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Getting Rid of Guilt
Several months ago, 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. No one could have done better, yet she is paralyzed with guilt. She is possessed by "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.." Her friends and family assure her that she could not have done more. When a teenager has developed bad eating habits, there is little Mother can do about it.
Yet, she persists in feeling guilty. In fact, 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. 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 with you? When I say the word "guilt," can you name a guilt you carry? Many, if not most of us, feel guilty about something or other; something we've done, or something we've not done. Dr. Paul Tournier in his book, Guilt and Grace, (p. 145), observed, "No one lives free of guilt. Guilt is universal." Dr. Tournier defines guilt, p. 17, "Guilt is the failure to be oneself. It is the fear of other people's judgment that prevents us from being ourselves...It is the fear of other people's judgment that makes us sterile." And, I would add, self-judgment makes people sterile, or paralyzed. 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 crushes, the heavy guilt that incapacitates a person, the guilt that causes depression and paralysis.
In my observation, 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. There is a widespread epidemic of emotional paralysis, caused by guilt. Especially do we have difficulty forgiving ourselves. Conscientious people, good people, respectable people often fail to live up to their own expectations. They have high, idealistic expectations, and 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. Even Christians have a difficult time with guilt. Christians, of all people, should know how to forgive and receive forgiveness. Dr. Tournier, in Guilt and Grace, wrote (p. 174)
For twenty centuries the Church has been proclaiming salvation, and the grace and forgiveness of God, to a humanity oppressed with guilt. How then is it that even amongst the most fervent believers there are so few free, joyous, confident souls?
The heart of the Christian gospel--the good news--is that God loves us and saves us. God redeems, justifies (makes right), forgives, reconciles. God reunites us with God our Creator; unites us with each other; and unites us 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; even 34 million dollars 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 it. Second, it is not for sale. And third, in Christ we already have it. And so it is with guilt. You cannot get rid of guilt by yourself. You cannot buy yourself a conscience free of guilt. But, Christ has already paid with his life. Christ has done whatever needs to be done, in order for your guilt to be eradicated. That is the Christian good news. Why, therefore, are so many Christians oppressed with guilt? Why are there so few free, joyous, confident souls? How does a guilt-ridden person believe, accept and receive forgiveness?
First, believe, trust in a God of grace. Believe that God is a God of forgiveness and mercy. Believe that God gives second chances, and many chances. Believe that Christ gave his life for your forgiveness and salvation--a relationship with God that is free of guilt.
Second, confess your sins. The promise is recorded in I 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. Tell it. Unload the guilt. Pray the Prayer of Confession included in our weekly worship service seriously, honestly, intently. Name your sin. Name your guilt. Admit it. Sometimes it helps to tell another person. Confessing to another person is biblical. James 5:16, "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another." Share your burden. Tell me, or one of the other ministers of this church. We have some 1,100 ministers in this church. Share with a trusted friend, or with your covenant group, or a sharing group. Confess your sins.
Third, receive absolution--the assurance, the pronouncement--that you are forgiven, you are absolved from your guilt. Most Protestants, especially we United Methodists, have been skeptical of absolution. We have not wanted to give the clergy the authority to forgive sins. We feel that is presumptuous. Now, the practice has returned. Absolution is again part of our worship. Have you noticed? For several months now, we have been using the confession and pardon service from the new hymnal which will be released next year, and it includes absolution, with an important difference. In our worship service, we pronounce absolution to one another. It is not just the authority of the worship leader, 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 evidently is not enough to believe that God forgives, and not enough to confess sins. We need to hear words spoken, 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. Some of us need something more tangible, something more graphic to convince us that Christ has forgiven us. In earlier religions, including the Old Testament, sins were laid on a goat, and the goat was driven into the wilderness, carrying the sins with it. The term "scapegoat" is from this ritual. The goat took the blame and ran into the wilderness. Sometimes, the goat or some other animal, was sacrificed. The imagery was powerful. People could actually see the goat running into the wilderness with their sins. They could actually see the lamb who was carrying their sins butchered and burned on the altar.
Roman Catholicism has retained much of this ritual, although Roman worship is changing today. A sinner confesses his/her sins to the priest. The priest gives him/her penance to perform, something to do in order to feel involved. Penance has often been abused, and was especially ridiculous when Martin Luther rebelled against it in the 16th century. Then, the priest pronounces absolution: you are forgiven. During the Mass, the imagery is powerful as a Catholic worshiper believes that Christ is again sacrificed, again lays down his life. Then, the believer receives Christ's life--his body and blood--into his/her life. Last week I wondered if fewer Roman Catholics experience oppressive, paralyzing guilt than Protestants. Ruth Spangenberg, a member of our church and a counselor, said (and I quote her because I do not want to take responsibility for this incredible statistic) that Dr. Karl Meninger of the famous Meninger Psychiatric Clinic, once said he only had six Catholic patients!
Perhaps we Protestants have so spiritualized the act of confession and pardon, we have thown out the baby with the bath. We need confession. We need absolution. We need to rediscover the forgiveness that can be experienced in Holy Communion. And, we need a powerful image, like the scapegoat. Carrie Ten Boom, imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, likes to think of the ocean as the place where God throws forgiven sins. When we confess our sins, she says, God casts them into the deepest ocean and then hangs out a sign, "NO FISHING ALLOWED." Throw your guilt into the ocean and leave it there.
The ocean image may help you visualize forgiveness, but I wonder if a more powerful image is 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, (Matthew 26:27-28) "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." Christ poured out his blood, which in the Bible symbolizes life; Christ poured out his life so that you may be forgiven, and released from guilt.
We Protestants have successfully so reformed our religion of Roman Catholicism, we have thrown out confession, absolution, and Christ's sacrifice. 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 church but a lot of guilt! And, often when there is not enough guilt, the church adds some. Churches like to motivate with guilt. Our spiritual ancestors asked and sang, "Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?" Christ's blood cleanses, washes, frees. There is a fountain filled with blood where sinners are washed, where sinners lose their guilty stains. Is this image crude, gross, primitive, offensive? So is guilt. Guilt is ugly, demoralizing, incapacitating, paralyzing. Guilt is so strong, so powerful, it takes the life of Jesus to be rid of it. It takes the life of Christ, the blood of Jesus, to cleanse you of guilt. Image your sins being washed away, down the drain, carried into the sewer where they belong, never to return.
Then you may walk in faith as a free person. Leave your sin, leave your guilt at the foot of the cross. Walk in faith forgiven, redeemed; forgiven by God, forgiven by others, forgiven by yourself. Christ can even take away the guilt you carry by yourself and for yourself. Confess your sins, confess your guilt. Receive absolution. Hear and believe the word. Be cleansed, be washed in the blood of the lamb, and walk in faith as a free, forgiven person.
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Do you believe that? Do you accept it? Say it aloud, In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Image now Christ 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, being washed, being cleansed, and whisper to yourself, "In the name of Jesus Christ, I am forgiven."
© 1988 Douglas I. Norris