The Paper Pulpit
In one of the episodes of the old television show, Gunsmoke, an outlaw picked a poverty-stricken town outside Dodge City, Kansas, to ply his trade. He had heard that even though the town was poverty-stricken the church in that town possessed a crucifix and candlesticks made of solid gold. He had no compunctions about desecrating a holy place, and he quickly robbed the church.
As he was leaving, however, a priest appeared, blocking his route of escape. Quickly the outlaw added murder to the crime of robbery. But, as the outlaw knelt by his victim, the priest performed a strange ceremony. He dabbed his thumb into his own blood, traced a crude cross on the forehead of his murderer, and whispered, “I forgive you.” The outlaw could never get the words of the priest out of his mind. Such grace had caught him off guard and left him defenseless. By taking the initiative for forgiveness, the priest demonstrated the gospel of the cross.
What happened to that outlaw? Troubled, guilty, he fled when not pursued. At one point he tried to return the stolen treasures to another church, but the Baptist preacher did not use gold altarware in his church. Wherever he went, people were repulsed by what he had done — robbing a church and killing a priest. Driven by guilt from town to town, he ended up in Dodge City, Kansas, and in a tragic gun battle with Marshal Matthew Dillon. Marshal Dillon, of course, drew his gun the fastest and shot the outlaw, who soon died. But as Dillon knelt over him, the man whispered his last breath: “I forgive you.” And the mystery of forgiveness was continued.
Have you, like that outlaw, ever been bothered by guilt? If so, you can understand what William Wordsworth meant when he said, “From the body of one guilty deed a thousand ghostly and haunting thoughts proceed.” Guilt can take away your sleep, ruin your life and destroy your relationships with others. If you are struggling with the guilt of some past failure in your life, you need to know that there is a way to be rid of guilt.
There are basically three improper ways people respond to guilt: some refuse it, others abuse it and still others excuse it. Those who refuse it try to block guilt out of their minds — they refuse to feel guilty about anything. This is certainly the case with many mass murderers, serial rapists, pathological liars and others who engage in persistent criminal behavior. Since their world revolves around themselves, they give little thought to the value and rights of others.
Those who abuse guilt feel guilty about everything. They condemn themselves for everything that ever went wrong in their lives. They have the “I did it” mentality. Perhaps they feel that by accepting the blame for every wrong in sight, they can experience atonement for other wrongs they have done.
Those who excuse their guilt blame others. Alcoholics say things like, “I came from a dysfunctional family.” Those who cheat on their exams in school say things like, “The teacher was unfair.” Criminals say things like, “Societal conditions made me do it.” To blame God, the devil, the church, your parents, your teachers or society as a whole for your sins or your circumstances is to ignore the fact that you are solely responsible for your decisions and actions.
You can never gain freedom from guilt by suppressing it, by sublimating it into your subconscious mind, or by blaming it on somebody else. In order to deal with guilt constructively, it must be acknowledged, and the sin that produced it must be confessed. King David understood this as he expressed his own inner turmoil in Psalm 32 (notice verse 5 especially). The Prodigal Son, in a story told by Jesus, came home and said to his father, “I have sinned.” The key to saying “goodbye” to guilt is to recognize that only God can take it away and cleanse our conscience. It is when we understand that we have sinned not only against ourselves and other individuals, but also against God Himself, that we will see why it is so important to have God’s forgiveness.
One of the greatest verses in the entire Bible is 1 John 1:9 — “If we confess our sins, He (God) is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” — notice that it is “ALL” unrighteousness, not just “SOME” of it. When we confess our sins, God washes them away. That is how you can say “goodbye” to guilt.
The Rev. D.E. Parkerson is retired pastor of First Baptist Church of Sanford.