All of us feel a tinge of guilt from time to time. We know we have not lived up to our own standards, much less God’s. An inner judge tells us we are guilty. We may know we are forgiven, but we feel guilty.
People who enjoy God do not take forgiveness lightly; they think deeply about the fact that they have sinned in ways that have broken the heart of God.
What do people, and especially people who enjoy God do with these feelings?
Some will quickly begin quoting Bible verses about how God has separated our sins as far as the east is from the west ( Psalms 103:12). Their answer is, “Don’t be silly, God has forgiven all that, just forget it.”
There is, of course a great deal of truth to the idea that when we confess our sins, God forgives ( 1 John 1:9). But that is not the issue on the table here. The issue here is, is the way prescribed above the best way of dealing with our feelings of guilt?
I don’t think so. People who enjoy God do not take forgiveness lightly; they think deeply about the fact that they have sinned in ways that have broken the heart of God.
People who enjoy God are in a life-long process of understanding their depravity and God’s grace.
Part of what God is developing in us is a profound sense of his ability and graciousness to forgive, as well as a deep sense of awareness of our need for forgiveness. These come together. We cannot appreciate the grace of God unless we understand the depth of what he has forgiven. People who enjoy God are in a life-long process of understanding their depravity and God’s grace.
We cannot appreciate the graciousness of God unless we understand the depth of what he has forgiven.
By the way, I am not talking about fabricating a bunch of sins. I am not talking about a kind of false guilt that makes up sins whether they are issues of not. No, far from it, I am talking about getting in touch with reality—real reality. I am talking about a growing awareness of our personal depravity. I am talking about getting intentional about processing guilt.
You might wonder how this could really be a problem. If it is real reality, how could anyone doubt it or not be aware that it existed? Why do we have to get intentional about it? We are aware of reality, aren’t we?
It raises an interesting question: How do you know when you are deceived? The very nature of deception is that you do not know.
There are at least two reasons why we are not aware of reality. One is rooted in the spiritual realm while the other reason is from the world of psychology. In the world of psychology, we call this denial—the tendency we all have to repress the truth. One of the helpful truths coming out of the addiction literature is that there is no help until this denial is broken. Even God cannot (or will not) help a person who does not have a problem (or does not see their problem).
The reason for this may be because of what is happening in the spiritual realm. Satan is at work and his principle work is deception. He is called the father of lies ( John 8:44) and his favorite past time is deception. He works day and night attempting to keep us from the truth. It is the truth that sets us free. It is the truth that changes our lives. If he can keep us deceived, the truth will not help us.
Even God cannot (or will not) help a person who does not have a problem (or does not see their problem).
“That is very true, I am sure,” you may be saying to yourself, “I am sure that he does deceive many. . .” You raise a half smile and rejoice that it is not you that is deceived. It raises an interesting question: How do you know when you are deceived? The very nature of deception is that you do not know. If you knew, you would not be deceived.
Let me tell you my story at this point. I grew up with a “winner mentality.” Unlike a lot of the stories you hear about these day, I grew up feeling totally loved and supported and believed in by my parents. You would think this would be healthy, and mostly, it is. But it has left me with a temptation to deception about my own sinfulness. I am a little embarrassed to admit it, but I can remember stretched of months where I read the Bible and prayed and was not able to think of anything I felt guilty for, or needed to repent of. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” I would pray, but could not think of a single example, day after day, week after week, month after month. That would be ok it if were really true, but the truth was, I was living in denial. I was unaware of my sins and unwilling to admit them to myself or God. Any feeling of guilt I had was washed clean, not by the cross, but by my winner mentality. If the thought of my sinfulness crossed my mind, almost subconsciously I would think, “It must not be true, I am a winner, not a sinner. I do things right. If it is true, it is not all that bad.” And off I would go. Denial in its truest form. I was deceived and did not know it.
For these two reasons, then, I do not think it wise to dismiss our feelings of guilt too quickly. To review, these two reasons are:
- our tendency toward denial and
- the effort on the part of the evil one to deceive.
On the other end of the spectrum are those that allow themselves to be condemned by their guilt. They do not deny it, they are spanked by it every day. In a way, there is some denial and deception going on here as well, for although they are feeling guilty, they are not really processing their guilt. They are trying to move away from guilt feelings. People who enjoy God do not do this. They move toward their guilt feelings, examining why they feel guilty, then bringing their guilt to the cross.
