How do Christians live with guilt?

January 29, 2016

Iron_eagleI shared this homily at last night’s church council meeting—on January 28, 2016.

Homily Text: Psalm 103:12

For my generation, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger thirty years ago today was one of those “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” kind of moments. Those of you who, like me, were in the metro Atlanta area may remember that it was a snow day—not because it actually snowed, but because it was unusually cold. The buses wouldn’t start or something. So they closed school.

So we teenagers needed something to do. And I remember what I was doing: my friend Brian and I went to see a movie at a place next to Northlake Mall, where the WSB tower is. And the movie we saw was called Iron Eagle, starring Lou Gossett Jr. This was not the greatest movie ever made, and there’s no good reason that I should remember that on this date thirty years ago I saw this otherwise forgettable movie. But it’s forever etched into my brain because I saw it the same day that the Challenger exploded.

You don’t forget stuff like that. In fact, we have a problem with remembering events that we’d just as soon forget!

I’m thinking of a radio interview I heard today with a retired engineer with Morton-Thiokol, the company that manufactured the solid rocket booster’s O-ring seals for the space shuttles. This engineer, Bob Ebeling, wrote a famous memo, months before the Challenger disaster, warning NASA that they shouldn’t launch the shuttle below freezing—that these O-rings seals would fail. And on that morning 30 years ago, the temperature was 18 degrees at Cape Canaveral. His warning, along with a briefing he gave to NASA officials on the morning of the launch, proved prescient.

In this interview today, Ebeling blames himself. He said he should have done more to warn NASA. Ebeling, whom the interviewer described as a deeply religious man, said: “I think that was one of the mistakes that God made. He shouldn’t have picked me for the job.” He said he’s going to tell God, “You picked a loser.”

You picked a loser… Isn’t that heartbreaking? Especially considering that Ebeling was one of the good guys! He tried to do the right thing! Could he have done more? I’m sure he could… but hindsight is 20/20.

But I want to say a few things about this: First of all, in a way, Ebeling is right: God did pick a loser when he picked him for the job! In fact, God always picks losers when he chooses to work with us human beings. God even picked a loser when he picked a man named Saul of Tarsus to be the apostle to the Gentiles. As Paul himself said, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.”[1] This same man said, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”[2]

What a loser Paul was!

God always picks losers. Because he picks people like you and me!

I would also say that Ebeling is right when he says that God picked him to do this work. God chose him. Absolutely he did! Paul says in Colossians 3:24 that the work we do—and he’s speaking in this instance to people who are literally slaves, the most humble kinds of servants—Paul says that even they are doing this humble work for the Lord. So if Paul is right that Jesus is our boss, then that means he’s in charge. We can do our work and leave the results up to him. As pastor John Piper said: “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.”

So Ebeling can’t begin to comprehend how God was using him and the work that he did! But that’s up to God, not him.

Finally, and most importantly, I would say this: For thirty years Ebeling has been haunted by memories… He remembers mistakes he made.

And don’t we all! Don’t we all remember mistakes? Don’t we all remember sins? Don’t we all have a hard time letting go of the past? And don’t we, like Ebeling, feel guilty?

And so here is the most important thing I would tell Bob Ebeling if I had a chance to counsel him. God doesn’t remember his mistakes… his sins.

In fact, I would tell him that God gives us the most amazing promise in his Word: “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”[3] Or as Isaiah tells God: “you have cast all my sins behind your back.” And he has God tell us, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”[4] Or as the prophet Micah says, “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”[5]

It’s as if God forgets. Once we confess our sins, we should let go and move on. Why? Because God has let go! One theologian rightly refers to this as divine amnesia. No, this doesn’t necessarily, or even usually, mean that God shields us from all the consequences of our sin—this can be a form of necessary discipline for us—but it does mean there’s no longer any guilt.

Why?

Because in God’s eyes we are perfect. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, an exchange has taken place once and for all. On the cross, it’s as if we have given Christ our unrighteousness and he has clothed us in his righteousness.

Maybe it’s too easy to simply say, “Once you confess your sins, you should forget it, let go of it, and move on” confident that Christ nailed these and all your other sins to the cross. That sounds good, but it’s hard to forget!

