The Truth about Guilt
God has surrounded us with an important message. With the passing of time and the changing of seasons, that message is told and retold. We live, eat, and breathe it. It is evidenced within our own bodies. The message is renewal. All around us and in us. For example, most people associate the rising of the sun with newness or starting over. The decay of winter stifles the growth of deadly pathogens and ushers in the greenery of spring. We work so we can rest, and we rest so we can work. Our clothes, dishes, houses, and cars get dirty. We clean them and start over. We grow new skin every 2 weeks, a new liver every 3 to 5 hundred days, and a new skeleton every 10 years or so. According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, renewal in the New Testament…
Keep these things in mind as you continue reading.This is post four of four, based on a portion of the sermon, Being Led by the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6-15), by Robert Williams.
That’s Not God
According to Williams, there are four ways you can tell you are not hearing God’s voice:
- God never says anything that contradicts Scripture
- God’s voice is not the voice of anxiety, unsettledness or exhaustion
- God’s voice is not the voice of obscurity – “Clear trumpet”
- God’s corrective voice is not one of guilt or condemnation but loving discipline and conviction of sin
Today, we’ll examine number four: God’s corrective voice is not one of guilt or condemnation but loving discipline and conviction of sin. It is the only one of the four (the 25% truth) I embrace as completely true.
God is not going to put guilt… he is not going to speak to you in such a way as to make you feel awful and to heap guilt and condemnation on you. He does correct us, though. But His correction is loving. It’s loving discipline and guidance, and He touches our heart to make us feel the conviction of sin in our heart without heaping guilt and condemnation because we failed to do something. That’s not God.
The key concepts are:
The word that packs the most punch in this list is “guilt.” Condemnation, discipline and conviction would be rather irrelevant without guilt. The word “guilt,” as it is used by Williams and as it is commonly used by all of us, is a feeling we have when we fail to meet some moral standard. In scripture, guilt has a different sort of meaning.
The Hebrew Old Testament word “asam” means “guilt,” and is used interchangeably with the word “sin,” but it also means “guilt offering.” The first meaning has to do with the sin itself, while the second one has to do with an attempt to make it right. The first meaning is about the relationship between the offender and God, while the second one has to do with the relationship between the offender and the community.
Throughout history, the ritualistic practice of animal sacrifice to ease the human conscience and appease a god or gods can be found in almost every culture, including that of the Hebrews. The meaning of this ritual, as barbaric as it is, is agreed upon by the the community as a way of addressing both guilt and the need to make things right, preserving a sense of order. We may think that we are far too civilized to ever participate in such a system. But consider the death penalty and wars — humans, not animals, are killed as a way of addressing guilt and the need to make things right. We think that by doing such things we are preserving order. Go figure.
There is no Greek New Testament equivalent for the guilt-offering kind of “asam,” which really isn’t that surprising for reasons that will become obvious as you keep reading.
Balancing the Scale
Whenever one person wrongs another person, the offended one usually feels a sense of imbalance, thinking “that’s not right” or “that’s not fair” and “the offender owes me ___.” (Fill in the blank with whatever makes you feel better when someone has done wrong to you.) This is the reason we see lady Justice holding a balancing scale in and around courtrooms and courthouses. The offender may also feel a sense of imbalance, but since that imbalance is in his or her favor, it is not likely to produce the same discomfort as it does for the offended one. Depending on the offense, “making it right” or balancing out the scale could entail something as light as apology or something as heavy as death.
I began this blog post with the concept of renewal. But keep in mind that the need for renewal only arises when its opposite exists. Destruction, debilitation, and corruption are present all around us and in us. God’s plan for dealing with the moral imbalance of the universe is radically different and all-encompassing.
On one side of the scale, we have time, space, matter, and more importantly, things we cannot clearly define, like what makes us “us,” kindness, generosity, acceptance, the joy we feel over the beauty of nature, the awe we experience in the presence of creativity in arts or music, the satisfaction we find in science, the sense of adventure that drives us to go places and do things we never dreamed were possible (followed by a sense victory and accomplishment), and of course, the deep love we feel for our friends, family, and even our pets.
On the other end of the scale we find the dark and gloomy opposites: Death, confinement, deprivation, hatred, greed, rejection, hopelessness, apathy, and as the apostle Paul wrote, oppressive rule and the ordered systems that enable abuse of power and the malicious spiritual opposition that exists outside of the reality we currently know and understand.
The worst part about it is that we all participate, in one way or another, in the behaviors we despise. So as soon as we enter into a mindset of demanding punishment for those who have offended us, we find ourselves among those who ought to be punished. It’s a nasty predicament wherein guilt, condemnation, discipline, and conviction work both for us and against us.
