The season of Lent is a powerful time in the Church Year. Throughout its forty days, if there’s one thing in particular it draws out and defines with its penitential crispness, it’s the authenticity of human guilt.
Guilt is an incredibly palpable thing, isn’t it?
It’s thick. It’s strong. It’s voracious.
A terrible task-master, guilt binds its victims, keeping them in chains, all the while haunting every square inch of its chosen domain. As a pastor, I’ve learned to recognize guilt in people—and not because I exist in some sort of sphere of unimpeachable innocence, but because I know and have met my own dreadfulness of thoughts, words, and deeds. I am very familiar with guilt’s shape and stamina, and like you, I can be found wrestling with it, too.
As a pastor who is fully prepared to admit this, that means I’m a lot harder to fool when it comes to guilt.
It’s so often easy enough to see it peering back from its victim’s eyes like a shadowy knight in the watchtower of a guarded fortress. It can be sensed in a person’s physical presence. It disturbs human posture and is betrayed by facial expressions. On the phone or in person, its grip alters the human voice. By email or text message, it chooses certain words and repeats certain phrases that reveal its in-dwelling.
Guilt is by no means shy in these regards. It isn’t necessarily concerned by the possibility of its own notoriety. Admittedly, however, it would prefer to dwell in the peace of secrecy, hoping its host will deny its existence and thereby miss the telltale traces of its acidosis. This is true because it knows that to deny its presence is to preserve and protect the master that planted it—Sin. The denial of Sin’s guilt is the embracing of wickedness. It is to justify it, and to find the license for willfully employing it.
But again, for guilt’s host to be aware of its existence is just as acceptable, too. It quite enjoys its castle adorned in the paraments of hopelessness, fear, anxiety, and depression.
Whether it’s outright disavowal or fearful seclusion to avoid being found out, guilt is happy to live in the pitch black darkness of either. It will do anything to protect its domain, anything to smother the approaching lantern of Truth’s messenger, anything to prevent the invasion of a better, chain-shattering, Lord.
From purely a human perspective, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a great place for seeing the examination of these two natures of guilt. For example, Queen Gertrude says so frankly of strong denial, “The Lady doth protest too much, methinks” (III, ii). This is hinting that to so boldly defend one’s absolute incorruptibility—to make excuses for or justify one’s bad behavior—is itself evidence of self-deception in relation to guilt. Further into the play, Shakespeare takes aim at the futility of concealing guilt for fear of being found out, saying that eventually it “spills itself in fearing to be spilt” (Act 4, Scene V). In other words, the continued filling of guilt’s ever-swelling balloon can only last for so long before it bursts, ultimately spattering its gore across the landscape of a person’s life. Things will get messy. Little episodes will become big. Plans will come undone.
So, what to do?
There’s a reason Jesus said on occasion, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15). He knows that the Word of God—namely, the proclamation of the Gospel—brings what’s needed for Sin. This cure is also, by God’s design, a medicine for the ousting of paralyzing guilt. The first pill in its prescribed regimen of truth is big and hard to swallow, and yet it delivers directly to our insides the very important knowledge-filled remedy that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
The course continues along in a way that moves from concern to sweetness, first urging us not to deny or be fearful of our guilt (1 John 1:8). Both are self-deceptions leading to eternal harm. Instead, we are invited to confess our truest selves and our failings, knowing that God is faithful and just, and He will wash the guilt away (1 John 1:9). His faithfulness is embodied by Jesus, who did not come to condemn us, but to save us (John 3:17). Through faith in Him, we have full access to the throne of God’s grace in every time of need (Hebrews 4:16), being certain that God will receive us—that He will not shame us in our guilt, but rather will help us by taking it away (Isaiah 50:7; Psalm 103:12).
This wonderful routing of guilt from the fortress of Man is on full display in the person and work of Jesus Christ—His cross and empty tomb. It’s there that we see our guilt being heaped upon His shoulders. It’s there that we see our fear and shame infused with His divine body. It’s there that our hope is born, and by faith in His sacrifice and victory, the gates of fault’s domain are kicked open and guilt is dragged to its eternal demise.
You don’t have to be afraid to say you’ve done wrong. God forgives. And by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in His people, offended Christians are prepared to forgive in return.
Let this Gospel be of comfort to you. Better yet, be empowered by it to put away the need to hide your guilt. And whatever you do, don’t deny its existence. Besides, God already knows it’s there, and He desires for us to own this truth, too. Even better, He doesn’t want to leave us in it. He would have us look to and know the One He sent for our rescue—Jesus Christ—and in Him discover the mettle for coming clean, for real repentance, for the real receiving of the mercy won for us on Calvary’s cross. It is by confession of Sin and faith in Christ that guilt’s shame is turned back on itself and made into nothing.
Lent is teaching us these things. Lent is leading us to Good Friday and Easter—those eternal moments on the mortal timeline that seal the deal on this wonderful news.