Whether we tend to ignore our guilt, or tend to be defeated by it, the solution is in the power of the cross. The cross frees us both from the “lust for innocence”12 and the crushing weight of guilt.
There is nothing but the cross that could help my sinful condition. A sermon won’t. A seminar won’t. A tape series won’t. Video won’t. Self-help won’t. Ideas won’t. Reading Enjoying God won’t.
In the cross I see how really bad I was. I come to understand depravity on an emotional and personal level. I understand how desperately I need the cross. No good advice will do; we get that in proverbs. No rules would do, we got that in Leviticus. Sheer resolve and determination would not do. The pre-cross saints demonstrated that. There is nothing but the cross that could help my sinful condition. A sermon won’t. A seminar won’t. A tape series won’t. Video won’t. Self-help won’t. Ideas won’t. Reading Enjoying God won’t. Only the cross will help. I was so bad the only thing that could help was for someone to die for me. That is what Gethsemane was all about. Jesus was asking the Father to search the options one more time to see if there was any way we could be changed. There was not other way. If the writer of the old hymns were alive today, he may have written:
Nothing can for sin atone,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
Self-help will not cleanse my wrong,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
The cross teaches us both our neediness and our value.
That kind of understanding is able to break through some of the denial and deception that some of us live with.
I say this so loudly because a lot of Christian thought today is little more than self-help baptized in a few proof texts. We need more than that; we need the power of the cross. With the power of the cross there is some help in self-help literature. But what we desperately need is the power of the cross. If we are not plugged in to that power we are lost. Are condition was so bad—and may we never get over this—that the cross and only the cross would help.
And the other side is, God thought it was worth it. Jesus did not go to the cross reluctantly. No one made him go. He went because he wanted to. Because He thought you and I were worth redeeming. The cross teaches us both our neediness and our value.
People who enjoy God are never tempted to believe they are worthless or insignificant.
Occasionally I will hear people use the words “worthless” or “insignificant” to describe themselves. It sounds so spiritual, so humble. The cross sets us straight on this fact. People who enjoy God are never tempted to believe they are worthless or insignificant. Sinners, yes. Worthless, never. Never, never, a thousand times never. If God would sacrifice the life of His Son; if Jesus would go to the cross, I can never think of my self as worthless or insignificant again. Guilty, yes, insignificant, I say again: never.
Suppose I were by some unthinkable twist of circumstance called upon to sacrifice the life of one of my dear boys, and I did what I cannot imagine doing and went through with it. Suppose I sacrificed my son’s life for you. The one thing I could not tolerate from you would be for you to ever say that your life did not matter. Because you life cost me the life of my son.
I think that is how God feels. He was happy to bruise the son for you and me. He counted the cost and thought it worth it. But he never wants to hear the thought whispering in your consciousness that you are worthless or insignificant. You were worth the price of Jesus blood. What could be more valuable than that?
Tapping into the power
How then, do we tap into the power of the cross? Two things: we allow God to cultivate a life-long, ever deepening consciousness of our depraved state before conversion, and we allow God to develop in us and ever increasing awareness that the cross forever settles the question of our significance. We meditate on our need for the cross and the significance of the cross. It is the truth that sets us free. As we enter into the life long process of becoming more and more aware of these two truths, the power of the cross will change our lives.
If you listen to the testimony of older Christians you will find this in balance. You will find in them a deep awareness of their sinfulness. It will not be a light, deal-with-it-quickly, shuffle it under the rug, type thing. You will find a foundation level understanding of their sinfulness. This may, in fact seem strange to you, because they seem like nice enough people to you. “Why are they always talking about how bad they are and how gracious God is?” you may think privately. But these are not guilt ridden people either. They also have a profound sense of the fact that God accepts them as they are, sinners, and is changing them to what they want to be, saints. They feel loved, though they are sinners and they know it. This is maturity. This is enjoying God. That is what caused someone to write:
Oh! precious is the flow,
That makes me white as snow.
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
People who enjoy God have an ever deepening understanding or their depravity and their value. They understand in a deep, profound way that God loves sinners.