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Guilt Glut

August 18, 2002

Romans 10:5-15

By Tony Grant


Guilty, Guilty, Guilty

Whatever Barbara did or didn't do for her elderly mother, she felt guilty. First, her mother fell and broke her hip. Then she had intestinal surgery. Finally, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Juggling her mother's needs with the demands of a newborn baby, Barbara joined her sister, Lynn, in caring for their mother before she died. But while Lynn accepted her own limitations, Barbara could not.

"My sister says we did enough, and in reality we probably did. But I think, well, I could have let Mother stay at my house more often," says Barbara. "Maybe that would have made me feel I was doing everything possible. But at the time, I just wanted to be with my newborn son. It all seemed overwhelming."

Barbara has plenty of company in trying to balance love, care-giving, and guilt. According to a 1999 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Some 52 million Americans care for a disabled or sick family member. And although most bear their burden with love, social workers say caregiving is so demanding that most people feel inadequate, and guilty.

Let us talk about guilt today. Guilt is pervasive. Guilt is persistent. Worse than a summer cold, more annoying than seasonal allergies and completely unresponsive to the Paxils and Prozacs of modern medicine, this condition grips you with a sense of worthlessness that produces an agonizing writhing of conscience. In his book, Infinite Desire: A Guide to Modern Guilt, Paul Oppenheimer believes that modern secular guilt squats inside us constantly, unrelieved and unarticulated, growing ever more rancid. He writes that millions of seemingly innocent people feel guilty. Yet they have committed no crimes, done nothing truly shameful. "Nonetheless their guilt persists, at least in their own eyes," he observes, "and often neatly folded away, though it cannot help but inject their other emotions and acts with unmentioned pain."

Where does this guilt come from? And what does it mean? Oppenheimer suggests a number of possibilities.

First, there are the lawn-watering laws and their ilk. We feel hemmed in by all kinds of new laws that regulate every aspect of life: littering laws, seat-belt laws, lawn-watering laws, parking laws ... you name it. Cross any of these lines and you immediately feel a twinge, if not a burden, of guilt.

Second, we have our day-to-day respectability. Oppenheimer believes that a kind of guilt arises out of mediocrity, conformity and unfulfilled potential. We believe that we can do more with our lives, be truer to ourselves, take more risks and have more fun, and we feel guilty when we compromise our potential by following the safe road of quiet respectability.

Third, we feel guilty about rejecting guilt. We think that a clear conscience is the sign of a bad memory. We feel guilty about our modern abandonment of genuine morality, nagged by our rejection of traditional guilt. If everything were black and white, we would know precisely why we feel guilty, and what to do about it, but we live in a world of grayness and confusion and moral relativity.

Oppenheimer's overarching insight is this: The modern world gives us a deep and disturbing sense that something is terribly wrong with our lives. We face a guilt glut, and it feels absolutely awful.

So, what are we going to do about it?

Oppenheimer gives us his version of the history of guilt. He says that at one time, Western culture viewed guilt as the result of sinning against God. This outlook, he maintains, came to us through Augustine and held sway in the West until the nineteenth century. By that century's end, Nietzsche had condemned the Christian religion for enslaving its followers through a doctrine of guilt that weakened them and robbed them of their will to power. In addition, Hegel and Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, while Feuerbach, Marx and Freud declared that God was simply a projection of humankind. The 20th century opens, according to Oppenheimer, on a moral wasteland bereft of God -- and yet, he notes, guilt remains. Writers as diverse as Kafka, Dostoyevski, and T.S. Eliot express lucidly the anguish and despair of the modern conscience when it lacks the spiritual framework to define its guilt. As the twenty-first century unfolds, guilt lingers on and begins to take a new shape.

Guilt and Shame

So, Oppenheimer would say that we face a guilt glut, and it makes us feel awful. The Apostle Paul would agree, but unlike Oppenheimer, he would offer us an effective answer to guilt. Paul talks about the question of guilt in positive terms. The question is: How can I feel right, or righteous. Or, how can I be saved? saved from my guilt? saved from my anguish? saved from my despair?

