March 2016 Pastor’s Pen
Dear Holy Trinity Family,
“Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving,” said Erma Bombeck. (She’s also the one who said, “If life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits??”) She’s not a theologian, nor someone I’m used to quoting, although “truth in humor” suggests that comedians can be insightful people.
We’re well acquainted with guilt. Like physical pain, which clues us in that something is wrong, healthy guilt has a holy purpose. It, too, tips us off that something is wrong. Healthy guilt blows the whistle on bad behavior – which sometimes is the absence of good behavior! (In other words, sometimes we feel guilty on account of what we didn’t do, not what we did do.) Healthy guilt hopefully causes us to stop doing what’s wrong or start doing what’s right. To use old lingo, healthy guilt leads us to contrition and to amendment of life. With the Holy Spirit’s help, we change the behavior that is triggering our guilt, say we’re sorry, do what we can to heal the hurt we caused, and resolve to straighten up and fly right. Scripture is full of promises that God is poised and ready to forgive! We heard this encouragement from Isaiah 55:6-7 on Lent III:
Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near…
let [sinners] return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
On the other hand, there’s unhealthy guilt. (Psychologists call it neurotic.) We know plenty about that, too. It’s unhealthy guilt that Erma Bombeck dubbed “the gift that keeps on giving.” Healthy guilt leads to a change of heart and the acceptance of forgiveness. Holy guilt frees us. Unhealthy guilt hobbles us. It leads nowhere other than the dead end of endless self-recrimination. It saps us of strength. It tethers us to the past. It silences the Gospel message of God’s loving mercy.
Our guilt is unhealthy when we blame ourselves for things beyond our control. Sometimes we sin by refusing to accept responsibility. Other times we err by assuming false responsibility, a deadweight that can only drag us down. Why do we do it? In our grandiosity we believe we shaped events that are actually way beyond our reach. We exaggerate our personal power. By contrast, it’s healthy to say, “I have my limits. I can’t control other people’s actions. I can’t change other people. I can only chart my own course. I can only change myself.” No matter who I am, what position of authority I hold at home or in the world, there are limits to my influence!
Christopher News Notes are great little brochures published in the belief that “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” A recent newsnote is entitled “GUILT – and What to Do About It.” (We’ll have copies available in the CareNote rack in Fellowship Hall soon.) It presents a helpful way to examine events that leave us wracked with guilt and to neutralize them. The acronymn COAL was coined by Dr. Gregory Popcak in his book Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart.
Curiosity. Why did I act like that? For what was I really hoping and longing? (Spiritually and not just materially….)
Openness. Can I stand to listen to what the Holy Spirit would like to teach me about myself? Can I acknowledge I have something left to learn? Can I entertain the possibility that God will not be damning as I fear and will be more loving than I imagine?
Acceptance. Here I am, warts and all. God isn’t finished with me yet. I am saint and sinner at the same time.
Love. Can I love myself an ‘nth as much as God loves me? Can I love others an ‘nth as much as God loves them? Can I love God more than anything or anyone else, and love my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:37-39)? Can I love others as Christ has loved me (John 15:12)?
On Good Friday we’ll sing:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.
When we sing that beautiful hymn, “Ah, Holy Jesus,” we’ll be owning our real, not our neurotic guilt. That holy acknowledgement won’t hobble us. It will free us. Once again we will spiritually stand at the foot of the cross as forgiven sinners and rejoice in the forgiveness purchased at so great a price. We will not be crushed by guilt but raised up by God’s loving mercy. We will know beyond any doubt how deeply we are loved, and we will love in turn, both God and neighbor.
In Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham