I remember someone once telling us the difference between cats and dogs. Take a dog in and feed it, stroke it, tickle it’s belly, take it for walks and it will look at you and think “wow! For him to treat me like this, he must be a god to me.” Do the same with a cat and it will think “wow for him to treat me like this, I must be a god.”
There’s another difference between cats and dogs. A dog when something wrong happens will look at you and you will see incredible guilt in its face. A cat will look at you and make you feel guilty.
You know what it’s like when someone causes you to feel guilty with just a look. They don’t need to say anything. The expression in their eyes say it all! We dread that look. Some of us expect and dread and imagine that look from God. We are deeply aware of guilt.
This Christmas as I preached at our different carol services, it was this one theme, “Guilt” that seemed to resonate. Can I be free from the heavy burden of guilt and shame? For many people, guilt is something overwhelming, shackling, crushing. It squeezes, life, joy and hope out of you. It makes you feel like you cannot go on. It imprisons you damaging friendships and relationships with others. It causes or exacerbates emotional breakdown, depression and even physical illness.
I want to suggest that there are two types of guilt.
- False guilt
Some of you carry the huge burden of guilt caused by what others have said and done to us. You live in fear and shame when in fact, you are not guilty. The reality is that others have done things to you. They are the ones who should carry the blame.
Sometimes we can believe that God is punishing us for something we have done. Bereavement, poverty, ill health all become signs of God’s displeasure. It is important to say right now that God does not punish you like that. God is not vindictive looking to pay us back. God is loving, merciful and good.
False guilt can cripple us. We end up unwilling and unable to get involved in serving God and using our gifts. We think we will simply mess up again. False guilt can sometimes be accompanied by blame. Even as we carry guilt ourselves, we lash out at others who we think have let us down and failed us.
2. Real Guilt
Another problem with false guilt is that it stops us from facing up to the truth that we have real guilt. Have you noticed how politicians have become experts at the false apology. They either apologies if anyone was upset by what they said or did (it’s really your fault not theirs!) or for things completely unconnected to them. So a modern politician can apologise for slavery, the potato famine, historic abuse cases, Bloody Sunday etc. because that takes attention away from their own present failings, the things they should take responsibility for.
I can hide behind false guilt because that’s something I can’t really do anything about. Indeed, when I nurture and hold onto that guilt, I’m not even really sorry for it. It becomes a constant opportunity to receive sympathy and assurance from others.
But there is real guilt. The temptation when responding to false guilt is to say “No you have done nothing wrong. Everything is okay.” It is tempting to say “God does not punish” and leave it at that. This too is false.
King David wrote Psalm 51 because he knew he was guilty. In fact, he had committed adultery and murder. Now we may not have gone that far but the Bible tells us that in our hearts we harbour jealousy and bitterness, selfishness and lust. Jesus says that what we think and feel in our hearts matters just as much as what we say and do. We also know that we habitually let down and hurt those closest to us. We fail to love our neighbours as ourselves. We put ourselves first and that means we fail to love God with our whole being as he deserves.
The Bible says that God does punish sin. This isn’t about whether you lose my job or get cancer or your girlfriend walks out on you now. Rather, the penalty for sin is death. The Bible says that when we die, we face eternity in hell, separated from God’s loving presence. It would be equally dangerous to live life oblivious to true guilt as it would be to go around varying the burden of false guilt.
There is good news. It is at least hinted at in this Psalm where David confesses his sin in faith that God will forgive him, clean him up, renew him and restore him. The good news is that sin has been punished somewhere else. On the Cross at Calvary, Jesus was punished in our place, he bore ous shame so that we don’t have to be ashamed he took our guilt on himself. Where guilt would crush us, Isaiah 53 tells us that it was God’s will to crush him. Where we should experience separation from God’s loving presence,, Jesus cried out “Why have you forsaken me.” Jesus died so that we can live.
This is the good news of the Christian message. Now it’s good news for people who are hearing it the first time. It offers salvation and the hope of eternal life.
It’s good news for Christians too – whether you have been following Jesus 1 week, 1 year, 10 years or more. When you are wrestling with guilt (real or false), when you are struggling with temptation, when you face suffering and hardship, when you want to know how to grow as a Christian and walk close to God, there is a simple answer. May I let you in on a secret?
….There is no secret. There is no hidden solution to living the Christian life. There is not some secret additional information that’s been held back, a new level of knowledge, a course to go on or whatever. Nor is it about receiving some kind of mystical experience (a “second blessing”). The answer to all of these things comes back to the Gospel again. It gives us the security of knowing that God has done everything for us, the assurance of knowing we are forgiven, the certain hope that one day we will be with Jesus and we will be like him. This gives us freedom from past and present guilt. It gives us a good news message to share with others.
(based on our New Year’s Eve Service message 31st December 2015)