This post in an adapted excerpt from my sermon in the series “Four Things,” preached at Morden Mennonite on January 17, 2016. Here is the full audio of the sermon:
Here’s a word we know all too well: guilt.
You know the feeling. You’ve done something, said something, something wrong, something that crossed the line. And you know it.
You might not be ready to admit it right after it happens. In the heat of the moment we are often too caught up, too riled up, to see the wrong we have just done. But later, after we’ve gone through all the self-justification, all the self-talk of “they deserved it” or “what else was I supposed to do?”—after we’ve spent our allotment of pride, we admit it to ourselves: we were wrong.
Then there’s guilt’s close cousin: shame.
You know that feeling too. You’ve done something, said something, something socially wrong—and so you pay the social consequences. You’re embarrassed, maybe even humiliated. You lower your eyes and turn away. Maybe you slink off into a corner, trying to avoid the looks of all those people. You’ve lost face, and you can’t show your face.
Guilt and shame. They are normal human experiences, normal human emotions, that we all experience at one time or another. They can even serve a good purpose: they help to shape our morality, our ethics, so that we become better people, treating each other in better ways.
But what if your life is defined by guilt and shame? What if you live in a world constructed out of rules and penalties? What if you spend a good bit of your time and energy trying to avoid being guilty and evade being ashamed?
What if your past is spotted with unresolved guilt and unmended shame? Or—heaven forbid—what if your experience is one moment of guilt after another, one shameful encounter after another, overfilled with false guilt and undeserved shame?
If any of this describes where you are at, then this is what you need to hear: you are forgiven.
You are forgiven. God stands ready to forgive you, always, at any time. And that forgiveness can be the doorway to forgiveness and restoration with others. You are forgiven.
“Whoa, wait a minute! Doesn’t forgiveness need confession and repentance? How can you simply say, ‘You are forgiven’?”
Good question. And to answer it, let’s listen carefully to what the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians:
The love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died… God reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
Did you catch that? God has taken the initiative, God has taken the risky step of love, to reconcile the entire world to himself, and Jesus has died to seal that reconciliation. And so God no longer counts our trespasses against us. In love there is no record of wrongs.
It’s a bit mind-boggling, to be honest. But here’s how I understand this: in Christ God has done everything needed for our forgiveness. And so God stands ready to forgive us, arms open, hands empty, eyes scanning the horizon like a father waiting for a prodigal child. God stands ready to forgive us, always, at any time.
It is true that to receive that forgiveness we need to admit that we need it. But this is not some kind of hyper-spiritual Christianese God-talk. It’s just the reality of the way forgiveness works, with anybody: if we don’t think we’ve done anything wrong, we won’t think we need to be forgiven.
So if you’ve never done anything wrong in your life, if you’ve never felt guilty or been ashamed for something you’ve said or done, then this post isn’t for you. The healthy don’t need a doctor, only the sick.
But the reality is that we’ve all said or done things to hurt other people, we’ve all harmed others in our lives, intentionally or not. We all know what it’s like to feel guilt. We all know that feeling of shame.
And so when we are at that place where we feel that guilt or shame, whether real or imagined, that’s exactly the place where God stands ready to forgive us, always, at any time.
It’s the reason Jesus could simply say to the paralytic, right out of the blue: “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” The religious leaders of his day didn’t like it, Jesus forgiving sins just like that: no sinners’ prayer, no sacrifice of blood. Jesus saw his heart, and forgave him his sins.
It’s the beautiful, transcendent truth of 1 John’s first chapter: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” If we know in our hearts before God that we have done harm to others, the faithful God forgives us.
If you need forgiveness, you are forgiven. It’s as simple as that.
If you are awash with guilt, stuck in the mud and mire of guilt, and you know it: you are forgiven.
If you wrestle with feelings of shame for who you are, what you’ve said, what you have done: you are forgiven.
When you say those hurtful words, when you do that harmful deed, when you don’t say or do that good thing you should have, and you know it: you are forgiven.
You are forgiven.
God stands ready to forgive you, always, at any time. And that forgiveness can be the doorway to forgiveness and restoration with others.
You are forgiven.