In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis argues that “we feel the rule of Law pressing on us so that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility…human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.” He says that even though humanity knows what is right and wrong, “they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.”
Truth and untruth are hardwired in us but it’s in the dabbling with untruth that we know there is a culpability. It is in the “breaking” that we taste the bitter loss of innocence. The result? We just can’t seem to get out from under the anvil of guilt.
It finds it origins in Genesis 3. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:7-8). After disobeying God, the first actions of our first parents were to cover up and hide. These are the activities of ones who find themselves mired in disgrace.
We know this to be true because its antithesis is found a few verses prior in Genesis 2:25, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” In a moment, an identity once hidden in perfect and safe communion God was now subsumed in an overwhelming sense of shame. Now present was a gaping sense of insecurity where there was once peace. A cavernous space where there was once intimacy. And instead of running in their newfound vulnerability to God, they disguised themselves and holed up away from him. Commentator Alec Motyer describes it this way:
They [sense that] they cannot meet and keep company with the Lord God as before, but neither do they see that the consequence of sin is loss of paradise. Hearing the approach of the Lord, they hide, but within the Garden… The blindness of sin is beginning to take effect…From the moment of the Fall, humankind has suffered from moral schizophrenia: neither able to deny sinfulness nor to acknowledge it for what it is. 
This is what shame does. It disorients. It muddles. It flusters. But those are only its horizontal affects. There was something else that happened in this moment of moral failure. Something more sobering. Something more destructive. After cursing the serpent, God approached Adam and Eve and said these words, “…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). The “hide and seek” that Adam and Eve played was short-lived. God found them and relayed to them a harsh but necessary truth. Death would now be the repercussion of their blatant disobedience to the parameters that he had set. In God’s economy, the reach of the spiritual consequences had to be relative to the sinful activity of his human creations. Rebellion cost something.
In a way, God was following through with his earlier promise that if they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 3:16-17). But did they? Not immediately. What did happen in the fall were two “kinds” of deaths. The first, the promise of physical death. Dust returning to dust. The second, the actuality of a spiritual death.
Yes, sin brings horizontal a sense of internal shame and insecurity but graver was that the chomp of an apple was a defiant spiritual action of the heart. It was an exploit that produced a cosmic condemnation of the soul. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). No one escapes this kind of guilt. It is corporate. And it has a debt.
Maybe that is what we all really feel. We may call it “guilt” but at the bottom of it all, what we sense is a deep, pervasive debt. We detect that there is a settlement that we can never repay. When Adam and Eve tried to conceal themselves and cover their nakedness from God, they were beginning to feel that there was a deficit that could not be reimbursed. They were keenly aware of a bankruptcy of the soul that resided in the red. It’s what they did with their guilt that was the problem.
When feelings of spiritual indebtedness start to overtake us, we mimic our first parents. We hide. We self-protect. We self-justify. And maybe most threatening we try to make up the difference. We attempt to pay back the debt in one form or another. We functionally do “penance.” Pastor C. John Miller says:
Penance is a religious attitude deeply rooted in the human heart which prompts people to attempt to pay for their own sins by good works and sufferings. Self-justification is the goal of this effort. In practice this means that humanity always has one more scheme for getting things right with God and their conscience. Sinners doing penance always say in their hearts, ‘Give me one more day, a new religious duty, another program, another set of human relationships or a better education, and then things will come rightside up’…They are preparationists—that is, sinners who are forever getting ready for grace. They want to make themselves worthy of grace so that God will reach out to them once this work of preparation is completed. 
Notice Miller’s statement that those who do penance are “forever getting ready for grace.” It’s interesting that we know that our guilt requires something radical to handle the chasm between our deeds and what is required for forgiveness of the debt. But we go on. We think one more bible study, one more soup kitchen visit, one more degree, one more zero at the end of our salary will balance the shortage, one more intimate relationship. It never does. We will never be able to get “prepared” for grace.
Herein lies the rub. We don’t want anyone to give us mercy because that means we have to, one, admit we can’t make up the difference, and two, admit that what have to look outside ourselves to someone who can. This is offensive to our Western ideals of independence and strength. But this confession is the very beginning point for absolution. Acknowledging our spiritual inability is actually where we begin to see the light. Powerlessness is the prerequisite.
Head over to Grace For Sinners to read the third section of this article to see where atonement can be found – outside of ourselves.