Guilty feelings are not always the best way to measure guilt. Some people feel terribly guilty when they haven’t actually done anything wrong. Other people don’t feel guilty at all, even though they most certainly should.
This issue hits us where we live, and especially where we are living right now, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Because COVID-19 is such a contagious disease, and because it’s possible to be contagious for two whole weeks without realizing you have it, there’s a good chance that many of us have passed on this virus.
How should we respond if we’ve infected someone else—especially if that person gets critically ill or even dies? We need to be careful we’re not weighing ourselves down with false guilt, but we also need to make sure we’re acknowledging and addressing our true guilt.
So, how do we diagnose guilt? Not by how we feel—our feelings are not safe guides. Scripture says that our guilt depends not just on our outward actions but also on our understanding and motives (see Num. 35:11; Deut. 4:42; Heb. 4:12). The Bible also speaks about “unintentional sins” (Num. 15:22–29; Deut. 4:42)—sins committed through ignorance, weakness or error.
These passages show that anyone who breaks God’s law without intending to (even in causing someone’s death) are still guilty and in need of forgiveness. Not nearly as guilty as those who deliberately intend to do harm (Num. 15:30–31), but guilty nonetheless. So we need to think in terms of a spectrum when it comes to assessing guilt.
If you want to know how responsible you are, ask yourself: How much did I know? And what did I intend?
Take Brenda, for example. She carefully washes her hands, humming “Happy Birthday” twice. She pushes open the door of the restroom with her shoulder and walks back into the grocery store to continue shopping. She picks up a box of pasta and sets it in her cart. She takes the shopping home and carefully washes each item.
But, earlier that day, another shopper had coughed without covering his mouth, and droplets containing coronavirus settled on the pasta box. Somehow some of these evade Brenda's careful washing. She gives the pasta to her elderly mother, who transfers the virus from the box to her face, contracting COVID-19.
Brenda passed on the virus, but she didn’t know she was doing it. She wasn’t negligent—she took every precaution she could—and she certainly didn’t intend to pass it on to her mother. She may feel terrible (understandably), but she doesn’t need to feel guilty—because she isn’t guilty. She didn’t do anything wrong.
Of course, she will feel wretched about passing on the virus, and distressed about her mother’s suffering, but she doesn’t need to make her misery worse by accusing herself of doing wrong. If anyone is guilty in this scenario, it’s the person who failed to cover his mouth.
Brenda needs to trust in the Lord so she can find perfect peace in her painful situation (Isa. 26:3). Brenda wasn’t in control of the circumstances, but she can cling to the fact that God is sovereign over all that happens in his universe—right down to the direction of the cough droplets that settled on the pasta she purchased.
There are no accidents in God’s plan. She needs to hold on to the truth that God is working this for good (Rom. 8:28), whether or not Brenda can see it.
But did you behave rashly? How much did you know?
Unless you’ve been living in a cave in Antarctica for the last few months, it’s impossible that you haven’t heard something—probably a fair bit—about coronavirus: how contagious it is, how rapidly it’s been spreading throughout the world, how it’s passed on, how people are contagious even while asymptomatic.
Did you ignore what you knew? Did you disregard guidelines issued by authorities? If you did, and you’ve infected someone as a result, then you should feel guilty, because you are guilty.
Now, there are different degrees of guilt. There’s Anna, for example, who tried to follow all the guidelines, but there were times when she was in too much of a hurry to wash her hands or didn’t keep her distance when talking to someone. Occasionally, she did break the rules because she really wanted to get out of the house and visit with a friend.
Think of Luke and his crowd of friends who flew down to a Florida beach for spring break and spent the time partying. They knew about coronavirus, but since they were young and healthy, they weren’t worried about getting it. They weren’t thinking about the possible consequences—they were focused on having a good time.
But then there’s Cody Pfister, who went into Walmart in Warrenton, Missouri, and filmed himself running his tongue along a shelf of items in the personal hygiene section, then saying “Who’s afraid of coronavirus?” Or the “covidiots,” to use the newly coined term, who go around licking the handles of shopping carts and toilet seats.
And then there’s Samuel Konneh and others like him, who deliberately spat blood in the faces of four police officers in Manchester, England, to try to infect them with COVID-19.
These last examples are much more aggravated breaches of the sixth commandment—which requires us to preserve our own lives and the lives of others (Ex. 20:13). Deliberate efforts to harm others incur more guilt than mere negligence or thoughtlessness.
Where are you on the spectrum? Have you ignored—or knowingly flouted—the guidelines on social distancing, self-isolation, staying at home, and hand-washing? You are guilty to whatever degree you have broken the health guidelines.
True Cure for Every Guilt
But, thankfully, that’s not all there is to say!
The whole world is waiting eagerly for a cure for coronavirus. Researchers everywhere are working around the clock to create a vaccine. But guilt is infinitely more deadly than COVID-19.
King David knew the physical, emotional, and mental effects of guilt: “my bones wasted away . . . my strength was dried up” (Ps. 32:3–4). Guilt’s effects on our minds and bodies can be as debilitating as any disease.
Far more seriously, however, our guilt condemns us to eternal punishment on the day of judgment. Every thoughtless or malicious action on our part, every failure to love God and neighbor perfectly, every careless thought or word demands justice from a holy God.
The good news is that the gospel provides the cure for guilt. Our world has all kinds of quack remedies for guilt—people try to make up for it, deny it, deflect it, suppress it, and redefine it. But none works, since there is only one way to deal with guilt: it needs to be atoned for.
The price of rebellion against God must be paid—and it must be paid in blood. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). It’s a price we can’t ever pay. But Jesus Christ can.
So, what do we need to do?
To begin, we need to own our guilt—to face up to what we’ve done without any excuses. We need to repent of it, and we need to ask Jesus Christ to assume liability for it. On the cross, Jesus Christ took both our guilt and also the punishment it deserves. God poured out his wrath upon his Son in our place.
He judged Jesus as if it were Jesus who ignored the warnings about COVID-19 and went to that party, or licked that cart, or even spat blood in the face of those police officers.
Amazingly, if we come to Christ in faith, all our guilt is transferred to him, atoned for, and forgiven.
The gospel then produces what John Piper calls “gutsy guilt.” The Devil says, “How can you live with yourself after what you did?” But the Christian can reply, “What I did was wrong. In fact, it was far worse than I can ever fully grasp. But Jesus Christ has taken my guilt and nailed it to the cross. I’m forgiven. I’m no longer guilty before God.”
Still, there may be consequences to our sin—painful consequences that may well follow us and others for the rest of our lives, humbling us and bringing us back to the gospel every day. An early church tradition mentions Peter weeping every morning when he heard the cock crow. Paul understood the freedom of the gospel better than anyone else, but never lost his sense of shame for having persecuted the church (1 Cor. 15:9). David was forgiven for his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah, but was told that a sword would never depart from his house (2 Sam. 12:10).
But if you have trusted in Christ, your guilt does not have power over you. You are free—to serve God and your neighbor in the freedom only Christ can give.
This article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition website and is reproduced here with permission.