Paul begins our lesson by mocking Moses, quoting the words that God spoke to Moses in Leviticus: "You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the LORD" (18:5). To which Paul replies, "That is not going to happen." No one can really keep all those statutes and ordinances. The requirements of Leviticus alone make all of society's laws about littering, seat belts, and lawn-watering seem like child's play. Paul says that if you think that keeping all God's statutes and ordinances is easy, then you do not know all God's statutes and ordinances. Righteousness that comes from the law just is not going to happen.

Now we should note here that Paul draws a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt is a juridical concept, a legal term. You do not "feel" guilty any more than you "feel" innocent. You either are guilty or you are innocent. That is a legal state or condition. You either had your hand in the cookie jar or you did not.

But you can "feel" shame. Paul says that the law declares us guilty, and we feel shame because of our condemned condition. Fortunately, we do not need to remain condemned. We can go to a better condition, one described as "the righteousness that comes from faith" (Romans 10:6).

This righteousness has its root in faith, and it is not initiated by repentance or good works or anything that originates in human beings. This righteousness is all God, all good news, all gospel. It is a free offer waiting to be claimed, one that is "near you, on your lips and in your heart" (v. 8).

Paul VS Moses

The difference here between Paul and Moses is so great that there seems to be little room for compromise. In fact, I suspect that Paul would be outraged by any attempt to compromise his gospel.

According to Paul, the Jews concern themselves with the righteousness that comes through the law that Moses brought down from the mountain. For the Christian, salvation means accepting what has been revealed in Jesus Christ. In the old covenant, Moses is portrayed as the third party that had first to ascend the mountain to receive the law and then descend bringing the law down with him. With the new covenant, which is truly God’s righteousness, the third-party agent is no longer required, for what Jesus revealed was himself. No one was needed either "to bring Christ down" (v. 6) nor "to bring Christ up from the dead" (v. 7). Jesus is the unmediated expression of God’s own self.

The law is something we do. The law must be actively pursued to achieve righteousness. Christ is not something we do. Christ is freely received and salvation is freely bestowed. The law is an objective thing outside ourselves. Christ is an inner reality to be proclaimed.

Paul uses the passage from Deuteronomy 30 to emphasize that what Moses longed for, Jesus fulfilled and accomplished. What Moses was "really" preaching, according to Paul, was Jesus. Jesus Christ is the eternal truth, present before Moses, finally revealed in Paul’s own time.

That there was nothing that a Christian had to do in order to receive righteousness was an appealing but confusing idea to people in the first century. It still is both appealing and confusing in the twenty-first century. It is especially a problem for Americans. We are a pragmatic people who think in terms of doing and accomplishing. We have trouble understanding that it has been done, that our salvation has been accomplished. That is why there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, that is why Christianity levels all social classes and abolishes all religious hierarchy. Everyone is equally able to accept and receive, profess and proclaim, believe and be saved, because it is not something everyone is doing. It is something that God has already done.

Being a Christian, Paul says, is as natural as breathing, as natural as the heart beating and the lips expressing. If we believe with the heart then we are justified. The heart represents the seat of one’s understanding, the center of our being. The lips represent the outward expression of the inward reality.

Now Paul is not here describing a two-step process of salvation; first step, one must believe with the heart for justification, second step one make a profession of faith for the final act of salvation. Inner belief and outer expression are inextricably linked. Paul writes, "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." Our profession cannot be divorced from our inner belief.

Paul then seeks to answer the final question of this section: How does one discover this gift of salvation? Through the proclamation of the gospel. Here Paul emphasizes the priority of preaching as the means of salvation. If no one proclaims, then no one hears, and if no one hears, then no one believes, and if no one believes, then no one is saved. It is a logical, and depressing regression, but Paul would say to us, you have heard, so you can believe and be saved.

So Paul would say to us, you have the solution to sin. You have the antidote to the guilt glut. Both the juridical declaration of guilt and the emotion of shame are swept away through Christ. As v11 says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame."

