’t know why the Lord won’t forgive me.” Eventually I suspected the trouble and in our next conference read certain Scriptures I thought might be relevant. He was soon rejoicing in a newfound relationship with Christ, and he subsequently corrected the transgression. The Bible evidently pointed out his guilt.

Defeating The Irrational Fear

Christ’s forgiveness is glorious. Dark, unhealthful conditions are either driven out or transformed into wholesome drives, attitudes, capabilities, and directions when Christ comes into the human heart, so it is often difficult for the Christian to understand how he himself could ever be overcome again by doubts and fears. But some sincere believers may find their spiritual development thwarted by a fear of not being forgiven that is caused by an emotional disturbance rather than by actual unforgiven sin.

Three qualities should characterize this counseling situation: (1) careful diagnosis; (2) a worthy goal; and (3) tactful guidance.

Careful diagnosis. This fear should not be confused with other forms of spiritual pain. Deep concern for a friend or loved one, for example, might cause a believer to suffer the pain of guilt that is not his own. Or perhaps a problem of sin needs to be settled either first or simultaneously. I once saw a boy overcome with paradoxical emotions—both joy and sorrow—as he discerned how guilt feelings about a traumatic experience had robbed him of full acceptance of God’s forgiveness of sin.

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This neurotic fear of unforgiveness may be difficult for the counselor to recognize. The feeling can sometimes hide from its victim. Knowing much of the happiness God’s forgiveness brings, the believer will enjoy his Christian experience for a while. Then suddenly the fear strikes. He finally makes an appointment to see his pastor, but may be reluctant to talk about his problem.

Three circumstances can make this counselee reticent. First, if he has witnessed to others of the love of God and of Christ’s faithfulness and of the peace God gives, he may hesitate to admit his own turmoil. Second, he actually may fear to take the chance of “blasphemy” and further lay himself open to “guilt” for committing the unpardonable sin. Third, since he has not lived a perfect life, he may think perhaps his problem is really one of shame that he unconsciously hides from himself and does not want to admit to the pastor. The fear may have to be coaxed to the surface.

A worthy goal. When the counselor recognizes the difficulty, he should envision a high goal. The fear of being unforgiven indicates depth in the life of the counselee. Solving this problem is not just a matter of house-cleaning; it requires refurnishing the house with new, valuable furniture. Victory is now in sight but must be approached with caution.

The counselee must not be permitted to lose his fear of sin and its subsequent guilt. The furious fear of being unforgiven caused by neurotic guilt stemming from trauma can, however, drive a person into some escape mechanism; it may make its victim try to forget spiritual and moral matters and adopt a devil-may-care attitude.

Temporary amelioration is possible, but permanent healing is the only adequate goal. The counselee who asks if it is unusual for a person who knows he has been forgiven to feel at times as if he cannot be forgiven may be relieved somewhat if the counselor replies, “You are just having a passing disturbance and will get over it.” But he will not get over it until he learns what causes it. Unless treated at its source, the “passing disturbance” will continue to pass through his life again and again.

Still another caution is that the counselor should not attempt psychoanalysis. Although the Christian’s irrational fear of unforgiveness is a psychological problem, a few tactful remarks will usually tend to put the counselee on the right track, and he himself will conquer his enemy.

Tactful guidance. The counselee should be encouraged to solve his own problem. Of course, it is usually wise for the counselor to reaffirm the thoroughness of God’s forgiveness, and to cite such Scriptures as First John 1:8–10 and Psalm 136.

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Studies of some mentally ill people who are possessed by morbid convictions that they have committed the unpardonable sin show that they previously have had serious “breaks” or traumatic experiences in their lives. It follows, therefore, that the normal Christian, who fears he has committed the unpardonable sin or for some other reason cannot be forgiven, has had a “break” in his life. Once he sees that his own emotional history has disrupted his spiritual equilibrium, he can make an adjustment. Overcoming this difficulty will give him stamina for other conquests.

One might think this solution an oversimplification, unless he has tried it in counseling situations. The process works. Let us suppose that a young man, a high school graduate, comes to the pastor and says, “I don’t know how to say it, but I don’t just feel right at times.” The counselor understands that such a statement can cover a multitude of conditions. But after a few questions and answers, the young man expresses his condition more directly: “I feel sometimes as if I’ve committed the unpardonable sin, but other times I know I haven’t.”

Additional questions reveal that he has been reared in a Christian home, has attended church regularly, and has recently been quite active in personal evangelism. His mother died when he was young and home conditions are not happy now. He dislikes his job and wants to go to college. He has no steady girlfriend but had one a few months ago. He first noticed his fear when he was a child, and it has recurred from time to time.

The traumatic experience caused by the death of his mother was a “break” that upset his emotional system. Recent disappointments have aggravated the condition.

The counselor makes a few simple statements: “Feelings of this kind are most often caused by some ‘break’ that has taken place in a person’s social life, carried over into the spiritual life. Frequently they can be caused in childhood by death in the home, or by separation of parents.” Often the counselee will at once realize the validity of such statements. He will remember how disappointed he was when he broke up with that girlfriend, when the door to college seemed to close, when he failed to get the kind of job he sought, though he prayed much about it.

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Sometimes, however, the counselee does not see it so readily and must be helped further. Consider a young woman who has just entered college. She is away from home, has never had any feelings like this before, and is shocked by the sudden force of the fear. The counselor may not quickly recognize all that is causing the girl’s fears. Perhaps much of the problem is real guilt. But one fact is sure: The girl’s situation is caused in part, if not entirely, by a “break”—living away from home.

The case in my own counseling experience that most clearly illustrates the point concerns a young person who had such recurring fears from childhood. Upon learning what causes such feelings in a Christian, he found the fears completely gone and became happy in church work. After a few years he suddenly recalled a serious disappointment that had caused a second traumatic experience in his youth. This second “break” happened after the first had already set up fears of being unforgiven. When he did finally go through the experience of recalling the forgotten incident, the old feelings of being unforgiven accompanied the return of the disappointing memory. But the fear did not accompany the feelings. Afterwards he told me, “I had no reason to fear, because I knew what was causing the feelings, and I knew God had forgiven me.”

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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