Last week we tackled the difficult issue of forgiveness, and since a number of you expressed to me that the topic hit a nerve, I thought I’d begin this morning by telling a story on myself that reflects some of my own feelings on the subject.
The setting? A crowded tv room in our first-year seminary dorm. The occasion? Movie night, complete with popcorn and a classic video – “African Queen” starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. The prompt? Deep in the thick of the jungle, as they’re trying to tow their sad, little boat to safety, Hepburn’s giving Bogart the silent treatment, furious with him over something he said hours earlier. He laments, “What’s a guy got to do to show he’s sorry?” And the Deb Sunoo quote that now lives in infamy among my seminary peers? Talking back to the tv, as I am wont to do, when Bogie asked “What’s a guy gotta do to show he’s sorry?” I naturally blurted out: “PENANCE!”
Forgiveness can be hard, to be sure…
Then again, sometimes the hardest people to forgive are ourselves.
God calls us to lives of holiness and righteousness, and God knows we won’t always get it right. God asks us to keep every one of the commandments; if that’s not enough, Jesus raises the stakes still further in the Sermon on the Mount. And the Scriptures make it clear that we are lost causes, without God’s help.
Enter this morning’s texts, written for early Christians trying to understand these complicated truths. God is all about forgiveness and mercy – but that doesn’t mean we should screw up on purpose just to be forgiven. There’s not a thing we can do to earn our salvation – but that doesn’t mean we should dispense with good works. Good works come as our grateful response to God’s grace.
The delicate balancing act we’re introduced to here in Ephesians and Romans is something the Church has had to wrestle with countless times throughout its history, and one that can be tough for us as individuals too, because it’s so easy to err on one side or the other.
On the one hand, it’s always interesting to listen in on those denominational, ethnic, and family rivalries over whose background instilled in them the most profound and lasting sense of guilt. Some of us are a little too good at wallowing in it, aren’t we? “I’m a terrible person. I don’t do enough good works, don’t pray enough, don’t have enough faith.” Whether it comes from a sense that there are perfect Christians out there in the world, and you’re just not one of them … or the conviction that we’re all just worthless, miserable wretches in the eyes of God, clearly the overwhelming emphasis in this case is on our sinfulness, our shortcomings, our guilt. God’s grace, when it comes up at all, is mentioned primarily to emphasize how badly off we are without it.
But there are dangers on the other end too. At first glance, the ‘grace upon grace’ angle sounds far safer. But there’s an enormous difference between taking God’s grace seriously, and taking it for granted. Between saying “Thank God I’m forgiven” and saying “God will forgive me no matter what, so anything goes!” Paul tries to pre-empt that danger here in Romans 6: “Shall we sin all the more that grace may abound? Certainly not!” But that card has been overplayed throughout Christian history too. Costly divine grace cheapened to the point of being seen as a get out of jail free card. Doesn’t matter what I do, I’ll be forgiven, so I have every intention of continuing along this same path.
If the first danger involves an overdeveloped sense of guilt, the guilt of those who opt for the second path strikes me as rather underdeveloped. We can’t confess our sins and be forgiven, if we don’t acknowledge them in the first place. Can’t appreciate the lengths to which God will go to save us, if we don’t realize how far gone we are. Further, if we don’t value the gift of forgiveness, we won’t be spurred on to show our appreciation. Again, doing good works, as I understand biblical teaching, is neither to earn favor with God in the first place, nor to make up for bad behaviors in the past (so much for good old “penance”); instead, our good works are a natural and joyful response to God’s grace.
An overdeveloped sense of guilt can be paralyzing. Convinced that I can’t do anything right, why try at all?
An underdeveloped sense of guilt can be equally stagnating. It’s been my experience that some folks think feeling guilty sort of counts, you know, as a spiritual exercise, so that they can then just keep on doing what they’re doing. As if the feeling of guilt were the goal, so as long as I feel bad enough about what I’m doing, I’ve done my bit.
The fact that it’s so easy to err on one side or the other is precisely why we include both a prayer of confession and an assurance of God’s pardon in our order of worship every week. Lest we forget the error of our ways, a humbling reminder. Lest we fear we’ve past the point of no return, a gracious welcome back and encouragement to change course and begin to move again in the right direction.
When I encounter someone beating themselves up, I’ve been known to say: “Hey, we’re in a guilt-free zone here!” Certainly we don’t want one another wallowing in feelings of guilt for no reason. And if the guilt is real rather than perceived, then I suppose it’s not so much a matter of guilt-free as post-guilt. Because obviously the point would be to recognize where we’re wrong, to repent, and to move on in a better direction. To be honest about what’s weighing down our hearts, and then, through forgiveness and repentance, to let the guilt go.
Because guilt is only a step along the way right? “I’m sorry” by itself is incomplete. We don’t want to get stuck there. It seems to me the gospel movement of repentance takes us beyond “I’m sorry” to “you are forgiven” and “go and sin no more.”
Guilt is not a destination!
Sometimes the ‘guilt’ we feel is more like a flashback to some brand of bad theology we were taught as kids. Sometimes it even reflects an inflated sense of how perfect we think we should be – instilled by family or culture – rather than by anything biblical. When it is any of these things, for heaven’s sake let’s help each other shake it off and move on to something more worthy of our time and introspection. That kind of guilt is such a waste.
And when our guilt highlights something that actually needs our attention, let’s not delay in attending to it. Let’s recognize the sins that are making us feel distant from God and one another, ask for God’s forgiveness, ask God to help us truly repent – meaning turn our lives around – and then move on from that point, in a healthier, holier direction.
To let go of guilt doesn’t mean to err on the side of not acknowledging our mistakes. It means not to allow those mistakes to paralyze us. Not to let the fact that we mess up from time to time to keep us stuck in old ruts, locked into patterns of behavior we know aren’t helpful or healthy, much less the way of God’s kingdom.
Will God forgive us each and every time we feel genuine guilt, and ask for forgiveness? Absolutely. That’s the amazing thing about Grace.
But does God want us to spend our lives feeling guilty? I just can’t imagine God has any interest in that. Guilt is a prompt, a wake-up call that invites us to notice where we are and how far that is from where we’re called to be. Insofar as guilt can serve as a vehicle for reaching out to embrace God’s forgiveness and love, it can be a valuable thing. But guilt is not a destination, no matter how comfortable or how masochistically uncomfortable it may feel to remain there.
The good news of the gospel is: God loves us, and there’s not a thing we can do about it! As it turns out, we don’t get graded on how perfect we are, or how guilty we feel. We don’t gain extra credit points for beating ourselves up. We don’t even get graded on whether we always get that delicate balance right, between acknowledging God’s forgiveness and responding with good works. Grace covers all of this and more.
Will God welcome us back every time we wander off, embracing us in spite of our weakness? That’s one of the important reminders we’re given every time we gather in this room.
Does God love us enough to go to extreme lengths to save us? That’s precisely the story we tell one another every year as we relive the events of Holy Week, now just a couple of weeks away.
Does every last one of us have a chance for a fresh start, a changed course, a new life beyond “I’m sorry?” That’s the incredible message of Easter morning, the most amazing evidence of God’s grace. Amen.