Like the phantom pain experienced by my Dad when he lost his arm, false guilt is produced by something that isn’t really there. We’ve failed to live up to the expectations of others, we’ve not met a standard that we’ve set too high for ourselves, or we’ve let God down in such a way that we can never be forgiven. Like my dad scratching the palm of his amputated hand we often dig at the itching from past sin and unmet expectations. Bruce Demarest in “The Cross and Salvation” explains the source of phantom guilt. He writes, “Some Christians live in the legacy of a stern and legalistic upbringing, in the home or in the church that has imposed on them a stringent code of ethics with accompanying taboos. Unfortunately, certain Christian churches have been legalistic, more negative than positive, stressing personal wretchedness rather than God’s grace in Christ. Other believers may have had imposed upon them the unrealistic burden of sinless perfection, which insists that God accepts them only on the condition that they be perfect.”

I’m convinced that God doesn’t want us to live lives overwhelmed by this sense of guilt. He not only wants us to be guilt free he wants us to “feel” guilt free. But this is more difficult to achieve. Demarest goes on to suggest an answer to this problem. He continues, “The solution to this unreasonable sense of guilt is to recall that the omniscient Lawgiver and Judge declares believers “not guilty!” and, indeed, clothes them with the righteousness of Christ. Christians need to remind themselves that they are God’s forgiven, justified, and adopted children. The righteous God has pardoned, cleansed, and freed true believers from the burden of sin and guilt. Overly scrupulous Christians need to celebrate this glorious reality.”

I’m also convinced that this “glorious reality” doesn’t come by hard work. It can only come as we grow in our walk with God. The more we get to know Him, the more His grace can overwhelm us and cleanse us from the misery of phantom guilt. Meditating on God’s Word to us can help with this process of stepping into this glorious reality. After pointing out the sinfulness of every human being in the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans, Paul offers us the solution. In Romans 3:21-24 he writes, “Now God says he will accept and acquit us—declare us ‘not guilty’—if we trust Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, by coming to Christ, no matter who we are or what we have been like. Yes, all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious ideal; yet now God declares us ‘not guilty’ of offending him if we trust in Jesus Christ, who in his kindness freely takes away our sins.”