13 December 2017

Guilt: Fact or Feeling? Despair or Hope? pt2

Where is the Church in our guilt?

This new life into which we are also called by grace is fundamentally different – we not only receive forgiveness from sin but the Holy Spirit takes up residence within our lives, disturbing our complacency, energising us to obedient living and joining us in organic unity to God and to all of those in whom He also lives. Living in the truth of this unity also means living in transparency with one another so that we continually call each other deeper into the freedom that God has given us. How much is this transparency a reality in our faith communities? Do we proclaim the need for forgiveness and freedom from guilt inside the church as well as outside it? Given that we all do continue to sin, how common is it that we can find those with whom we can be honest about our sin? Where can we acknowledge our common spiritual vulnerability and find direction back to God and His grace? Who among us will have the courage to openly discuss the causes and consequences of guilt with those whose souls are crushed by its weight? Full release from guilt takes place among brothers and sisters who need the same – “We pray our guilt, our hurt on the spot, not waiting until we can meet with a congregation or get into a church. All the same, for these prayers to develop into full maturity, they must be integrated into the praying community.”1

If, in our churches, we are to live faithfully before God, we will refuse to take the easy way out in our conversations with one another. When a fellow believer bares his or her soul to us, we will resist the temptation to try to temporarily make them (and us) feel better by minimising the impact of what they have done, saying, ‘Don’t worry, we all do things that are wrong’ instead of, ‘The guilt you are experiencing is genuine and God is requiring you to co-operate in His dealings with you over this.’ This is a task which can only be enacted in love and by creating within our faith communities, places and relationships in which a person can acknowledge the offence that has been committed against God and the guilt which is causing them such pain. To do so is to participate in God’s transforming ministry of grace and is perhaps most achieved through encouragement to and accompaniment in prayer. The guilt in which our sin ensnares us can only be dealt with by approaching His mercy seat. Leading someone to that place, however, is never carried out in a spirit of judgmentalism but in humility and transparency in which both believers acknowledge their sinfulness and kneel, side-by-side, at the throne of grace to receive mercy and grace to meet our individual needs (Hebrews 4:16). Nothing more expresses the nature of the relationship between one Christian and another, than rising from our knees to celebrate together our forgiveness and freedom and renewed life. When we live before God and with one another like this, we are genuinely being the Church.

What about the false guilt?

Real guilt needs to be dealt with, but people who live in the narrative of guilt that is their own creation on the back of feelings which are not based in fact, also require support. If the falseness we are believing relates to a lack of appropriate boundaries – an inability to identify what we are and are not personally responsible for, we need to be gently led to see and live in the truth. This can take time. Letting go of the way we are most used to living, even if it deprives us of freedom and peace, is not an overnight event. People whose lives and actions have been shaped around such untruth are in the habit of feeling guilty. Moreover, many have been so cruelly and skilfully manipulated into accepting responsibility for sin committed against them, rather than by them that the necessary renewing of their minds (Romans 12:1-2) will mean gradually re-learning the world  as it is, instead of how they were made believe it to be. God’s intention for us is always good; His ministry in us is always to lead us into life, truth, freedom and peace. If, as sincere Christians, the way we are experiencing our lives is not helping us to discover more and more of this, then there is something wrong that we need to acknowledge in the presence of the Lord, inviting Him to reveal to us what is holding us back, firm in the knowledge that, when we turn towards our Father, we find Him waiting for this moment and running towards us, desperate to restore us to our inheritance as His beloved sons and daughters. Guiding and supporting one another in this journey into life is another core function of a true community of disciples of Jesus.

Finally, there is one more potential experience of false guilt: this is when we have acknowledged our sin, come before the God of grace, in confession and repentance to receive pardon but are refusing to accept and live in this reality of freedom from guilt and move forward into the life we have been given. Yet again we are living in a false narrative. In God’s reality (which is the only one that matters) and in the heavenly realms, our forgiveness is a fact – we are forgiven and restored, through the completed sacrifice of Christ. While God tells us He has removed our sin from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12) still, we act as if this were not so, perpetuating feelings of guilt which no longer belong to us in truth. This is to live in a lie and a lie that leads us away from life and peace and freedom and into death, anxiety and captivity. We have the audacity to claim, “God may have forgiven me but I just can’t forgive myself.” Forgiving ourselves is never an option; it is always an impossibility. As the Pharisees (for once) rightly said, “Only God can forgive sin.” (Mark 2:9) Our only role is to seek and receive by faith with deep gratitude, the forgiveness that God gives.

More importantly to continue in this state is to call God a liar. It is to impose on God the picture of Him that we have created for ourselves. Pascal once said, “God made us in His image and we have returned the compliment.” Because we cannot conceive of anyone forgiving us for the awful sin we have committed and because we cannot conceive of forgiving ourselves, we decide that God is of the same mind. God is, therefore, in our distorted way of thinking, no more than the best human anyone could possibly be and even the best human, we are certain, could not forgive us for what we have done. This is a denial that God is who He says He is and that He speaks only truth. It is a denial of the sufficiency and power of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It devalues His suffering and claims it to be of no use.

This is not just unwise– it is an act of the greatest arrogance for it sets our view of God alongside His revelation of Himself and says that we prefer to believe ours. It leads to self-obsession and “obsession with self in these matters is a dead end” (Romans 8:6). 2  Importantly, too, it causes our ministry to stagnate and keeps us from engaging with what God is calling us to do in the world. As Larry Crabb writes, “Our sins have been forgiven and we’ve been called and equipped to advance His kingdom. We have what we need to do what we should do.”3  Moving out of this false guilt  requires of us a deliberate turning away from living in this lie and a turning in trust towards Christ and His truth; it is not something that has to take time. When God reveals to us that we are living in this lie, it needs to be confronted and an intentional choice to refuse to continue to believe it must be made so that we enter into the fullness of life that God has made available to us. As Moses spells out to the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 30:19), sometimes we just have to make a choice between life and death – and we need to “choose life”.

The indescribably gracious call of our God is to “simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us… [because] …this resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike, ‘What’s next, Papa?’” (Romans 8:4,15). 4  Responding in faith to the freely offered grace of God means believing what God has done and said about our guilt. Only then will we be able to offer back the gratitude that calls on our (once guilt-stained, now clean, transformed and free) souls to join David (Psalm 103) in blessing the Lord, never forgetting a single one of the wonderful things He has done for us!

1 Eugene Peterson and Janice Stubbs Peterson (ed.), Living the Message, (London: Harper Collins, 2003), 192

2 The Message

3 Larry Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, Finding a True Spiritual Community, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 7

4 The Message

Jill teaches Practical Theology at Belfast Bible College where she also oversees the spiritual life of the Community.

Jill Harshaw