Debunked: Put Guilt in Its Place

By Katie Hill

Go ahead. Reach into your back pocket and pull out that ticket. You know the one--your ticket for the next guilt trip you plan to take. Or maybe it's the one you think your parents are going to send you on. Perhaps you're one of those really forward-thinking people and you've got a lifetime pass. Impressive.

Nobody likes to feel guilty. We do all sorts of things to dodge it. We distract ourselves with entertainment, food, friends. Or we try to make up for whatever it is we think we're guilty of. As sinful creatures, we have a way of twisting guilt into something of an overwhelming burden. How often we forget that Christ has already borne our guilt!

The truth is, feelings of guilt can be beneficial. We do something wrong; we experience guilt. Pretty simple. We know it helps us recognize the difference between right and wrong because we have the law written on our hearts (Romans 2:15). Guilt exists because we live in a fallen world and, because of Adam's sin, we have a knowledge of good and evil. Just as he felt shame, we feel shame. When we sin, that guilt and shame is justified. However, for Christians, guilty feelings are given to send us to the Cross. Such feelings are not for us to deny or to wallow in. When you focus on the guilt for its own sake, Satan likes to take that and run with it and accuse you of being someone God could never forgive.

But what happens if you find yourself arm wrestling with guilty feelings far too often? Well, there are two possibilities: Either you're struggling to accept God's forgiveness for a real offense, or you're taking responsibility for something that you shouldn't. That's the devil's trick, too!

As it is, we have plenty of guilt to bear. We are sinners by nature. That is just WHO we are. We commit so many sins either by what we do or don't do, that we could never begin to make an account for all of them. What on earth would possess us to take on even more? Yet we do. You didn't complete that task in a timely manner, you got a B in English, you didn't call your grandmother. You weren't perfect! Shame on you!

History tells us that Martin Luther was plagued by guilt as we often are. As an Augustinian monk, Luther would spend hours in confession with his superior, Johann von Staupitz, trying to make sure he accounted for every little sin he had committed. HOURS. And then he would follow that up by engaging in extreme fasting, flogging of himself and other harsh forms of penance--whatever it would take to have peace with God! Luther's conscience was so overactive that he felt like God would never forgive him. He was on a perpetual guilt trip!

Well there is good news for us, just as Luther himself discovered. And that good news applies, no matter if your feelings of guilt stem from a real or imagined sin. Luther found this treasure: "And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (Romans 4:5). What an earthshatteringly simple truth laid out by St. Paul! You WILL NEVER BE ABLE to do enough to remedy your guilt. But Jesus, He who justifies, IS ABLE and He DOES.

Think about His precious words in Matthew 11:28-30, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." It is time to rest from your work trying to save yourself and from making yourself weary with guilt.

The Divine Service is there to deliver these words of Christ to you and take away your guilt. Go each Sunday and put your guilt at the foot of the Cross. During Absolution, revel in the fact that you, a terrible sinner, are forgiven for the sake of Christ. As you listen to your pastor preach the ferocity of the law and the sweetness of the Gospel, rejoice that you have not been left to right your own wrongs. When you partake of Christ's Body and Blood, embrace the reality that you ARE forgiven. Taste that forgiveness. It is real.

If you find you are constantly battling with feelings of guilt, for something actual or imagined, don't forget your pastor's door is open to you and he can dress your wounds with the forgiving words of Jesus. He will give you Absolution, should you need it, but will also reassure you if you find yourself tortured with responsibilities that are not yours to bear. Either way, Jesus will give you rest.

So you might as well face it. Jesus has ruined your travel plans. He has taken the ultimate guilt trip for you, from the manger, to the cross, to the grave, to the right hand of the Father, as an advocate for you. Put that ticket of your own making in the garbage, where it belongs.

Katie Hill is the managing editor of Higher Things. When she's not silently correcting everyone's grammar, she enjoys fostering and fine-tuning the writing of authors who deliver the sweetness of the Gospel to Higher Things readers and beyond. A Lutheran convert for 15 years now, Katie has been working for HT in some capacity for nearly that same amount of time. She relishes life in a small town in northern Arizona with her husband, Jeff, and five children.
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