Need for Confession

This makes a surprising but oddly logical sort of sense, when you think about it. After all, we know from painful personal experience that freedom from sin and guilt is never going to come from human effort.

Well most of us know it some do not.

A Presbyterian minister told me a story about his first year at a certain congregation. The Previous minister had abolished the general confession of sins from the Sunday liturgy, and one of the first things this new pastor did was try to reinstate it. But resistance to the change was fierce Some thought that confession of sins was too morbid a thing for church. They told the preacher that he should concentrate on preaching more positive sermons.

During the heat of the debate one woman -- an elder -- exclaimed, "But I don't have to apologize to God for anything!" The pastor was dumbfounded. He thought they were just arguing about how they were going to confess. He thought that the need for confession was obvious to everyone. But obviously it was not.

But, it ought to be. When we transgress against our neighbor, it involves God, because we are transgressing against one of Gods creatures and therefore against God. In relation to our transgressions, God is not simply a just and all-knowing referee who remains outside human disputes. God is the injured party. For every transgression against the neighbor, apology is owed both to the neighbor and to God.

And we are never going to catch up with all our transgressions. Can the damage that we have done over the years be fully repaired, the cruel words retracted, the mistakes erased, the betrayals obliterated, the failures reversed and the long list of selfish and sinful acts wiped clean? Not by our own efforts. It is never going to happen.

On a computer, we have a "spell-check" to go back and correct our mistakes in a document. But we have no "sin-check" for our lives. we have no "sin-check" that will take us back over the whole story of our lives and instantly repair all the mistakes we have made. We do not have a "sin-check" but we do have a savior.

Paul reminds us that freedom from sin and guilt never comes from doing, but from being; not from law, but from grace; not by works, but by faith. We are invited to enter into a relationship with a savior, Jesus Christ. We are offered the grace of a God who truly wants to free us from the burden of our guilt. We are told that we can access this gift of forgiveness through faith in God's Son, Jesus. It is all about being in relationship, receiving grace and experiencing faith.

What frees us from the guilt glut is not a lot of feel-good, do-gooder works- deeds that make us proud of ourselves for an hour or two. What really lifts our burden for all time is the work of our Savior on the cross, when through his selfless sacrifice he absorbed the guilt of all people everywhere and performed a spiritual "sin-check" for the world.

John Shot Marie

Greg Jones, the dean of Duke Divinity School, tells the true story of a twelve-year-old boy named John who was playing one day with the nine-year-old girl who lived next door. Her name was Marie. They found a loaded pistol in a dresser drawer, and their make-believe game turned into a tragic nightmare. John accidentally shot and killed Little Marie.

Everyone in the small town attended the funeral of the little girl -- everyone except John, who could not face anyone and refused to talk to anyone. He was completely overwhelmed by guilt.

The morning after the funeral, the families of that neighborhood went to church again. Then Marie's older brother went next door to talk to John. "John, come with me," he said. "I want to take you to school." John refused, saying, "I never want to see anyone again. I wish it was me who was dead." The brother insisted and finally persuaded John to go with him.

The brother talked with the school principal and asked him to call a special assembly. Five hundred and eighty students filed into the gymnasium. Marie's brother stood before them and said, "A terrible thing has happened; my little sister was accidentally shot by one of your fellow classmates. This is one of those tragedies that mar life. Now I want you all to know that my family and John's family have been to church together this morning, and we shared in holy communion." Then he called John next to him, put his arm around his shoulders and continued: "This boy's future depends much on us. My family has forgiven John because we love him. Marie would want that. And I ask you to love and forgive him, too."

Marie's brother knew that the blood of Christ was shed for John. And for himself. And for each and every one of us. He believed that "the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him" (v. 12). He discovered that only one thing could lead to forgiveness and salvation. Something not in him or by him. That something is Christ the Lord. Amen.


Jones, L. Gregory. "Forgiveness," in Practicing Our Faith [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997], 141-142.

McGinn, Colin. "Something is wrong and somebody is to blame," The Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2001, A24.

Beth Witrogen McLeod, "Caregiving guilt can be tempered by strong support system,", June 21, 2000.




If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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