Haunted by Guilt

Daily Readings: Genesis 42-43, Psalm 4648, Matthew 28

I do not believe in ghosts, but I do believe in hauntings. Let me explain. The Bible is so brilliant in the way it describes our natures, in order to allow us to listen to its wisdom and learn to find answers and make changes. Today’s immersion of our thoughts in to Joseph and his brothers’ lives holds a key to unlocking issues that may haunt each one of us as well. Consider with me, the way that guilt can haunt our consciences and never give us rest – even after years and years of self-deception.

The way Joseph’s brothers describe their frightening, growing out-of-control problems in Egypt is found in Genesis 42:21-23. They believe that the root cause of these problems is their guilt in selling Joseph into Egypt so many years before! “His blood” is still on their hands (their words). They describe it as “the reckoning.” I always find it so interesting that when we come upon big problems in our lives, like the brothers, our guilt often causes us to superstitiously think figurative “karma” has been haunting us all the time. And it has finally caught up with us. Judgment day has come.

While there is not a one-to-one correspondence between our sins and difficult circumstances that may occur in our lives, our minds (when riddled with guilt) often believe that there is. The fleshly way of dealing with sin is role-modeled here by the brothers. They used deceit, lies, calloused hearts and a long-term pact of being bound together in a great, horrible deception. They had guilty eyes that stuffed their consciences each time Joseph was mentioned at the family table for years and years. Look, for example at verse 36 where Jacob (unknowingly but prophetically) says to his sons, “You have bereaved me of my children! – how the knife must have turned in their hearts because their father spoke the truth! It is pathetic when you look at it objectively. But when it comes to our own similar “guilts”, large and small – we are often just like them. Just as deceived and haunted.

There is a principle that the Bible expounds that “your sin will find you out.” Numbers 32:23 Yes, there are always consequences for our sins. Other stories like Cain killing Abel, and David’s guilty choices with Bathsheba also make it clear that the lack of taking responsibility for sin just makes things worse. Nevertheless, the human approach to guilty emotions is usually to let time lapse, try to sweep it under the carpet and forget it, and/or to stuff it deep in our subconscious so that we don’t think about it. Unresolved guilt can lead or contribute to anxiety, irritability, physical and emotional stress – even if we do not recognize it as a contributing source to these things. The brothers even use the word, “distress” to define their current state. v.21

But the Bible also teaches that there is a good way to deal with sin and its consequences. We do not have to choose to be haunted by guilt. Hauntings are our passive choice by not handling it correctly. The good news is that hauntings can end at any time – no matter how long ago the guilty incident occurred – but if, and only if, we take appropriate measures.

  • Stop trying to cover it up (Get real and be humble)
  • Pause and take the time to face it and deal with it in a right way
  • Accept the consequences (and subsequent peace that replaces hauntings)

I see a passage I read recently, Ephesians 5:1-14 as reflecting these truths. It begins with a listing of immoral and evil behavior that should never be associated with “children of light.” It acknowledges these “saints” “were formerly” involved with such “deeds of darkness”. But now they are free from them. They have come to the light of Christ who exposed their unfruitful deeds. They have sought and received forgiveness. They have changed. They repent of those ways and instead are “trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.” No more secrets. No more pride. No more running away from the consequences of what they have done.

When I apply this template to Joseph’s brothers, it is exciting. They were nasty men in the past (look at Judah in Genesis 38!) but after they are exposed, they live good lives. They are grateful and humble before Joseph (and presumably before God) from then on. They live together, saved from starvation by God through Joseph, in a tightly knit family community. They become the better version of themselves. No longer haunted by their horrible life-secret.

In their case, God brought the events of their lives to a head – so that they had no choice but to deal with their guilt. If this is what occurs in our lives, we too, should walk in it and take the opportunity to repent. It is better, however, to deal with issues that bring guilt into our lives when they occur in order to save ourselves (and often others) from years of stress and sorrow. In Joseph’s brothers’ case, they did not know there was any way out (thinking Joseph was dead) but God mercifully brought about the events to allow for forgiveness and reconciliation.

The lesson I see here is that we should take action on our “guilts” – large and small. Ask yourself now, “What do I feel guilty about?” We should deliberately, deeply examine our minds for these things and do whatever is necessary to take action on them. Confess our sins, ask forgiveness, seek reconciliation, change our ways. And we should truly believe that God forgives. Like Paul (who was a violent persecutor), we can “forget what lies behind and press on toward … the high calling of God in Christ.” Philippians 3:13-14 Clean- spirited, looking forward, positive, life turned to new and better paths. Peaceful. The only way to find this peace is to accept the consequences that come from our wrong actions. And to move on. No one ever has to be bound by guilt.

And so, the Bible gives us a simple cure for guilt: it’s literally a Wake up Call! I love the last verse in the thought of Ephesians 5 when applied to this discussion of Joseph and his brothers –

…Awake, sleeper,

And arise from the dead,

And Christ will shine on you.

Ephesians 5:14

Turn away from the darkness of sin and the living-death that guilt implies (in many ways). Wake up to your sin! Let Christ’s light expose and cleanse your guilt and shame. Become a child of light. Try to learn what is pleasing to God. For the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth. v.9

Below is an adorable Youtube video that includes the song “You’ve got a Friend in Me.” My prayer is that as Jesus’ friends, we can shed guilt and bask in his light more and more!