The Divine Response
To understand the divine response to all of this, we can look to Jesus Christ as He arrives back in his home town of Nazareth, after having been away for a while:
…and he went in, according to his custom, on the sabbath-day, to the synagogue, and stood up to read; and there was given over to him a roll of Isaiah the prophet, and having unfolded the roll, he found the place where it hath been written:
“The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon me, because He did anoint me; to proclaim good news to the poor, sent me to heal the broken of heart, to proclaim to captives deliverance, and to blind receiving of sight, to send away the bruised with deliverance, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
And having folded the roll, having given [it] back to the officer, he sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue were gazing on him. And he began to say unto them, “Today hath this writing been fulfilled in your ears.” (Luke 4:16-21)
When Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon me, because He did anoint me,” He basically announces that He is qualified and equipped in every way to accomplish His mission. Each statement thereafter has one common theme, that is, making things that have gone wrong right again. The final statement sums up all the others: “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” But what does this mean? What is the “acceptable year?” How does Jesus’ last statement sum up all the others?
The Year of Jubilee
Jesus’ audience was very familiar with the acceptable year, the Year of Jubilee, when slaves and prisoners were freed, debts were forgiven, and land (leased property) was returned. The idea behind the Year of Jubilee was to restore balance in a world where one’s inheritance could be lost by force, for example, to greed, the abuse of power, corrupt financial practices, etc., lost by misfortunes such as famine or sickness, or lost by bad choices such as laziness or reckless financial decisions. Since the Year of Jubilee only came every 50 years, a relative (kin) could buy back (redeem) the land or debt incurred so that one wouldn’t have to wait decades for brand new life. Those who no longer possessed land entered into indentured servitude, slavery, or crime in order to survive.
The Year of Jubilee was a time of great celebration, a time when people remembered: Ultimately, every person and every thing belongs to God. The sound of a ram’s horn announced liberty for everyone along with and God’s command: “ye do not oppress one another.” The kinsman redeemer is a type of Christ in that He, who was not guilty (did not owe a debt), willingly gave himself over to all the condemnation and penalties associated with guilt (paid the debt).
On one side of the scale of justice is the guilt and sin of every sentient being in the universe and even the universe itself, in its current state of entropy that requires continuous renewal. On the other side of the scale, in a system of oppression and corruption, is the brutal death of Christ, which held such weighty significance that the scales were not only balanced once and for all, but rendered obsolete. One divine act of selfless love changed everything. There is nothing that can undo what Christ has done. There is no person or system or power that can stop what His death and resurrection set into motion.
In this way, the primal human response to injustice, that is, the shedding of blood, is satisfied. However painful and wrong and unfair it was, the flesh and blood Image of God bled out to demonstrate an amazing concept in a language we violent creatures can understand. That concept is, God forgives our “debts,” and He expects us to forgive our “debtors.” This is the righteousness of God, revealed to all those who believe.
He died on behalf of all in order that those who live should not live any longer for themselves but for the one who on their behalf died and was raised. So from now on, we do not look at anyone from a worldly viewpoint. Even if we once regarded the Messiah from a worldly viewpoint, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is united with the Messiah, he is a new creation — the old has passed; look, what has come is fresh and new! And it is all from God, who through the Messiah has reconciled us to himself and has given us the work of that reconciliation, which is that God in the Messiah was reconciling mankind to himself, not counting their sins against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors of the Messiah; in effect, God is making his appeal through us. What we do is appeal on behalf of the Messiah, “Be reconciled to God! God made this sinless man be a sin offering on our behalf, so that in union with him we might fully share in God’s righteousness. (2 Corinthians 5:15-21)
Now back to that pesky guilt and condemnation.
What place do guilt and condemnation have, now that Christ has done away with the balancing scale? That’s where discipline and correction come in. The Greek word “paideia,” translated “discipline,” means “instruction that trains someone to reach full development (maturity).” That instruction can be delightful or painful, depending on our attitude towards it, but its end result is a clearer sense of who we are in Christ (as opposed to who we were in Adam).
For some people, that might sound like Christianese, so let me put it another way: You are who God says you are. Not who other people say or think you are. Not even what you say or think you are. If you continue with the sickening dread of guilt and the hopeless weight of condemnation, you are basically calling God a liar and acting like one who believes Christ did not accomplish His mission.
Think about any intentions, actions, or words that can result in God’s discipline or correction — these are things you need to stop practicing, because this is not who God created you to be. This is not who you really are. Now, think about any intentions, actions, or words that demonstrate selfless love — these are things you need to keep practicing because you are like Christ, because you are in Him and He is in you. This is who you really are. It’s as simple as that.
Some people don’t believe it, though, because they struggle with guilt. Or maybe we are looking at this the wrong way. Maybe some people struggle with guilt because they don’t believe it. In the year of Jubilee, people who had been slaves for decades could suddenly become free. But what if they didn’t believe they were free? What if they said, “That’s good news that is just too good to be true,” and then continued plowing or mending or whatever it was that slaves did.
Jesus came to save the lost. Fortunately, He also came to seek the lost. If you are a slave to guilt, Jesus has already saved you from it. If you continue as a slave to guilt, Jesus will seek (zētéō) you. Zētéō means, “to seek by inquiring; to investigate to reach a binding resolution; to search, ‘getting to the bottom of a matter.'”
Read the other blogs in this series here.