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Encouragement: From Guilt to Grace

June 14, 2009
Sermon:  June 14, 2009
Text:  I John 1:8-9; 3:19-20

I have a message of encouragement today for everybody.  The message is for me and for every single person within the sound of my voice.  No one is exempt from today’s sermon about our journey from guilt to grace.  I actually had the message in mind, when, toward the end of the week, events started to happen.  First, Donna Temples died.  Then yesterday, I received a call from a family whose twenty-year-old son had committed suicide.  The future is so unpredictable.

I was thinking about what happens to people in times of grief.  When death comes so suddenly and unexpectedly, our world is turned upside down.  It is in disarray, and our mind starts trying to make sense out of nonsense.  Trying to bring order out of chaos, we move in a typical way to cause and effect.  Often, we start blaming ourselves.  We begin thinking, Maybe if I had just done this… or If I had not done that…or Maybe because I did this, now this has happened.  People begin wondering, What could I have done?  What could I have done differently? Guilt becomes a very strong dynamic.

A widower laments, Maybe if I had just taken more seriously my wife’s physical complaints, she would not have had to go through her illness alone. In a fit of rage, a child wishes that his mother would die.  When she dies, he feels like he might have caused her death.  Following her husband’s death, a wife regrets complaining that her husband was selfish.  A grandfather wonders if he had gotten better medical care for his granddaughter he might have prevented her death.  Guilt sets in, and it can be so disabling.

The dynamic of guilt goes far beyond grief.  Many people carry guilt with them all the time.  The darkness of guilt is one of the strongest negative reactions.  Imagine having an old tape recording that details all the things you have done wrong.  Imagine playing that tape over and over and over again all day and all night, constantly reminding you of just how sorry your life has been.  We think back to events, to conversations, to ways that we have behaved.  We wallow in the ashes of the past, wishing we had done things differently.  We examine the way we have behaved and believe that we have played a vital role in somebody else’s undoing, maybe causing an accident, illness, or other misfortune.  We assume responsibilities for the problems others have.  That is especially true of parents regarding their children.  Parents remember the times they were unkind, less than helpful, too lenient, or too critical.  We blame ourselves for events over which now we have no control.  As we sift through all of this, the guilt increases.  It gives us reason to be miserable.  Our perceived sense of failure, our omissions, insults, poor judgment, and unwise choices torment us.

Guilt affects everybody.  The Bible is very clear about the fact that all have sinned.  Romans 3:23 says that we all fall short of God’s glory.  We should, in fact, feel guilty; but to carry guilt with us constantly, allowing it always to be on our minds, becomes crippling.  David offered his great prayer in Psalm 51 after his adultery with Bathsheba.  He actually committed two sins:  adultery with another man’s wife and then murder of that man, Uriah the Hittite.  David ordered him to be placed on the front line so that he would be killed in battle.  When Nathan the prophet confronted him, David prayed:  “Against Thee and Thee only have I sinned and done that which is evil in Thy sight” (51:4).  David admits, “My sin is ever before me.”  Those who carry a burden of guilt know exactly what that is like.  They just cannot seem to get away from it.  The guilt is always present.

This unresolved guilt is the stuff of great literature.  Think of William Shakespeare’s Lady McBeth, pacing back and forth across the stage, wringing her hands as if trying to wash away the bloodstains.  She says, “Out, out, ____ spot!”  Think of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s trio of guilt-ridden characters: Hester Prynne, an adulteress; Arthur Dimmesdale, the young pastor; and Roger Chillingworth, the physician.  Only Hester is able to resolve her guilt.  The Puritan community, aware of Hester’s adultery, requires her to wear the scarlet letter “A” on her garment.  Her sin is ever before her and those in the village.  Only she is able to find resolution for her guilt.

Guilt is like rust to the human soul.  In fact, one seventeenth century bishop, Robert South, wrote, “Guilt upon the conscience, like rust upon iron, defiles and consumes it, gnawing and creeping into it as that does which at last eats out the very heart and the substance of the metal.”  Psychotherapists have essentially made the same comment.  Albert Ellis has said, “The more sinful and guilty a person tends to feel, the less chance there is that he will be a happy, healthy, or law-abiding citizen.”  Guilt can harm us.  It can do a lot of damage emotionally and physically.