So instead of forgetting, I’m going to urge you to remember something… Something which is said very well in the recent book Law and Gospel:

The Gospel announces that we are justified by grace through faith: not by what we do, or even who we are, but by what Christ has done and who he is. Our guilt has been atoned for, the Law fulfilled. In Christ, the ultimate demand has been met, and the deepest judgment satisfied. In his death and resurrection, our sin was imputed to him, his righteousness to us. Note the past tense: This not up for grabs. Something has been accomplished, and that something is real. Remember, Christ’s dying words from the cross are “It is finished.” Which means that as far as God is concerned, the performance is at an end—gold stars all around. This leads to reconciliation with God, and even eternal life. “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will be saved by his life” (Rm 5:10).[6]

Amen.

By the way, although I didn’t say this in my homily, this Romans 5 verse is an amazing statement about something that we Methodists don’t often emphasize: the perseverance of the saints—what is popularly referred to in evangelical circles as “once saved, always saved.” To be fair, Wesleyan theology might say, “once saved, nearly always saved,” but I struggle to accept this Wesleyan doctrine of backsliding.

Regardless, in the context of his argument in Romans, Paul is saying that God accomplished the “hard part” by dying for us through his Son Jesus “while we were enemies.” Having now been reconciled to God through faith—having been transformed from “enemies” to “friends,” indeed, children—the “easy part”—by which he means enduring until the end, arriving safely in God’s kingdom on the other side of death and resurrection—will surely happen!

If you’re someone who is prone to worry about your salvation, who feels guilty over the persistence of sin in your life, I invite you to spend a few moments reflecting on this verse.

[1] 1 Timothy 1:15 NIV

[2] Romans 7:19

[3] Psalm 103:12

[4] Isaiah 43:25

[5] Micah 7:19

[6] William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 61-2.

6 Responses to “How do Christians live with guilt?”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    “God always picks losers. Because he picks people like you and me!”

    Well, there you have it! This is the whole meaning of Grace. None of us deserves to be picked for salvation. And, none of us does one single thing to merit it. All of the initiative is on God’s part. I will concede that we must respond, but I don’t believe even that is possible without God’s purposing it. I may not be a “full blown Calvinist”, but I’m not a strict Armenian either. Free will is something that God allows us, not something by which we allow God.

    • brentwhite Says:

      What do you make of the possibility of backsliding?

      • Grant Essex Says:

        I’m a once saved, always saved guy. Even when “backsliding” occur for a season, God will not let it stand, if you were truly born again of the Spirit. I can’t explain exactly how; it’s just what I believe.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Wow, a lot of heavy stuff here! What do the verses talking about God “forgetting” sins mean? Do they mean God actually cannot remember? I find that basically absurd. God even calls the end from the beginning–he knows about our sins even in advance. He is not “time-bound” in that sense. So the fact that “chronologically” the sin has now “happened” is irrelevant to God’s knowledge.

    Clearly they also do not mean forgets in the sense that there are no following consequences, as you note. Just look at David! Paul references in Romans David saying, “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered, whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” 4:7-8. So this is not an OT v NT thing.

    Okay, so we know two things that are NOT meant. So what IS meant? IMHO, this is a question of the “charges being dropped.” We get to Judgment Day and God says, “Your name is written in the Book of Life; so, despite all, you come into the Kingdom.”

    What does this do as to “guilt,” then? IMHO, it at least means, “Don’t despair.” No matter how hard we may fall, we can get back up, knowing our name is still in the Book, regardless. (Yes, very hard to reconcile that with “losing salvation.” But even if it is possible to “reject faith” and thereby “give up” salvation–a point I don’t personally believe at the moment, but perhaps that could be possible–still yet merely “falling down” is not going to do the forfeiture.) “A righteous man falls down seven times, and rises up again.” (Or, 70 x 7!)

    On the other hand, however, I note James says, essentially, to “weep and howl” over our sins. In other words, we have to recognize that we sin and be genuinely sorry about it. Nevertheless, we can “press on.” “But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, I press forward toward the mark of the high calling of God.” (I think that is how the verse goes.)

    One last thing I think is that we should recognize, as I think you say, that God knew about this all along, and was willing to “go with it,” so we should likewise understand and accept that certainly WE should therefore be willing to “go with it” as well. Be sorry, but “get over that,” and keep “pressing on” for the future to the best of our (Spirit aided) ability.

    • brentwhite Says:

      That sounds like a good balance to all the competing principles. I was careful to say that it’s “as if” God forgets because it would be absurd if an omniscient God could literally forget.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    I think that the Greek translates something like “will remember them no more”. So, Tom’s point is well taken. God says that he will never bring it up against you, because it has been laid upon Jesus, and off of us.


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