Phantom guilt, on the other hand, is an ugly thing that consumes our minds and saps our spiritual strength. Phantom guilt is lingering guilt for something you should no longer feel guilty about.
In his classic Christian book The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan tells the parable of a man named Christian who has been making his way back to the celestial city with a massive burden tied to his back. The load has become excruciatingly painful to carry, and as the parable continues it becomes apparent that the load represents the weight of Christian’s past sins.
Eventually Christian comes to the foot of the cross, and as Bunyan puts it: “His burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble; and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulcher, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.”
Phantom guilt is what happens when we go back to that sepulcher, dig up that large tote full of our past sins, and reaffix it onto our backs. Phantom guilt is feeling guilty over something that has already been forgiven.
The primary reason we feel phantom guilt is because of how our brains and emotions work. When I do something that goes against God’s plan, my brain records that incident with amazing clarity, and once I am forgiven, God doesn’t go inside my head and delete that memory. As a result, I confuse myself into thinking that just because I can remember that incident, God automatically remembers it as well.
What makes matters worse is that our brains trigger certain emotions when those memories are recalled, so we remember not only the sins we’ve committed but the emotions of God-inspired guilt we felt afterward as well. Those memories and feelings of guilt are phantoms. They exist inside our minds, so they feel real, but they don’t exist in the mind of God. Once we asked for forgiveness, God forgave and completely forgot what we did. It’s gone. In his mind it no longer exists. The problem is it is still very real to us.
The solution, then, is to remind ourselves as soon as phantom guilt rears its ugly head that what we are experiencing is not real; it is a shadow of something that used to exist. We have to discipline ourselves to trust the fact of our forgiveness over the feelings of our phantom guilt.
Over the years I’ve told the story in my sermons about the time my family and I were eating at a restaurant and out of the corner of my eye I saw a baby sitting in a high chair near her mother. My jaw dropped and my eyes started to mist, and I stood up and walked across the room to where the baby and her mother sat. I looked at the young woman and just smiled. She stared at me and smiled in return.
“She’s beautiful,” I said. “What’s her name?”
“I’m proud of you.”
Then I just stood there for a moment, grinning at both of them. When I went back to our table,
Lisa asked, “What was that all about?”
“A year and a half ago, someone dragged that young woman sitting over there, kicking and screaming, into my office to talk. She was seventeen, pregnant, and scared to death. Her boyfriend left her when he found out she was expecting. Her parents were in the process of kicking her out of the house. The day I talked with her, she had decided she was going to have an abortion. I tried my best to talk her out of it and connected her with people who could help, but I never heard what happened afterward. That’s her baby over there.”
Every time I tell that story in a sermon, I can count on two or three women, usually in their mid thirties, coming up and asking to talk after the service. Usually the first words out of their mouths are all the same: “I wish you wouldn’t tell stories like that. I think about what I did every single day of my life.” I gently talk to them about God’s grace and how he wants them to move on. Usually they tell me that they understand all of that, but they still can’t find the strength to forgive themselves for what they’ve done.
At some point I end up telling them what I want to tell you right now: There comes a time when you’ve beaten yourself up enough to last two or three lifetimes. God wants you to feel OK about moving on and feeling good about yourself and your life again.
Either the cross was good enough to pay for everyone’s sins, including yours, or it wasn’t. This guilt you are feeling is a phantom. It’s not coming from God, and it’s not going to undo the past. Let it go. It’s OK. God really wants you to move on.
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