The Power and Reach of Guilt

The Power and Reach of Guilt January 17, 2024

Photo by NEOM on Unsplash

Guilt is a powerful emotion – but we need to remember that it is a tool of the devil! God’s grace is greater than the power and reach of guilt!


Genesis, chapters 42-43; Psalm 5; Luke, chapter 17

Genesis 42:17-28 (CEB):

He put them all in prison for three days. On the third day, Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I’m a God-fearing man. If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay in prison, and the rest of you, go, take grain back to those in your households who are hungry. But bring your youngest brother back to me so that your words will prove true and you won’t die.” So they prepared to do this. The brothers said to each other, “We are clearly guilty for what we did to our brother when we saw his life in danger and when he begged us for mercy, but we didn’t listen. That’s why we’re in this danger now.”

Reuben responded to them, “Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t do anything wrong to the boy’? But you wouldn’t listen. So now this is payback for his death.” They didn’t know that Joseph was listening to them because they were using an interpreter. He stepped away from them and wept. When he returned, he spoke with them, again. Then he took Simeon from them and tied him up in front of them.

Then Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to put back each man’s silver into his own sack, and to give them provisions for their trip, and it was done. They loaded their grain onto their donkeys, and they set out. When they stopped to spend the night, one of them opened his sack to feed his donkey, and he saw his silver at the top of his sack. He said to his brothers, “My silver’s been returned. It’s right here in my sack.” Terrified, they said to each other, “What has God done to us?”


The Power of Guilt

It had been approximately 15 years since Joseph’s brothers had sold him as a slave to a caravan of traders. They had no idea that Joseph was still alive; in their minds, he was dead (“This is payback for his death”). It’s obvious that they carried that guilt with them throughout the years; it was the first thing they thought of when Joseph accused them of being spies. Now, they should have felt guilty; what they did to Joseph was wrong. Guilt is a very powerful emotion.

In this story, Joseph’s charge that they were spies triggered their guilt. The fear and uncertainty of being in a foreign land impacted them. They were away from home and their normal routine. The famine impacted their family. They needed to take food home, but now they were delayed by a false accusation. Joseph kept them in prison for three days. Everything was falling apart, and that’s when Satan pounces with guilt.

The Reach of Guilt

We could understand their guilt feelings when they were in prison. How did this happen to us? Did we do something to cause this? To deserve this? We naturally react that way in bad circumstances, because we’re trying to explain them. Their guilt was prompted by the charge of spying and the reality of prison.

But guilt reaches far beyond bad circumstances. After three days, Joseph let them out of prison to take food back home. Instead of keeping all of them and sending one home, he kept one and sent the rest home. The rest of you go, take grain back to those in your households who are hungry. Notice that Scripture does not tell us that any of them prayed for God’s help while they were in prison. There’s also no indication that they prayed to thank God after they were released. They loaded their grain on their donkeys, and they set out.

When they stopped for the night, one of them opened his sack to feed his donkey, and he saw the silver at the top of his sack. That triggered the guilt again: What has God done to us? The guilt came when they were thrown in prison; it returned when they found their money in their bags. When guilt shows up, it colors everything – good and bad. That’s the power and the reach of guilt.

Application: The Power and Reach of Guilt

I mentioned that it’s understandable that they would feel guilty about selling Joseph into slavery. That was wrong, and they knew it. And nearly fifteen years later, they still carried that guilt. (Joseph was 17 when he started having dreams [Genesis 37:2] and he was 30 when he became the governor of Egypt [Genesis 41:46].) The guilt may not have plagued them constantly, but it was there, lurking. When something bad happened – as in this story – guilt pounced.

Of course the guilt was still there! They hadn’t done anything in the meantime to atone for their sin against Joseph. They lied to Jacob, telling him Joseph was dead, and never confessed to what they had done. And the guilt was still there, like a malignant growth ready to spread at every opportunity.

By this time, their guilt was so great that it colored everything that happened. When one of them found his silver in his bag, they all said, “What has God done to us?”  What had God done? God had allowed them to experience the reality of guilt. He showed them the awfulness of sin. It had become so bad that something that they should have seen as a blessing – the return of their money – was just another reason for despair. That’s the power and reach of guilt!

The Hope of God’s Grace

But there’s hope, because the story doesn’t stop there. Joseph’s brothers will still have to go a little further to recognize God’s grace, but we don’t. We can see it in this story – and in our own. They struggled with their guilt because they hadn’t done anything to address their sin. But we can be done with guilt, because God has forgiven us! “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong” (1 John 1:9).

That doesn’t mean we won’t still have regrets. God forgives our sins and remembers them no more (Hebrews 10:16-17), but we’re not wired that way. We remember, and those memories often bring regrets. But the guilt is gone. In the words of the hymn Wonderful: “Guilt is gone, peace is mine, peace like to a river. Jesus is wonderful, mighty to deliver!”


Father, thank you for the reality that when we confess our sins, you forgive them and cleanse us. Thank you for reminding us that guilt is the enemy’s tool; he uses it to drive us away from you. Help us to remember that when Satan tries to pile guilt onto us. When you forgive, you remember them no more.

Help us to walk in the reality of your grace and forgiveness today. And help us to reflect your peace, so that others may be drawn to you. Amen.


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