Monday, July 4, 2011

Symptoms of a guilty conscience

To keep from having a guilty conscience, let me begin with a confession. An old Scottish proverb says, “Confession is good for the soul.” So, here’s my confession … I watched about an hour of the Casey Anthony trial today. OK. I confessed and I already feel better!

Well, anyhow, I watched as the state prosecutors wrapped up the trial with their closing statements. One thing that caught my attention, and probably grabbed a lot of people’s attention, was when lead prosecutor Linda Drane Burdick talked about guilt and its symptoms.

Every one of us has been troubled with a guilty conscience before. God hardwired us to respond in a very specific way when we violate the law that He wrote on our hearts. (In fact, that's probably why the camera has been aimed at Casey Anthony throughout the trial. The television crews know that people will want to observe her reactions to look for clues to see if her conscience is bothering her.)

Let’s begin with what the lead prosecutor said and then look at some Scripture to see if she got the symptoms right. Ms. Linda Burdick said: “Everybody grieves differently. Responses to grief are as varied as the day is long but responses to guilt are, oh, so predictable. What do guilty people do? They lie, they avoid, they run, they mislead not just their family but the police, they divert attention away from themselves and they act like nothing is wrong.”

So, according to Ms. Burdick, those with a guilty conscience try to avoid any situation where they will have to talk about what they have done. In that position, they act as if nothing has happened. But when confronted, they lie and/or do anything to get attention off of themselves and get attention directed at others.

Well, that was Ms. Burdick’s analysis. But is that borne out in Scripture? Let’s take a look at four Bible characters in three Old Testament scenarios: 1) Adam and Eve; 2) Cain; and 3) King David.

Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:1-13):

When Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened to their sin and they experienced the first pangs of guilt, they tried to “cover up” their offense (quite literally). Genesis 3:7 says that “…they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” And isn’t that true? It's human nature for someone to try and cover their trail when they've done something wrong. People will do everything possible to cover up their offense so as not to be discovered.

The next thing that Adam and Eve did was to run and hide. Genesis 3:8 says: “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” Human nature hasn’t changed. When someone's conscience is bothering them and they're racked with guilt, they'll make a run for it. They’ll try to get away. But if that isn’t an option, they’ll mysteriously begin cutting off contacts with others. If Adam and Eve had been able to hide from God effectively, they wouldn’t have had to answer for their sin. The same principle is still at work in human nature today.

Another symptom of guilt that Adam and Eve evidenced was playing the “blame game.” Listen to Adam and Eve’s response in Genesis 3:11-13 (beginning with God’s question to Adam): “Then He asked, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree that I had commanded you not to eat from?’ Then the man replied, ‘The woman You gave to be with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ So the Lord God asked the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ And the woman said, ‘It was the serpent. He deceived me, and I ate.’” Again, human nature is the same thousands of years later. If someone's conscience is killing them, when confronted with their offense, they'll look for someone else to blame. They'll either say that someone else did it or they'll blame their infraction on someone else’s influence that they claim made them do something against their conscience.

So, from Adam and Eve’s account, we learn at least that those who are battling a guilty conscience typically try to cover their tracks, they run and hide and they play the blame game when confronted.

Cain (Genesis 4:8-16):

After Cain took the life of his brother in a jealous rage, God confronted him. Cain’s conscience was troubling him and his first response was indifference. Genesis 4:9 begins with God’s question: “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘“Am I my brother’s guardian?’” It’s pretty clear – indifference. Cain was acting as if nothing major happened. He tried to play it off … and human nature still behaves the same way. To try to keep the consequences at bay, the one grappling with guilt will try to act as if the allegations aren’t that big of a deal.

A symptom of a guilty conscience that Cain seems to have shared with his parents is that he tried to cover up his trail. Genesis 4:10 seems to imply this when it says: “Then He said, ‘What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!’” Did Cain bury his brother to get his lifeless body out of sight? It seems that this is at least a plausible possibility. In fact, it would make complete sense because it has been a pattern for people to cover their tracks since the Creation.

King David (2 Samuel 11):

Throughout the account described in this chapter, you see a man who knows that what he did was wrong, so he tries to cover up his trail. In fact, 2 Samuel 11 shows a web of deception that David weaved because of his guilty conscience.

Throughout the history of the human race, beginning with Adam and Eve up to the present day, mankind has shown that God has implanted a conscience within us - He has actually written his law on our hearts (Romans 2:14-16). Scripture makes clear that it is certainly possible that there are some who won’t be plagued by a guilty conscience because their conscience is seared (1 Timothy 4:1-2). However, those folks are presented as the most wicked of men and not the norm.

So, as we consider prosecutor Linda Drane Burdick’s description of what someone with a guilty conscience will act like, and as we compare that description with Scripture, we realize that she was right on ... which still doesn't help much when you observe Casey Anthony's demeanor (she's either innocent or her conscience is seared).

One finally word, though. I don’t know whether Casey Anthony is guilty or not. It sure seems that she is. But supposing that she is guilty, what’s to be her response? It is absolutely clear in Scripture. Adam and Eve did it. Cain did it. King David did it. Unfortunately, they only did so because they were forced into it. What did they do? The confessed!

If you read Psalm 51, you’ll get a peek into the confession of King David after he committed adultery with Bathsheba. It is an incredibly vivid look into the heart of a man who valued his relationship with his Lord. He valued his fellowship with his God more than he did the consequences he would face with a public confession. 

It was also King David that penned Psalm 32:5“Then I acknowledged my sin to You and did not conceal my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You took away the guilt of my sin.” Confession brought inner freedom! The weight of guilt was removed!

It cost David some dire consequences and it will cost Casey serious consequences if she confesses. Yet, the heart of a person who wants to enjoy fellowship with the Lord will do whatever it takes after a moral failure to come back into right relationship with God. Confession is a huge step in the right direction.

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