Tonight we attended a Good Friday service at a church we don’t normally go to. The Good Friday sermons I’ve heard don’t tend to vary much from year to year, as the focus is always on the solemn remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross. This one surprised me, though, as the pastor began by telling a story of a man in the Philippines who has played Christ every year for nearly 30 years in a reenactment of the crucifixion, only rather than being tied to the cross with rope as is done in most reenactments, he actually has his hands and feet nailed to the cross. For real. Every year. Apparently there are 19 other men who do the same in other reenactments around the region. They’re probably all doing it this very day. The pastor went on to talk about others who walk around town with whip-like instruments, whipping themselves until their backs are bloody, and people who engage in various forms of self-flagellation. He expressed that while reminders of what Christ has done for us are good things and there can be value in acts of self-denial, when it crosses the line into self-punishment, it is not honoring to God, because it rejects the very thing that all of Christianity hangs on: that Christ paid the price for our sin, in full.
The examples above are extreme, to be sure. But I think many of us fall prey to the same line of thinking. How many of us frequently beat ourselves up over the things we’ve done wrong? It might be anything from refusing to forgive ourselves for a grievous past mistake to simply agonizing over the dumb things we said in a social situation. How many of us are quick to mentally berate ourselves as “stupid” or a “loser” or “failure” or whatever the particular words that plague us happen to be in the moments when we fall short of perfection? Some may even self-injure, have suicidal thoughts, or experience scary mental images. It’s really not uncommon. I’d venture to say it’s part of the human condition, to sense that deep in our being there is something wrong with us that needs to be made up for, be covered over, fixed somehow, and we scramble to make it better, even if just in our minds.
We may also try to do good deeds to make up for what’s wrong, hoping to even out the tally and tip the balance toward the “good” column. The feeling never quite goes away, though, does it? Because no matter how many more marks we pencil in under the good column, it doesn’t erase the ones in the other column, and we know it. No matter how many points we have, it’s not a perfect score.
“Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin…For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” -Romans 3:20,23-24
Parenting has been an opportunity for me to become even more acutely aware of my sin, because it demands more of me than I’ve previously had to give, and when you have to be selfless, it shows you just how selfish you really are, in ways you never knew before. It’s easy to get bogged down in feelings of failure, because parenting puts a magnifying glass to your every imperfection, with little eyes observing and imitating you and adding to the guilt. I read a blog post on the topic of motherhood recently, and the author said she finally came to the point where she realized she just could not hold onto her guilt over all her shortcomings anymore but had to finally choose to place it all in a drawer marked “forgiven.” How freeing would that be, for the guilt to be gone, even farther, somewhere from which it could never be dragged out and looked at again? That’s actually the freedom that Christ offers us, though we so often reject it.
“As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” -Psalm 103:12
Holding onto our guilt is no different than self-flagellation. We hold onto it because we think we deserve to be punished, and feeling guilty is the way we punish ourselves, try to make up for the wrong by suffering under it. This is not honoring to God. It is telling him that the price he paid on our behalf was not enough, that we are rejecting his gift, the gift that cost him so much.
Guilt is indeed meant to tell us that something is wrong. But its purpose is not to prompt us to fix the wrong on our own, because clearly we can’t. If we could, we’d feel better by now, have clear consciences and no need for all the various forms of punishing ourselves. No, the guilt is meant to bring us to Christ. This is what happens when we first become a follower of Jesus, when we recognize that we are sinful and need a Savior. But even after we’ve accepted Christ’s sacrifice for our sins, we’re still prone to letting guilt take us down the wrong trail of self-dependence rather than God-dependence, still prone to forgetting what he’s done for us and that it is enough. We forget to come to him daily to confess our sins, receive again his forgiveness and have our consciences washed clean.
“For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…
For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy…
And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary…
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”
-Hebrews 10:1-4, 14, 18, 22
That’s not to say we should just toss our guilt to the wind the moment we feel it and not feel guilty about anything. It’s just as bad of an idea to ignore guilt, write off the wrongs as nothing and tell ourselves we’re just fine, to make excuses or lower the standards. That leads to a calloused heart, a conscience that becomes less and less sensitive and a moral compass that increasingly loses direction. Ignoring guilt is another form of self-reliance, of saying we don’t need God, of rejecting Christ. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have gone through the horror he went through to purchase our forgiveness if we didn’t need what he was giving us.
So what to do when the guilt creeps in, when we start to feel that sense of wrongness and feel the urge to either shove it aside, punish ourselves, or work harder to make up for it?
Stop. Listen to the guilt that tells you something is wrong. Let it lead you to the throne of grace with a repentant heart (something which God finds incredibly pleasing and beautiful, better than anything else we could offer him). Then remember what Jesus did for you. Believe that it is enough. Accept his forgiveness, accept him as your substitute, the one who took your place so that you wouldn’t be punished, so that you could be reconciled to God, so that you could live free from condemnation and bask in God’s favor.
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” -Romans 8:1-2
This Easter, maybe this is what he wants you to know, to believe. The very last words he uttered as he died.
“It is finished.”
“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.” -Psalm 51:1-17