It’s in our stories, movies, and legends. In Shakespeare’s MacBeth, Edgar Allan Poe’s Telltale Heart, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. We feel it in our bones. It’s in our DNA.
When we’re guilty, we desperately want to come clean.
Can you relate? Maybe you have a loved one who is struggling against being honest with her sin. Maybe you’re carrying something from your past that you’ve never told anyone, maybe it’s an area of sin you continue to struggle with presently. Or maybe you have confessed, but you still feel plagued with a guilty conscience.
Jesus’ invitation is for you. He wants to wash you clean and, yes, He wants you to feel clean. Keep reading.
What’s a Conscience For?
God speaks through our conscience—that muscle inside that alerts us when we’ve done wrong. When you’re guilt free and your conscience is clear, you feel a sense of lightness and freedom. When you’ve done wrong, your conscience reminds you. A healthy and strong conscience tells you there’s sin in your system that needs to be cleaned out.
When you understand what your conscience does, you know it does not accuse you. It doesn’t tell you how rotten you are for what you did. The voice that accuses you is the voice of the enemy, “the accuser of our brothers and sisters . . . who accuses them before our God day and night” (Rev. 12:10 NLT).
On the other hand, a healthy and strong conscience, when revealing guilt, actually affirms you. It lets you know that you were made by a good and holy God, made for something better than the sin you’ve done. Sin is to healthy conscience what a splinter (or thorn, or nail, or bullet) is to your physical pain sensors. The pain you feel in your conscience is not the problem. Like the pain sensors in your skin when a splinter is present, a conscience in pain is just telling you that something foreign (unresolved sin) is present and needs to be removed for freedom and life to flow to the fullest.
So if you’re guilty and your conscience bothers you, it’s a good thing. It’s reminding you that you were made—that your natural state is—to be clean. To relieve your conscience is to move toward home.
Symptoms of a Guilty Conscience
Unconfessed sin produces death in us, makes us sick. Even so, there are costs to confessing sin and we know it. I’ll address these directly in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at the foul fruit of choosing to keep your sin secret.
- Emotional Distress – As I stated above, it’s in our DNA to get clean. When we don’t, when we try to hide our sin, we feel it. Or as David says in Psalm 32:
When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.
- Health Problems – Whether a result of unresolved emotional distress or something else, guilt has been associated with both mental and physical health problems including depression, chronic fatigue, sleeplessness, immunodeficiency problems, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcers, among others.
- Compulsive Behaviors – To numb or distract ourselves from the discomfort of unconfessed sin, many run to compulsive drug/alcohol use, sexual behaviors, overeating, gambling, etc.
- Avoiding God – Maybe subtly at first, but when we harbor unconfessed sin, we instinctively pull ourselves back from the holy One who sees. “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:13).
- Avoiding Others – In a similar way, when we sense we are not clean, we instinctively want to hide ourselves from others. We may do this by completely avoiding their company, but more frequently, we do so by keeping secret the full extent of the things we’ve done.
- White-Washing – Instead of letting Jesus clean out the guilt, we try to compensate for it through pursuing financial success, reputation, physical beauty, fitness, and godly behavior. “For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Mt. 23:27).
- Unholy Comparisons – In a convoluted attempt to make our sin less, we compare ourselves to others whom we deem worse than ourselves. So much bickering between family members, co-workers, political parties, and even countries is, at root, an attempt to turn the volume down on one’s own guilty conscience.
- Shamelessness – Sometimes, we may even attempt to shut our conscience down altogether. We try to convince ourselves and others that what we’ve done is justified and so not wrong at all. We minimize, intellectualize, excuse, blame others, blame our feelings, even blame God (e.g. It’s natural, It’s what men/women do, God made me this way, etc.).
“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).
“Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1:13).
God allows these symptoms and the pain, dysfunction, and chaos that come with them to get our attention. Why? Because His heart is for us. He wants us to make us clean!
What Keeps Us from Coming Clean?
