Text: Romans 3:21-24
Title: Busting the Myths that Make Us Miserable. Myth 3: I Should Never Have to Feel Guilty
We are about half way through our pilgrimage of Lent. This is our fourth Wednesday together. I’ve been working with a theme that I’ve called: “Myth-busting, Busting the myths that make us miserable.” All of us go along through our lives telling ourselves little lies, myths about ourselves that we think will help us somehow have happiness or success, but which, in truth, are the source of our unhappiness and failure.
We revisit our theme of busting the myths that make us miserable. And tonight’s myth is the idea that I should never have to feel guilty.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. He used to tell of the time when, as a prank, he sent an anonymous telegram to twelve different men, all of them men of good reputation and high standing in society. All twelve telegrams had the same message. The message simply said, “I know what you did. I’m going to tell the world unless you leave at once.” They were all unsigned. Within twenty-four hours, the story goes, all twelve of them had left the country.
It’s hard to imagine that this is a true story, but supposedly it is. If it is true, what does it prove? Seemingly, it proves that all people have secrets that they do not wish the world to know.
American poet, Carl Sandburg said: “There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud.”
One of the worst things you can do these days is to say something to make someone feel guilty. That really is one of the most severe social sins of our times. We live in an increasingly permissive time when it is unfashionable to make ethical or moral judgments. This has been building up for a while. In 1973, there was a famous psychologist named Karl Menninger who wrote a book with this title: “Whatever Became of Sin?” I couldn’t locate the exact quotation that I was looking for, but as I recall, Menninger said something to the effect that if people could believe that they were forgiven, then most of his patients could go home. That’s not to make light of mental illness, but I think his point was that many of our neuroses and anxieties and obsessions are built around two things: guilt and shame.
The difference between guilt and shame is easy to explain. Guilt is based on what you do. Shame is based on what you are. So unresolved feelings of guilt and shame are at the heart of much of the mental and emotional suffering people today endure. Medications are a godsend for people with chemical imbalances, but it’s also true that the message of forgiveness has the power to heal brokenness also. That too is a godsend. The power of forgiveness.
But there is another way to cope with feelings of guilt. That is to develop a callous over your conscience. It is genuinely possible for people to develop such a sin-hardened heart that they can do evil and feel no remorse whatsoever.
And here is where we must emphasize that guilt is more than just a feeling. Let’s say a man breaks into your house at night and steal your television set and he gets caught later by the police. Then he gets dragged in front of the judge and the judge asks him if he is sorry for what he has done and the thief says honestly, no judge, I’m not sorry. Is that man any less guilty for the crime of stealing, breaking the seventh commandment, just because he feels no contrition? Guilt is more than an emotion which we feel. It is a status, a reality, a condition. A person can be guilty and not feel guilty.
Twelve Step groups like AA teach people that admitting that you’ve got a problem is the first step toward recovery. Well, admitting that we have all sinned and broken God’s commandments is an essential part of the Christian life.
There is a wonderful novel by a late Swedish Lutheran bishop named Bo Giertz called “Hammer of God.” It’s a story of a congregation over several generations. And it deals tenderly with the foils and foibles of the people in that parish, including their all too human pastors over the years. Giertz uses the phrase, Hammer of God, to refer to God’s law because the law of God hits us sometimes like a hammer, hopefully breaking through the shell, down past the callus to where the living tissue remains.
We must acknowledge the reality that we are all helpless, apart from Christ. For God nothing is impossible, but apart from Him we can do nothing.
But still we are so often haunted and hounded by sins we have confessed and been absolved for.
Sometimes, we have heard this story over and over again, that Christ died for our sins. In our everyday lives, sometimes we can become comfortable and complacent with someone’s kindnesses to us. A mother, father, brother, sister, friend can be consistently kind to us and gradually, we can actually take it for granted. So also we can become complacent and comfortable with God’s kindnesses to us, including when God pays the penalty for all our sins.
Why are we not always so grateful for the forgiveness of God? Because sometimes we don’t take our sinfulness so seriously, and we figure that God does not really take our sinfulness seriously either. We can wiggle our way out of it. We can be slippery and avoid the consequences.
It is my prayer that you and I will never be complacent about God’s mercy, kindness and goodness to us.