- Beyond Guilt
- 2 Corinthians 7:8-10
- Lyndol Loyd June 3, 2018
Those of you who grew up with a Catholic upbringing know what it is to attend confession. It is the practice of going into a small confessional booth where you are able to confess your sin to a priest, but with the anonymity of knowing that the priest is on the other side of the wall unable to see your face.
The priest receives the person’s confession and then guides that person through what proper penance would look like for the sin confessed.
Early Catholic guides for priests taking confessions warned about a type of person called “the scrupulous,” people who held on to guilt no matter what. They were known as “unrelieved confessors,” who in spite of all assurances from the priest, could not receive grace.
While I don’t believe that you need a priest or pastor like me to grant you pardon for your sin, I do believe that God is a God of love and that His greatest desire is to forgive you and love you unconditionally no matter what you might have done. When we truly and earnestly repent of our sin, God is there to meet us with the gift of grace.
Unfortunately, “the scrupulous” still exist today. They walk around holding on to their guilt like a toddler with a security blanket, not understanding that there is a better way in life.
Not only can you know God’s grace, but you can experience it. There is a way to rid ourselves of our guilt. It is through the pathway of what is known as “godly sorrow.”
Long ago, Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians chastising them for their sin. When they responded by repenting and changing their behavior, here is what Paul wrote back to them (2 Corinthians 7:8-10):
“ 8 I am not sorry that I sent that severe letter to you, though I was sorry at first, for I know it was painful to you for a little while. 9 Now I am glad I sent it, not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. 10 For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.”
While some of us might like to think of guilt and sorrow as being one and the same, I want to suggest to us this morning that they couldn’t be farther from one another.
Sorrow, unlike guilt, does not wallow in self-punishment. Instead, sorrow is grounded in a deep concern for relationships and constructive change. Sorrow’s focus, outlook and results are radically different than what is produced by the idea of guilt.
Sorrow results in positive, life-affirming changes. Guilt results in the destruction of self and relationships.
So what I would like for us to spend some time doing this morning is to distinguish some of the important differences between godly sorrow, which is a good thing and guilt, which can be a very bad force in our lives.
- Godly Sorrow Focuses on the Other Person. Guilt is a selfish emotion. When people feel guilty, they focus on themselves exclusively. Their pains from guilt are so great that they cannot begin to acknowledge the pain of the people they have hurt.
Godly sorrow, in contrast, allows people to look beyond their own pain and enter the world of the person they have offended. A great example of this comes to us from the biblical story of David.
David has stumbled badly. Where he had once walked closely with God, he has now strayed from that relationship. He found himself in the midst of an affair and a life that was spiraling out of control.
The prophet, Nathan, tricked David into identifying with his victim when he told the story of a rich man who stole the beloved lamb of a poor man. Enraged by the incident, David declared, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
But Nathan turned to David and said, “You’re the man. You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife as your own.”
For the first time David realized what he had done to his victim, Uriah. He didn’t focus on himself. He didn’t say, “I’m the king – I can do whatever I want.” Nor did he blame Bathsheba for seducing him. Rather, he acknowledged his sin against Uriah, confessed it to God, and was forgiven.
Sorrow means that you begin to own your own stuff. Guilt means that your stuff owns you.
- Godly Sorrow Recognizes that Pain is Part of the Healing Process. Joni and I only have one niece, Katelynn Grace, who will be 14 in another month, which in itself is a miracle. You see, she was born at 26 weeks into my sister’s pregnancy and weighed only 1 lb. 14 ounces at birth.
She has cerebral palsy which has left her with an extremely stiff lower torso and legs. When she was five years old the surgeons had to go in and break her hips so that steel plates and rods could be inserted to correct her hip alignment. Afterwards, she spent six weeks in an A-frame cast from her hips down to her ankles.
This left Katelynn with little or no muscle tone in her legs once the cast was able to come off. Where she had once been able to walk with the assistance of a walker or quad canes she was now unwilling to even put weight on her feet and legs.
As a result, she spent four weeks in a special conductive therapy program to retrain her muscles so that she could get back to walking with the walker or canes again.
Each morning when my sister would drop Katelynn off for her five hour therapy sessions my niece would wail and cry and say things like, “Mommy please don’t leave me. Mommy you take me home now. Please take me home.”
You can only imagine how difficult it would be to watch your child cry day after day after day. But no matter how tempting it would have been to snatch your child up and say, “Okay, I understand. Therapy is painful and you don’t want to hurt so we’ll just go back home.”
