When You’re Condemning Yourself

Read: Romans 8:1

Nobody likes to feel guilty, least of all when you’re the one condemning yourself. You can try to stifle your conscience or you can use the gospel way to deal with feelings of condemnation.

“I can’t forgive myself after what I’ve done . . . I hate myself for the way I’ve acted . . . I’m a total failure – there’s no hope left for me.”

Those who counsel with troubled people often hear such anguished outbursts. Maybe you’ve said or thought something like that yourself. Most of us, at one time or another, have felt seriously down on ourselves, self-condemned.

Here is a word of good news for all of us, a message so startling we can hardly take it in. It’s from the New Testament letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verse 1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Did you hear that? God says, “no condemnation.”

So Much Condemnation

That’s hard to believe, isn’t it? In the world around us, there is so much condemnation. We all seem to be self-styled experts at passing judgment. Everywhere we meet charge and countercharge, accusations flying in all directions, everyone assigning blame somewhere. The French writer Albert Camus was so impressed with that that he scoffed at the idea of a final judgment day. For him it was already here. “Allow me to laugh respectfully,” he wrote. “I shall wait for it resolutely, for I have known what is worse, the judgment of men. . . . I’ll tell you a big secret, mon cher, don’t wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day.”

Feelings of guilt are universal. Whatever moral standards they may accept, people in every culture are painfully conscious of having fallen short of them. Perhaps that’s why judgment, censure, and blame are so common. Our guilt feelings seem intolerable, and so we project them onto others. We need to find some scapegoat, some victim so that we can unload the crushing sense of responsibility. We feel a surge of great relief when we can pin it on someone and say, “There, he’s the one!” or “It’s all their fault.”

Why do we take such secret pleasure in gossip? Why do we listen with avid interest to the slightest hint of scandal? Because it makes us feel less isolated, less alone with our own buried feelings of guilt and shame.

We quickly become critical of others, pointing out their faults even when they have not asked us for that favor. We do it sometimes with relish or with undisguised annoyance, assuring ourselves that it’s only because we have their good in mind. Even the advice we give can contain a veiled criticism. “If I were in your place, I would do such and such,” we say, implying, of course, that their decision in the matter is likely to be less wise and virtuous than ours. In how many ways, blatant and subtle, we keep piling judgment and blame on one another!

Even the comparisons we draw can contribute to the problem. “Too bad you’re not as smart as your sister . . . You’re not quite the man your father was . . . Why can’t you be like so-and-so?” Any message that we are inferior to others is always experienced by us as a kind of guilt. “We’re not what we should be; we don’t measure up. Shame on us!”

We Do It To Ourselves

That’s partly why we condemn ourselves , because of the criticisms, the putdowns, the negative estimates imposed on us by others. You were frequently scolded as a child and in all of it the message came through, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself to behave like that?” You certainly were ashamed. Maybe you got angry at times, defensive, lashing out against your accusers, but the sting was still there. And even now in similar situations, the old tapes begin to play again, and you feel self-condemned.

But that isn’t the only reason. We can become so fearful of criticism that we’ll do anything to avoid it. We’ll compromise our deepest convictions. We’ll be false to ourselves and fail to assert how we really feel. Then, afterwards, we may be tormented by even worse guilt. “How could I grovel and demean myself like that? What a miserable coward I am!”

Many of us, on the other hand, defend ourselves fairly well against frontal attacks. Let someone accuse us of a fault and we marshal impressive evidence to disprove the charge. If they call us stingy, we point out a score of times when we acted generously. “Say I’m proud and I’ll bowl you over with proofs of my humility.” When someone is directly blaming us, we lose our objectivity and conscience gets benumbed. The last thing in the world we are ready to do is admit that that particular accusation is true.

But even as we defend ourselves with such gusto, we often feel sick inside about other failings. What no one will ever extract from us by force as a confession, we still know and inwardly deplore. So even as we defend ourselves vigorously on the ramparts or at the front lines, self-judgment eats away at us within.

Perhaps we feel badly about ourselves because we failed in something important to us. We can’t face that in ourselves. Maybe we have an exaggerated, even grandiose, sense of responsibility. We feel guilty about being healthy when many are sick, ashamed of having money to spend when millions are poor, almost soiled and wretched for being happy in a world full of so many miseries.

But we have to do with more, all of us, than unwarranted criticisms from others or neurotic guilt feelings about ourselves. Many times we feel guilt because we are guilty. Here it’s not a set of taboos or social conventions that we have violated but God’s will. We have assumed control of our own lives, gone our own way, forgotten our Maker. We have ignored the need of our fellow human beings and trampled on their rights. We have hurt the very persons we should have loved best. We’ve been disobedient and ungrateful, selfish and sometimes heartless. In those rare moments of honesty, when we get a glimpse of what lies within us, we can begin to feel what the apostle Paul felt when he cried out, “Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).

