Guilt is like an acid that eats away our conscience—drip by drip. It’s something we can never outrun, but we can stop the drip. We can choose to ignore our guilt, rationalize it, place it on someone else, or we can repent and enjoy the freedom of a clear conscience. We can move from guilt to repentance.
In the Old Testament, we see the Lord send the prophet Nathan to King David with a story about a rich man and a poor man. A guest was staying in the rich man’s house, but the rich man didn’t want to kill one of his many sheep to feed his guest. Instead, he took the poor man’s only lamb and prepared it for his guest (2 Samuel 12:1-4). When he heard that, David burned with fury and said, “As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die” (2 Samuel 12:5).
Then, with four simple words, Nathan plunged a figurative dagger into David’s heart: “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7).
The Lord had anointed David and made him king over Israel. The Lord had rescued David from the hands of Saul. And the Lord had provided for David companionship, wealth, power, and fame (2 Samuel 12:7-8). Yet David had “despised the word of the Lord” by taking Uriah’s wife and Uriah’s life (2 Samuel 12:9).
The jig was up. David’s secret was revealed. This was a critical moment for David: he could either deny Nathan’s accusations or confess his sin. Fortunately for David (and us), he chose the latter path. “I have sinned against the Lord,” he admitted (2 Samuel 12:13).
Contrary to popular opinion, repentance isn’t an emotion; it’s an attitude that leads to action. The Greek verb metanoeo, which is translated to “repent,” means a change of mind that leads to a change of direction. It’s a spiritual U-turn. David demonstrated both a changed attitude and changed actions in Psalm 51.
David said the attitude we must have when confessing our sins to the Lord is “a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart.” That is the only “sacrifice” the Lord “will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). Such spiritual brokenness leads to the conviction that we must turn from our sin. If we do, then we’ll find the forgiveness we need.
Having the proper attitude, however, is only the beginning. An attitude of brokenness must lead to the actions of confession and repentance.
- Acknowledge your sin as sinful. (Psalm 51:1, 3)
We often try to cope with the mountain of guilt by minimizing our sin or using euphemisms to diminish it. But God calls things as they are.
David used five significant words in Psalm 51 to describe his sin.
The first is transgressions (v. 1, 3). This word carries with it moral gravity.
The second word is iniquity (v. 2, 5, 9). This word captures the perversity of our sinful nature.
The third word is sin, used five times in Psalm 51. This is the universal term for wrong attitudes and actions. It’s when we “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) by missing the mark—the target God has set up for our lives, which is holiness.
The fourth word is evil (v. 4). This word indicates seeing wrongdoing from God’s perspective.
Finally, there is bloodguiltiness (v. 14). This is David’s confession of murder—of taking another person’s life without divine authorization.
David didn’t mince words when it came to his sin, and neither should we.
- Accept responsibility for your sin. (Psalm 51:1-3; Psalm 139:23-24)
Once you acknowledge that your sin is indeed sinful, the next step is to accept responsibility for your sin. You don’t make excuses or blame others for your sin.
Throughout Psalms 32 and 51, David used the personal pronouns I, me, and mine.
There’s no scapegoating with this shepherd-king, and there should be none with us.
To distance ourselves from guilt, we must first recognize our sin. We must identify areas in our lives where we have fallen short of God’s standard. True repentance requires an honest evaluation of our lives.
- Receive God’s forgiveness for your sins. (Psalm 51:1-2, 7)
Neither Bathsheba nor Joab nor the people could remove David’s guilt. They could forgive him personally, but the deeper stain of sin would remain because David’s sin, like all sin, was ultimately against God. That’s why David confessed his sin to God and why we must do the same.
- Repent of your sin. (Psalm 51:10)
Repentance begins and ends with God. We may sin against ourselves and against others, but all sin is against God. And if we come to God with broken and contrite hearts, confessing our sin, “He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). And this brings us to the good news about guilt: it can and will be removed for those who confess and repent of their sin.
When God forgives us, things things happen: He removes our sin, restores our joy, renews our fellowship, and refocuses our lives. That’s why Psalm 51 is such a helpful passage for those struggling with the mountain of guilt. It highlights the path from guilt to repentance, which leads to a life of blessedness and a clear conscience.
- God removes our sin. (Psalm 51:2,7,9)
Like a man covered in dirt and grime, David prayed for a divine bath. David used three images in asking God to remove his sin: water, hyssop, and the act of blotting.
First, water symbolizes that we are cleansed from the defilement of sin, which David symbolized with the imagery of being washed with water.
Second, we are cleansed from the guilt of sin, which David described using the image of hyssop. This is based on the Old Testament when priests used a branch from a hyssop bush to sprinkle animal blood onto the altar as a symbol of sacrificial death. This is a once-for-all cleansing, accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The third image, the act of blotting, points to offenses jotted in a ledger with blood-red ink. Think of it like a criminal’s rap sheet. It’s a record of all the crimes he or she has been convicted of. David’s rap sheet told an ominous story: adultery, rape, abuse of power, and murder.
What could David do to expunge his record? Nothing—except to throw himself on the mercy of the court in hopes that God would redact David’s crimes.
- God reinstates our joy. (Psalm 51:8,12)
God not only removes our sin, but He also reinstates our joy.
Though David didn’t lose his salvation (which the Bible assures us can never be lost once given), he did lose the joy of his salvation. And the loss of his joy, which came from an unclean conscience, pained him as much as the physical consequences of his guilt. David pleaded for God to restore his broken joy—to set it like a doctor might set a broken bone so it might heal—as he lived a Spirit-filled life where his conscience was clear of sin and guilt.
- God restores our fellowship with Him. (Psalm 51:11)
With the restoration of joy comes the reviving of fellowship with God.
Believers who fall into sin today don’t have to worry about losing the Holy Spirit. Jesus made that clear in John 10:28–29. But our sin creates a barrier between God and us (Isaiah 59:2). The only thing that can break down that barrier and renew our unfettered fellowship with God is repentance. And when we repent, comfort comes to our souls.
If you want to be blessed—to live a happy life—then I urge you to conquer your mountain of guilt by repenting of your sin. As British preacher, Charles Spurgeon wrote, “When we deal seriously with our sin, God will deal gently with us.”