When you have a child living with these kinds of challenges you have to come to a point of believing that the painful exercise guided by a caring physical therapist is necessary. You have to accept the fact that the healing that your child is in need of only comes through pain.
Not everyone can accept such realities and they refuse such therapies. Their highest priority is not to see their child heal, but to avoid pain – and their child’s physical healing is deferred because of it.
The feelings of guilt and sorrow work much the same way. Sorrow looks beyond the pain of the moment to the greater goal of healing a broken relationship. It cares about making a wrong right. Self-absorbed guilt, on the other hand, refuses to go through the pain required to heal a relationship.
Sorrow understands that God can bring purpose to our pain.
- Godly Sorrow Looks Forward to the Future. Years ago a small town in Maine was proposed for the site of a great hydroelectric plant. Since a dam would be built across the river, the town itself would be submerged. However, out of fairness, the people were given several years to arrange their affairs and relocate.
Because of this decision, the town council canceled all improvements. No one repaired or painted buildings, roads or sidewalks. Day by day the whole town got shabbier and shabbier.
A long time before the flood waters came, the town looked uncared for and abandoned, even though the people had not yet moved away. As one citizen explained, “When there is no faith in the future, there is no power in the present.”
On the one hand, people troubled by feelings of guilt do not care about or plan for the future. Obsessed with the history of their failures, they cry futilely over situations that cannot be changed.
Instead of driving with their eyes on the road ahead of them, they continually look behind them. But with their eyes focused on the rearview mirror, they cannot drive straight – and so they cause yet another accident. Folks, as someone reminded me after we first started this series of messages, there is a reason that the rearview mirror is as small as it is and windshield is as large as it is.
We have to keep our eyes trained on the road ahead, with only quick glances behind to prevent accidents.
I’ll never forget a couple of guys who lived down the hall from me in the dorm my freshman year of college. Even though they were now college students they continued to wear their high school letter jackets to show off their athletic accomplishments of the past.
I don’t know if they were unaware or knew and just didn’t care, but other people laughed at them every time they walked across campus in their letter jackets. They were used to functioning as big fish in a small pond and now they found themselves swimming in the ocean.
It wasn’t that they couldn’t afford a different coat. It was that they didn’t want to wear anything else. Their identities were anchored in the past. They couldn’t think about the future, because of their attachment to what used to be.
Godly sorrow helps us turn our backs on the past and start planning the future. Sorrow doesn’t obsess over the way things might have been. It does not revel in regrets. Sorrow envisions what life can become and believes it will be better than the past.
- Godly Sorrow Results in Real and Lasting Change. Constructive sorrow results in real life change while guilt, at best, spins us into a cycle of temporary change followed by more self-condemnation. I’m sure that some of you are thinking, “But feelings of guilt do motivate me to change my behavior.”
I agree. Guilt can lead to confession and change, but only in the short run. Motivation by guilt doesn’t last. Life is a marathon, not the hundred yard dash. Confession of guilt, in the absence of godly sorrow, short-circuits any attempt to make long-lasting life change.
The cycle looks like this: Guilt>Confession>Relief>Relapse>Guilt…
Some entrepreneurial sorts have turned this endless cycle of guilt feelings into a lucrative 1-900-number phone business. A soothing female voice comes on the line: “Have you ever done something you feel bad about? Call me at phone confessions to leave your own message. Tell someone how you feel or tell someone that you’re sorry.”
As many as 14,000 people call in every day to confess or apologize on this computerized phone line. Others simply call to listen to the recordings of confessions by other people.
Callers pay two dollars for the first minute to eavesdrop on people baring their souls. Apparently just listening to confessions, finding solace in the fact that there are others who feel bad about wrongdoings helps some people deal with their guilty feelings.
Not surprisingly, most of the money on this line is made from people who call repeatedly. In the same way, some people relate to God as if he were an automated confessional. They confess as a way to “get God off their backs,” rather than as a means of empowerment for actual change in the behavior and attitude.
In other words, confession for some is simply a means to feel better, not to become more healthy and whole. I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but feel that while God is happy to hear our confessions, He is most interested in our health and well-being.
The shoulda, coulda, woulda’s of life haunt many of us because what happens is we become entrenched in our guilt which does nothing to help us change. We become selfishly focused on ourselves to the point that we try to earn our worth rather than accepting God’s grace.
The problem is that many of us don’t realize that we have a choice. We don’t understand that there are choices we can make for the better.
- We can choose to focus on the future.
- We can choose to accept God’s grace.
- We can choose to make real and lasting change in our behavior.
Jeremiah 29:11-13 – “11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. 12 In those days when you pray, I will listen. 13 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.