What is the best way to handle guilt?  It is important for us to say that guilt can have a positive side.  That may sound strange to you after I have gone into great length talking about how much it can hurt us.  Imagine a world in which no one ever felt guilty.  The world would consist of sociopaths, people who have no sense of conscience.  Sociopaths only feel guilty when they get caught.

The Apostle Paul writes about this very dilemma when he speaks of people whose conscience has been seared.  It is as if their conscience has been cauterized so that they no longer feel guilty.  Having a seared conscience means that our sins become so commonplace that we get used to them.  Our sins just do not bother us anymore.  Guilt is good if it means that our conscience is working.

A student makes a decision to go out partying instead of studying for an important exam.  She should feel guilty about that.  A man – father, husband – neglects his family by playing entirely too much golf.  He should feel guilty for that.  An employee spends part of the day doing personal business on company time.  He should feel guilty.  When we do something wrong, we have a kind of built-in alarm system that says, “You are off track, out of bounds.  You need to correct your ways here.  Straighten up and do right.”  That alarm system is good.  It gives us the opportunity to make course adjustments.

Think of Jiminy Cricket who was somewhat like a walking conscience.  He was assigned to be a sidekick to Pinocchio, a puppet with no conscience of his own.  Jiminy Cricket was supposed to serve as Pinocchio’s conscience and try his best to keep him out of trouble.  He did not always win the war, however.  Our conscience has the same purpose.  That is the reason guilt can be good.  Without it, the whole world would be haywire.

Unresolved guilt – guilt that continues and continues and continues, gnaws away at our peace of mind, saps our energy, and plagues us to the point that we start to fear and mistrust others – is harmful.  Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, “Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind.”  When we live by guilt, we feel as though we do not deserve the grace of God.  We feel as though we do not deserve anything good in our lives.  We begin living in ways that cause us to fail rather than succeed.  Unresolved guilt becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, thwarting our own ability to advance.  It can lead to depression.  Some people try to drown out the voice of their conscience with drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, or many of the other ways people get in trouble.

What are we to do?  Listen to this:  the only remedy for guilt is forgiveness.  Forgiveness is the only way mentioned in the Bible.  It is the only way to rid ourselves of this dark blot.  It is the only way to overcome what has been called the “heart of darkness.”  We often have difficulty accepting forgiveness.  The height of arrogance is believing that we have sinned so badly that we are beyond the reach of God’s grace.  God can forgive any sin.  I want to outline a process of five steps that will teach us what to do about our guilt.

Do you know the Jimmy Buffett song, “Margaritaville”?  It is about a man who has pretty much lost his way.  Lines in the song say that he was “searching for my lost shaker of salt.”  He “blew out a flip-flop, stepped on a pop-top.”  He is just wasting away.  At the first of the song, he says, “Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame.”  The second verse states, “I know it is nobody’s fault.”  In the third verse, he supposes, “I guess it could be my fault.”  By the time Buffett gets to the last verse, he has realized, “It’s my own _____ fault.”  In the course of that song, the singer finally acknowledges his wrongdoing.  The first step is to acknowledge your fault.

Three of the most difficult, yet important, words in the English language are “I am sorry.”  Until we own up to our sins and failings, until we own up to our mistakes and faults, we cannot get better.  This is the reason John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8-9).  Until we confess, until we admit, until we acknowledge, we cannot receive forgiveness.

The second step is to ask for forgiveness.  We need to ask for forgiveness from the person we have wronged, the person we have hurt, the person we have neglected, the person we have insulted.  They will not always grant you forgiveness.  Sometimes they cannot because they are already in the grave.  I will never forget a dear lady standing by her father’s grave and acknowledging her wrongdoings that had broken his heart.  With tears in her eyes, she asked him for forgiveness.  Afterwards, she felt that she was clean.  She experienced a great catharsis in her life.  We must ask for forgiveness.

Third, I suggest that you talk with an objective person, perhaps a professional.  Confide in someone you trust, someone who can give you some good godly advice.  The wonderful verse of Proverbs 20:5 says, “The counsel of a person’s mind is like deep water, but a person of understanding will draw it out.”  That verse, written long before Sigmund Freud, simply says that guilt is like a malignancy with tentacles that go deep into the soul.  We have to draw out, get rid of, that guilt.  Talk with an objective person.

