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Guilt and Grace / New Year’s Eve

Romans 8:28-39

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.

Several years back I found a newspaper article about a group of businessmen who were trying to market a new product called “Guilt Away.” Guilt Away was supposed to remove guilt. Part of their advertising ran like this: Hounded by nagging guilt? Get rid of it the modern way, the same way you eliminate bad breath or underarm wetness. Spray guilt away with the new Guilt Away. What they were trying to do was sell an eight-ounce bottle of rose water that you could spray on yourself when you were feeling guilty. Four bucks a bottle! I doubt that Guilt Away worked. But if it did, it could have made these businessmen billions of dollars.

Most of us can hardly get through a day without feeling at least a little bit guilty about something. A guilty conscience is the seasoning of our daily life. What parent hasn’t felt guilty sometimes about disciplining the children: either that we have disciplined them too much, or haven’t disciplined them enough? And that’s only one of many things that can make a parent feel guilty.

A book titled How to Be a Guilty Parent listed 85 different types of parental guilt. Like working mother guilt. That’s what happens when you get a telephone call that goes: Hello, Mom? Is that you, Mom? I can hardly remember your voice any longer! Now, I know you don’t like when I bother you at work, Mom, but I’ve really got to know: where do you keep the instant coffee? I’d like to give the Fire Department and the Police some coffee before they leave.

But, of course, it isn’t only parents who feel guilty. Children sometimes feel guilty about letting down their parents. You spend your whole adult life over an incident that happened in your childhood. You refused to help your father when he needed your help at his market place. You never forgot that incident and never forgave yourself for refusing. Now you go back to the spot where your father’s stall was and stood all alone, in the rain, for hours, hatless, trying to come to peace with the fact that you had refused to help your father.

Parents can feel guilty. Children can feel guilty. Sometimes students feel guilty about not getting the most out of their education. Homeowners can feel guilty about taking a Saturday snooze instead of fixing the faucet. And so on. A guilty conscience is the seasoning of daily life. Well, what to do? If we could just spray our guilt away, we’d buy Guilt Away, and use it, by the bucket. But we can’t. So, people try other ways to get rid of guilt. Some of us try to deny our guilt. We’re like the clergyman who, walking down the road, came upon a group of boys surrounding a dog. What are you doing with that dog? the kindly clergyman asked. We’re having a contest, said one of the boys. Whoever can tell the biggest lie wins the dog. Oh, my, my, my, said the minister, when I was a little boy like you, I never told lies. There was a moment of stunned silence. Then, one of the boys responded, Okay, mister, you win the dog!

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8,). We can try to deny our guilt. But life won’t let us long deny our guilt. So then, maybe if we can’t deny our guilt, maybe we can try works righteousness, try to work it off. Say, you feel guilty about not visiting your Aunt Tillie. To make it up, you resolve to visit Aunt Tillie every single week, although, frankly, visiting Aunt Tillie and her 37 cats isn’t really that much fun. Still you do it. You visit Aunt Tillie winter and summer, rain and shine, for 52 consecutive weeks. Will that stop you from feeling guilty? No! Because sooner or later, your spouse or your children are going to complain that you’re not spending enough time with them. You’re always away, visiting Aunt Tillie. So, you start to stretch out your visits every two weeks. But before too long, your aunt will call you up and ask why you don’t like her anymore. You don’t visit like you used to. And if you get angry, and slam down the phone, you’ll have to feel guilty about that! You can’t win. It’s impossible to work off our guilt. Because we can’t please everyone or do everything exactly right. We can’t deny our guilt. We can’t work it off.

Perhaps we can ease it by immersing ourselves in psychology. Most bookstores have a pop psychology, “self-help” section. Usually there’s a dozen paperbacks in that section (often best sellers) about getting rid of the guilt. They give us advice like “turn off the Mom and Pop tapes in our head,” stop collecting “guilt stamps,” “learn to live with the normal crazies,” or avoid your “mistake Zones.” These books can be helpful. But, what these books offer is a reduction of guilt, not a cure. Responsible writers are careful not to promise their readers too much. Authors of guilt free books claim that by following their program most people can reduce their guilt load by up to sixty percent! But, the remaining forty percent is “not solvable.” They tell their readers to learn to “live around it.” There’s no true escape, either. Guilt is something like an automobile horn. It’s useful, of course. But if the automobile horn gets stuck, it becomes a terrible nuisance!

So, where can we turn for relief from guilt? Freedom from obsessive and oppressive guilt, I believe, can be had only through faith. Our Christian faith tells us the truth about ourselves. We are indeed guilty. You and I do fail ourselves and our families and our friends and God every single day. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). None is righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:10). That’s the “bad news” from Romans. But, the Good News is, Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20).

Our sins may be great, but not greater than God’s amazing grace. The grace of God is proclaimed triumphantly in the eighth chapter of the book of Romans. In part of that chapter, verses 33 and 34, the Apostle Paul presents the image of each one of us standing in court. Imagine yourself in court! Your sins have brought you to court! And the jury in that courtroom is every single person you’ve ever let down or hurt, your mother, your father, your children, your spouse, the neighbor you don’t like, the telephone salesman you were rude to last June, your eighth-grade Sunday School teacher that you gave such a hard time, your Aunt Tillie (whom you never visit), every single person you have ever hurt or let down is there in the courtroom to pass judgment on you. The prosecutor, your own conscience, reads out the long, sordid list of your sins and moral failures. All your sins are exposed now, and you, God, and everyone else you’ve ever known can see them all. Whatever we have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what we have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops (Luke 12:3). Not even our secret thoughts will be hidden any longer. The verdict is clear: Guilty, guilty, guilty!

Every sharp word and thoughtless deed, every ugly thought rises up to condemn you. You, too, realize you deserve to die. But there’s One in the courtroom who’s there to defend you, at a moment when you can’t even defend yourself. It’s Jesus Christ, our advocate, the righteous one (1 John 2:1), the Son of God. Radiant with power and glory, he stands in the courtroom and pleads for you. Yes, He says, this one, the sinner, deserves to die. But I have already claimed this one for Myself, not because of this one’s goodness but because of this one’s faith. I’ve already paid the debt for this one. And Jesus shows the nail marks in His hands and the spear mark in His side. And the onlooker’s gasp. And then God, the Great Judge, looks down upon His beloved Son, who pleads on your behalf, who has already paid for your sins on the cross; God looks down on Jesus and you, and raises the gavel and declares you not guilty, not guilty, not guilty. Not because of your goodness, but because you belong to Christ. Not guilty. Acquitted on all charges. Case closed! We’re never going to be able to spray our guilt away. Or ignore it. Or work it off. Or psychologize it away, either. Freedom from guilt comes only through faith. From faith that, while our sins and shortcomings are great, the grace of God is even greater. Listen again to the words of the Apostle Paul:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, will He not also give us all things with Him? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation [including our guilt] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31b-32, 35, 37-39,)

Believe in the Good News. And live at peace.