What To do With Guilt Back to Index

What To do With Guilt
August 3, 2008

Wesley United Methodist Church

JOHN 20:19-23

Continuing the series on forgiveness, this morning let’s consider WHAT TO DO WITH GUILT. Guilt strangles, clutches your throat, chokes off life-giving air, limits your energy, stifles your words, paralyzes.

A young man in his early twenties died of diabetes related diseases. During the last several years of his life, his mother cared for him. She took off work and became his nurse. No one could have done more for him than she did, yet she is paralyzed, strangled with guilt. She is obsessed with “If onlys…If only I had done this or that…If only I had forced him to watch his diet when he was a teenager…If only..” She is tortured, strangled by guilt. Her guilt is so paralyzing, she can’t work. She is losing her friends because she has no energy, time, or consideration with which to nurture important interpersonal relationships. She is depressed, incapacitated, driven, paralyzed, strangled. She has always been an active church member. She has faith in God. She probably even believes God forgives her. She probably admits that her son forgives her. Her son probably would not understand her blaming herself. But, she can’t forgive herself!

Do you carry a load of guilt? Are you strangled by guilt? Guilt is universal. No one (except psychopaths!) is free of guilt. Some guilt, of course, is motivating. For some of us, it is guilt that gets us to brush our teeth. It is guilt that causes a person to feel sorry and make restitution. But, we’re talking this morning about the guilt that strangles, the heavy guilt that incapacitates, that causes depression and paralysis.

Our culture does not handle guilt well. We don’t seem to know what to do with guilt, or how to be rid of it. Especially do we have difficulty forgiving ourselves. Conscientious people, good people, respectable people, Christian people often fail to live up to their own expectations. They are often much more tolerant of others than they are tolerant of themselves. They can forgive mistakes of others, but have difficulty forgiving their own mistakes.

The heart of the gospel—the good news—is that God loves us and saves us, saves us even from guilt. God redeems, justifies, forgives, reconciles. We are reunited with God, united with each other, and united even with ourselves. The good news is that God forgives sins and eradicates guilt. A little boy approached a guard at the Washington Monument, handed the guard a quarter, and said, “I’d like to buy it.” The guard said, “That’s not enough.” The boy replied, “I thought you would say that.” So he pulled out nine cents more. The guard looked at the boy and said, “You need to understand three things. First, 34 cents is not enough. Second, the Washington Monument is not for sale. And third, if you are an American citizen, the Washington Monument already belongs to you.”

The gospel says three things about forgiveness. First, we cannot earn forgiveness. Second, forgiveness is not for sale. And third, in Christ we already have forgiveness. And so it is with guilt. You cannot get rid of guilt by yourself. You cannot buy yourself a conscience free of guilt. But, Jesus has done whatever needs to be done in order for your guilt to be eradicated. That is the good news. Why, therefore, are so many Christians strangled by guilt? How does a guilt-ridden Christian accept and receive forgiveness? What do we do with guilt?

First, believe; trust in a God of grace. Believe that God is a God of forgiveness and mercy. Believe that God gives second, and many, chances. Believe that Jesus gave his life for your forgiveness. Jesus' death was not necessary to appease an angry, vengeful God who demands a sacrifice. No, God is love. It is not God who needs changing. It is we. The chasm between God and humankind is so vast, so wide, it takes the death of God's Son to show us the extent of our sin and guilt. Jesus gave his life to bridge the gap. Jesus gave his life so that we can receive God's loving forgiveness. Believe that God forgives and releases us from the stranglehold of guilt.

Second, confess your sins. The promise is recorded in 1 John 1.9, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Confess. Speak it. Name your guilt. Admit it. Unload the guilt. 

Third, receive absolution—the assurance, the pronouncement—that you are forgiven, you are absolved from your guilt. Most Protestants have been skeptical of absolution. We have not wanted to give clergy the authority to forgive sins. We feel that is presumptuous. But, absolution is part of the confession service in our hymnal. We used it this morning. We pronounce absolution to one another. It is not just the authority of the pastor, but the authority of all of us. The leader says, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” The congregation responds, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” It is a corporate act. In the Gospel Lesson read this morning, Jesus gave his disciples authority to forgive sins. Most of us need to hear we are forgiven. Somehow it is not enough to believe that God forgives. It is not enough to confess sins and guilt. We need to hear words spoke, spoken with authority, spoken in the name of Jesus Christ. We need to hear and receive absolution.

But, there are those who yet will not believe they are forgiven. They need something more tangible, something more graphic to convince them that God has forgiven them. In the Old Testament, a lamb was slaughtered and its blood was sprinkled on the altar and on the congregation. They were forgiven, absolved, “washed in the blood of the lamb.” The imagery was powerful. Worshipers could see the lamb slaughtered and feel the sprinkled blood. 

In the Roman Catholic Mass, the imagery is powerful. Jesus again lays down his life. Then, the believer receives Christ’s life—his body and blood—into his/her life. Perhaps we Protestants, in reaction to Roman Catholicism, have so spiritualized the act of confession and pardon, we have lost the imagery. We need confession. We need absolution. We need a powerful image like the sacrificed lamb.

We need to reclaim the biblical image of blood. Hebrews 9.12, “Christ entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” At the last supper with his disciples, Jesus took the cup of wine, gave it to his disciples and said, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus poured out his blood, which in the Bible symbolizes life. Jesus poured out his life so that you may be forgiven and released from guilt.

We Protestants have successfully so reacted against Roman Catholicism that we have thrown out confession, Christ’s sacrifice, and absolution. And liberal Protestants have been so offended by blood—our sensibilities offended at the idea of blood cleansing us—we’re left with nothing in our churches but a lot of guilt! And when there is not enough guilt, the church adds more. Churches like to motivate with guilt. But, our spiritual ancestors asked and sang, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” The blood of Jesus cleanses, washes, frees us from strangling guilt. We sang there is a fountain filled with blood where sinners are washed, where sinners lose their guilty stains. We sang, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Is this image crude, gross, primitive, offensive to our modern ears? So is guilt. Guilt is ugly, strangling, demoralizing, incapacitating, paralyzing. Guilt is so strong, so powerful; it takes the life of Jesus to be rid of it. It takes the blood of Jesus to cleanse you of guilt. Image your guilt being washed away, down the drain, carried into the sewer where it belongs, never to return.

What do we do with guilt? Believe God forgives. Confess your sins and guilt. Receive absolution, receive forgiveness. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Image Jesus embracing you, reaching out and gathering you into his arms. Tell him what’s wrong. Confess your guilt. Then image yourself standing in a shower of blood, being washed, being cleansed, and say out loud, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I am forgiven.”

© 2008 Douglas I. Norris