Fourth, I recommend that you keep the big picture in mind.  No relationship is either all good or all bad.  Some good and some bad exist in every single one.  If you are feeling guilty, remember some good things you did for and with this other person.  If you are a parent, remember the many good things you did for and with your children.  Do not just dwell on the negatives.  I highly recommend that you learn the Prayer of Serenity:  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The fifth step is to come to the cross of Jesus and recognize that his death was for your sins.  I have heard others talk about forgiving themselves many times in the years of my counseling ministry.  Did you see what John wrote?  He said, “When our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (I John 3:20).  Have you ever tried kissing your own elbow?  When I asked that question during the early service, a group of children tried but were unsuccessful.  Just as it is impossible to kiss your elbow, it is impossible to forgive yourself.  Someone else must give you the gift of grace.  The supreme example is Jesus Christ.  He gives us the gift of grace, the gift of forgiveness.

I can think of no better illustration than one you have heard before.  Jesus chose twelve apostles, all listed in the Gospels.  Mark’s Gospel tells us that before Jesus made these selections, he went up onto a mountain to pray.  Scripture includes Judas Iscariot in the list.  It is just baffling to think of him as an answer to prayer, but he is so much like all the others, especially when we come to the end of Jesus’ earthly life.  Thomas doubts Jesus, Simon Peter denies him, and Judas betrays him.  Scripture tells us that all other disciples go away with the exception of John, the writer of this little letter.  He alone is pictured standing at the foot of the cross.

Judas Iscariot is depicted as one of the most despicable people in human history.  According to Dante, he is frozen in a block of ice at the center of hell with Brutus, the other great traitor.  Judas, as a Zealot, wanted a revolution.  Thinking Jesus was going to overthrow the Roman army of occupation, he tried to force Jesus’ hand.  Judas did not betray Jesus because he wanted money.  In fact, when he realized how wrong he had been, he threw the money he had received at the feet of the high priest.  He took his own life, condemning himself forever.

When Simon Peter declared that he would stand by Jesus until the very end, Jesus rebuked him, “Simon, Satan has sought to sift you, but I have prayed for you.”  Simon Peter protested again, and Jesus answered, “Before the rooster crows, you will have denied me three times.”  When the rooster crowed in downtown Jerusalem, Peter had done just that, with cursing.  Luke’s Gospel depicts this scene by saying that in that moment, Peter turned and looked at Jesus.  Not a word was exchanged between the two.  Jesus did not communicate a statement like “I told you so.”  Instead, through a glance, he conveyed, “Peter, I love you.”  Simon Peter went out and wept bitterly.  Peter did accept Jesus’ forgiveness, though it took him awhile.  Jesus had to confront him by the lakeside, offering him forgiveness three times as if erasing those three-fold denials. Having been forgiven for his denial of Jesus, Simon Peter became one of the great leaders of the Christian church.  A church in Rome is named for him.

What is the difference between betrayal and denial?  I do not see a dime’s worth of difference.  Whether you betray Jesus as Judas did or deny Jesus as Peter did, you let him down.  The difference is that Peter accepted Jesus’ forgiveness, and Judas did not receive forgiveness.  Judas went out and took his own life.  He thought he had to die for his own sins.  Imagine what would have happened if Judas had gone by Calvary?  If he had gone to that place called the Skull?  If he had looked up into the face of Jesus and said, “Lord, I am sorry.  Please forgive me”?  What do you think Jesus would have done?  He would have done for Judas exactly what he did for Peter, for me, for you, for the whole world.  He would have said, “Father, forgive him.  He did not know what he was doing.”

How do we move from guilt to grace?  The only way is by taking the path of forgiveness.  We move from guilt to grace when we acknowledge our sin, when we come to the cross and look into the face of the only one who has the authority to forgive us.  Jesus gave his life for our sin.

If you have never accepted God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, could I invite you to do so?  Acknowledge your sin.  Ask Jesus to forgive you.  Declare him as Lord of your life, and accept his way in this world.  Doing so will make an untold difference in your life.

Kirk H. Neely

© June 2009

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