If Only... Back to Index

If Only...
February 3, 2013

St. Paul's United Methodist Church, Manteca

HEBREWS 9:11-14

On April 15, following a delightful, restful cruise to Hawaii, on our way back from San Diego to our home in Mesa, AZ, on I-8, I caught myself nodding, over-corrected; the car went across the freeway and bounced off the mountainside, ending up in the left lane facing the way we had come.  Thank God there were no cars near us at the time.  I couldn't rouse Ellie and feared she was dead, but then "angels" stopped their cars and came to help.  Three nurses and a doctor appeared.  One of the nurses revived Ellie.  A young man got in the back seat and held Ellie's head straight until the ambulance arrived.  A nurse retrieved the suitcase that had been thrown out of the trunk, and took it to the hospital.

An ambulance took us to El Centro Hospital.  My brother, Bob and Lois came from San Diego.  The Highway Patrolman told Bob that he didn't understand how we were still alive. I  was released with bruises; a cut on Ellie's head was stitched, and then she was transferred back to San Diego with two fractures in her pelvis.  She spent four days in the UC Hospital and 19 days in a skilled nursing facility for physical therapy.  Subsequently, it was discovered that she has two hematoma on the brain.

Our youngest son, Craig, flew down from San Francisco the evening of the accident.  Steve and Frona Winter surprised us with a visit and generously offered to let me stay in their condo while they returned to Manteca.  How grateful we are to God for our lives, for friends and their gracious hospitality. 

Then I was bombarded with “If Onlys.”  If only we hadn't had to return an hour to San Diego for a misplaced piece of luggage.  If only we had stayed overnight in San Diego.  If only I had pulled over to nap, in spite of no rest areas.  If only we hadn't gone on a cruise.  If only we had stayed in Manteca through the years.  If only we had stayed in Minnesota and not moved to California.  If only I hadn't been born!  Uncontrolled If Onlys are strangling, overwhelming, paralyzing.

There is an upside to If Onlys if positive steps are taken to prevent the event from happening again.  I now pull over and nap when I feel sleepy.  But, I'm talking about paralyzing guilt, insidious guilt that prevents us from living life fully in the present--persisting, strangling guilt that keeps us looking backward, living in the past rather than the present.  The past cannot be changed.  Dwelling on If Onlys changes nothing!  Let them go!

A young man in his early twenties died of diabetes related illnesses. During the last 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 with guilt. She is possessed by If Onlys.  She cries, ”If only I had done this or that.  If only...  Her friends and family assure her that she did all that she could. Yet, she persists in feeling guilty. Her guilt is so paralyzing, she can’t work. She is losing her friends because she has no energy, time, or consideration. She is depressed, incapacitated, driven, paralyzed.

She has always been an active church member. She has faith in God. She believes God forgives her. She probably admits that her son forgives her, that he would not understand her blaming herself. But, she can’t forgive herself.

Do you carry a load of guilt with you? Burdened with If Onlys?  If only I had done...if only I had said.  If only I had not done...If only I had not said.  On and on!  Everybody has guilt!  Is that too strong?  All those who have no guilt, please raise your hands.  Be careful—if you raise your hand, you might then have guilt for lying, or denying!  Denial is the act of burying the If Onlys into the recesses of our minds where they ferment and rot.

We do not handle guilt well. Especially do we have difficulty forgiving ourselves. Conscientious people, good people, respectable people often fail to live up to their own expectations. They are 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. We, of all people, should know how to forgive and how to receive forgiveness. The heart of the Christian gospel--the good news--is that God loves us and saves us from ourselves. The good news is that God forgives sins, and eradicates guilt.

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 been forgiven.  And so it is with guilt. We cannot get rid of guilt by ourselves. We cannot buy ourselves a conscience free of guilt. But, Jesus has already given his life for our guilt to be eradicated. That is the Christian good news. Why, therefore, are so many Christians oppressed with guilt? Why are so many not free, joyous, and confidently living in the here and now, rather than dwelling in past If Onlys?

The question is: How is a guilt-ridden person freed from the insidious If Onlys?

First, believe that God is a God of forgiveness and mercy. Believe that God gives second chances, and many chances. Believe that Jesus gave his life for your forgiveness and salvation--a relationship with God that is free of guilt.

Second, confess your sins. 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." Cleanse us.  Confess. Tell it. Unload the guilt. Name your sin. Name your guilt. Admit it. Sometimes it helps to tell another person, which is biblical. James 5:16, "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another." Share your burden. Tell your pastor. Tell a trusted friend.  Confess your sins.

Third, receive absolution--the assurance that you are forgiven, you are absolved from your guilt. 

But, there are those who still have a difficult time believing they are forgiven. They need something more tangible, something more graphic to convince them that they are forgiven.  In the Old Testament, sins were symbolically 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. The imagery was powerful. People could actually see the goat running into the wilderness with their sins. There goes my If Onlys, good riddance!  But, then, don't let the goat come back with your guilt.  There is a hymn, “Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.”  Don't come forward for Communion, be forgiven for your If Onlys, and then on the way back to your pew decide that you can't live without your old antagonist.  Leave it there!

Sometimes, the goat or a lamb was sacrificed. Again, the imagery was powerful.  They could actually see the lamb who was carrying their If Onlys butchered and burned on the altar, the If Onlys going up in smoke.

Another ancient ritual, with a powerful image, was the sprinkling of a lamb's blood on the altar and on the garments of the priests to cleanse, to wash away sins and guilt, to wash away the If Onlys. 

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, (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." 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.  In other words, If Onlys are so deeply imbedded in us that it takes the life and death of Jesus, the blood of Jesus to cleanse us.

Are you offended by blood?  Do your sensitivities cringe at the idea of blood cleansing you?  We worshiped in a church where there was no mention of blood in the Communion service.  I asked why, and was told that some in the congregation were offended.  Offended!  So, we end up with a bloodless, anemic, insipid religion with no power!  No wonder Christians are guilt-ridden!

Our spiritual ancestors asked and sang, "Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?"  We sang, “There is a fountain filled with blood.”  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 and sacrifice of Jesus, the blood of Jesus, to cleanse us. Image yourself standing in a fountain where your If Onlys are washed away, down the drain, carried into the sewer where they belong. And leave them there!  Don't rummage around in the sewer trying to take back your guilt!

In the Communion service today, when you eat the bread and drink the juice, image the body and the blood, the life of Jesus, entering your body, cleansing, forgiving, washing away your guilt, freeing you from the tentacles of the If Onlys, freeing you to walk, to live forgiven and cleansed.

© 2013 Douglas I. Norris