No Condemnation . . . In Christ Jesus

Then there comes to us that unspeakably cheering word, “There is therefore now no condemnation. . . .” Can such a thing be possible? If our fellow men put us down and our own feeble consciences indict us, can it be that God will do less? He is the holy One, of too pure eyes even to look upon evil. He knows the secrets of every heart. He is the just judge who cannot be bribed or intimidated, who always does right. He knows our sin and wrong far better than anyone else and he alone has the authority to pass judgment. How can his verdict be no condemnation?

We humans beings feel almost instinctively that everything has to be paid for. It seems impossible to us that our guilt could be removed without a heavy price. That conviction finds dim expression in all kinds of sacrifices, offerings for sin. And how many physiological or psychological sufferings are linked to a vague sense of guilt? In one way or another, we fear punishment for our wrongs or even try to punish ourselves.

There’s something sound in that elemental instinct of ours. Human evil does lead to judgment. The wage of sin is death. Justice will be served. But our great and gloomy error lies in imagining that we can pay. Perhaps by observing the correct ritual, by offering a proper sacrifice, or even by giving up in death something dear to me, I can cancel the debt. Maybe by strenuous moral effort, by self-discipline or prolonged suffering, I can make things right again. But along that road we find no peace. We are never sure: “Will God accept this? Have I done it right? Have I endured enough?” All the austerities that people have ever inflicted on themselves and all the animal sacrifices heaped on a thousand altars have never finally quieted one guilty conscience.

The good news is that though all must be paid for, God himself has paid in full. God has counted down the price. He has carried the weight of our sin in Jesus Christ his Son. It was as though the Judge of all the earth, having passed sentence on us, stepped down from his judgment seat and bore the penalty himself. This was the mystery of which the ancient prophet sang,

He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon him and with his stripes [his wounds] we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5,6)

On Golgotha, that Good Friday, the last judgment entered into time; our sin was fully judged. But the stroke fell not on us, but on our sinless Savior. There God took upon his own heart the full consequences of our sin. Hear the apostle Paul exult in that here in Romans 8, verse 3: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” God has condemned sin once and for all in the cross of his Son. Now the storm is over. The sentence has been served. The judgment has passed. There is therefore now no condemnation.

But Paul’s thought doesn’t end there. “No condemnation,” he writes, “for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This is a gospel for everyone who acknowledges their sin and believes in Jesus. He, the crucified One, is the living Lord. He rose from the dead on the third day and appeared to his followers. Now he has been exalted to God’s right hand as the Ruler of history, the King of glory, Lord over all. All who trust in him as Savior, who commit themselves to his lordship, receive the gift of his own Spirit. They are united in a living bond to the risen Christ himself. All that he has done in his life, death, and resurrection now avails for them. They are “in Christ Jesus” and for them there is no condemnation. In the mystery of God’s grace, their sin was laid upon him, and his perfect righteousness is accounted theirs. By faith they are totally justified, freely forgiven, accepted unconditionally.

I hope you realize today that no sin of yours, however heinous, no mountain of guilt, can block God’s saving work in your life. “Though your sins be like scarlet,” he assures you, “they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Though your iniquities be more than the stars in number, they can all be forgiven. The only obstacle that can stand in your way is self-righteousness—the repression of your guilt, the unwillingness to acknowledge your need of mercy. That’s what makes for hardness of heart, for smug complacency. That’s what bars the door to the Savior who comes and knocks.

There he stands, friends. Jesus comes not to charge you with all your sins and failures but to hold out to you in the gospel his pierced hands. “This I bore, these wounds I suffered, for you. Trust me and be at peace.”

It may be that today you are struggling with feelings of guilt and self-blame, perhaps imposed by others, perhaps false scruples you inflict on yourself. The Lord wants to pierce through it all and bring perhaps to your awareness a genuine, deeper guilt. We all share that. And that can be taken away! Let his light shine now into your life. Let his love draw you to confess your sins and commit yourself to him. Then, though you may feel surrounded with accusers, hear him say to you as he said to a guilt-plagued woman long ago, “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11). Now that Jesus has died for us, we will never, never, never be condemned. Celebrate it! There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

About the Author

Dr. William C. Brownson is the President Emeritus of Words of Hope. Dr. Brownson has served Reformed churches in Lodi, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois. In 1964 he was appointed Professor of Preaching at Western Theological Seminary, a position he occupied for ten years before serving at Words of Hope. In addition to a widespread speaking ministry in churches, on university campuses and at conferences, Dr. Brownson has written extensively for the Church Herald, other Christian periodicals, and he has authored many books.