Why is it so difficult for us to confess our wrongdoing? There are a million excuses, but I think they boil down to these three reasons:
- Fear of consequences. There are natural consequences for our sin, and the darkness promises to hold those consequences at bay. We think that if others find out, we’ll be humiliated and rejected. We may lose a job, money, or people we hold dear. I’m not going to tell you these things aren’t true. Real loss can happen when we come clean.
We must remember that the consequences are consequences of our sin, not of coming into the light.We were made to be clean, made for the light, and as such, we are always better off there, no matter the consequences.And while I cannot guarantee you won’t experience loss, I can guarantee God’s response will never be to leave you or reject you. In fact, when you’ve come clean about your sin, you’re more able to receive all God has for you. This is why those who regularly confess their sins tend to get better faster than those who conceal their sin.
- Pride. We like people to think we’re something special, and we know telling the truth about our sin may change a person’s opinion about us. Pride is really the flipside of insecurity. Think about it—the proud are as concerned about others’ opinions as the insecure are. This is important to realize because it reveals that pride doesn’t really work. It doesn’t make us better, it only keeps us expending energy to convince others we are.
The way to truly grow and change is not hiding behind pride, but inviting others to see and know you as you are. The man or woman whose conscience is clean and who can look the world in the eye, that’s the person who is free—free to live, to love, to learn, to grow, and to change.
- Concern for God’s reputation. We may be tempted to think that we should remain silent about our sin because of our position in the church or ministry, or because people around us know we’re Christians and would be less likely to follow Christ if they found out. It’s true that our sin may impact another’s view of God. But the problem is not the truth, the problem is our sin. Jesus is never more concerned about how you represent Him to others as He is about the truth of your life. You are not just a means to an end for Him, you are the apple of His eye and He wants to see you free. The One who allowed Himself to be stripped naked, beaten, and hung on a tree for you can handle His own reputation.
Besides, what do you think is worse for his reputation—those who own up to their sin, confess it, and get help, or those who conceal it and continue in it?“You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Mt. 23:26-28).
- Hurting others. Sometimes our sin when revealed will hurt others significantly. If you’re concerned this will happen in your situation, godly counsel is needed to figure out how to proceed. It may be that your concern for hurting others is more about protecting yourself than them. You need to find someone you can be completely honest with who knows you and can help you discern God’s will for the matter. And it goes without saying that this person needs a clean conscience themselves. Together, ask the Holy Spirit to convict, to reveal His will. Then, if/when you do share with the person who may be hurt by your disclosure, you’ll have an ally who can support you as you do.
Confession: The Way to Come Clean
Confession to God in the presence of another is the way to come clean and to begin to truly experience God’s mercy and your new identity. So much of modern Christianity has lost the beauty of confession. And it truly is beautiful. Nowhere else does a sinful soul cast itself upon the mercy of God. Confession opens the soul’s door to God’s mercy, grace, and love. Without confession, the mouth and mind may proclaim forgiveness, but the heart and body’s longing to be clean persists.
Remember, a guilty conscience is simply telling you that you were made for something better than hiding, for something far greater than the enemy’s lies that you belong slinking in the darkness. God has made you good. In Christ, He restores your goodness and removes the sin that binds you.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Christ endured the suffering of the Cross to cleanse you of a guilty conscience. Let Him do His work in you, just as His disciples did one by one as He washed the dirt and feces off their feet (John 13:5ff). And let Him do this for you as often as necessary. Make it a regular part of your life, like eating, sleeping, and exercise.
Along the way, you’ll experience for yourself His enduring yet tender love for you personally, you’ll develop more authentic relationships with those around you, and you’ll grow in your own sense of who you truly are in Christ.
In my 15 years of ministry to those caught in sin, I’ve met hundreds of men and women who regret keeping silent about their sins. But I’ve never met anyone who regrets coming clean through confession. Not one.
Confess your sin. Allow Him to wash you. Come clean.
As a help to you, below are two one-page documents to help you go further.
Guidelines for Confessions – Practical information to help you prepare for confession
Model of Confession – Step by step helps to walk you through a tried and true model of confession