The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” – John 1:29
What can we do with our guilt? Why do we all feel guilty?
In the 19th century, the Russian novelist Dostoevsky encapsulated a popular philosophy at the time concerning guilt and morality in his book Crime and Punishment. The main character of the book, Raskolnikov, while studying at university becomes convinced that traditional morality is simply a social construct and should be transcended by extraordinary persons who are brave enough to do so. Living in grinding poverty, he decides to apply his new theory and plans to murder an old, cruel, and wealthy woman so he can use her wealth for his education. He does not believe that ultimately there is anything wrong with murdering someone as vile as this woman per se, even if he initially is bothered emotionally with the act itself. So he murders the woman and takes her money. But rather than being free from guilt, Raskolnikov is eaten alive by his guilt, haunted by his guilt, wholly agonized by his guilt—despite believing he has no reason to feel guilt—to the degree that he becomes physically ill, nearly to the point of death, and only finds relief when he finally confesses his crime and accepts his punishment.
Guilt is what you experience when you fail to do what you ought to do, or do what you ought not do. The ought is critical for that definition. There is some standard that we know we should live by and we feel guilty when we fail to live by that standard. But if Raskolnikov is right, if we are free to make up our own standards then we, theoretically, should be free from guilt. We are often told today that no one can tell us what is right or wrong, but we must decide that for ourselves.
And yet, why do we all feel so guilty? While the guilt of murder is a rather dramatic example, guilt and regret nevertheless are familiar friends to us. This is true if we are religious or not. We feel guilty about things as mundane as our lack of exercise to things as significant as our failures in our marriages and secret addictions that are destroying us. The guilt that haunts us can be a low-grade hum that buzzes in the back of our mind, or a shouting, blaring guilt that leaves us wholly paralyzed. And all this happens while we are floating in a society that tells us that we are free to choose what is right and wrong for ourselves—and yet, unless we are psychopaths, we still feel guilt. We all do.
So, what are we to do with our guilt? Let me present three options that are the most common today, and then a surprising alternative.
Option 1: I’ve done nothing wrong
One option when feeling guilty is to just attempt to move the goal-post in your mind, to tell yourself: this wasn’t wrong; I’m not a bad person. We commonly hear this advice: you’re too hard on yourself, it wasn’t that bad, you’re a good person. But why does that almost never provide relief? I once spoke with a man who had been placed on hospice care, who knew his time was short. He was reflecting on serious mistakes that he had made in his past, ways he had hurt those closest to him. As he divulged what had happened and how anguished his conscience was, it was so apparent how wholly ineffective this kind of advice would be. He knew what he had done was really wrong and trying to give him the thin soup of “Hey, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad” would have done nothing to help this man.
You see, as much as our culture would love to believe that morality is merely something we get to mold into whatever we like it to be, our experience simply does not bear this out. When we come face to face with real wrongs, real evil—either in society or in ourselves—our notions of moral relativism evaporate into thin air. Think of the last time you felt angry while watching or reading the news; think of the last time you felt a deep, deep sense of shame and guilt. In those moments we know immediately and intuitively two things to be true: (1) there is a universal standard of “right” and “wrong”, and (2) all people—ourselves included—must obey it. And when we do not, we feel guilty. You can deny it, you can tell yourself that what you are doing is really okay, but you will never silence the murmurs of guilt.
If we accept the premise of that point, that there is a universal Law that all people are under, then that must mean that the Law is not created by us, but given to us by some kind of Law-Giver. Some would argue that morality is given to us by society or evolution, but this won’t work. We do not treat our moral judgments like they are just provincial evaluations that only represent our culture’s judgments. We treat them like they are True and have always been True. I had a professor at school who adopted a child from India who was in a very poor orphanage. There was a large pile of garbage behind the orphanage and the child, maybe two or three at the time, was trying to grab a chicken bone when a large crow began to fight him for it. The bird then attacked the boy and pecked out one of the boy’s eyes. The owners of the orphanage, fearful that this was an evil omen, decided to stop allowing the boy to come inside the orphanage and left him outside—by the time my professor was able to adopt the boy he was very sick and had nearly died (and luckily is now in good health and in a loving home). When we hear that, we do not say: Well, my set of morals doesn’t agree with that, but I only think that because of the society I live in, so who am I to judge? No, we say: “That IS wrong and has always been wrong.” Evolution or society do not give us a foundation for how things ought to be, they can only describe what is. But we intuitively respond with something more than just what is, we say “Things ought not be that way.” So, either all of our moral intuitions are wrong, or morality comes from somewhere else.
But this brings us back to the reality of a Law-Giver, the one who gives us the oughts of the cosmos. In other words, God.
Option 2: God doesn’t care
Thus we are brought to our second option of how to deal with guilt: God doesn’t care. Maybe we can admit that a God of some sorts has given us a universal standard of morality, but does God really care? Wouldn’t He be busy doing something far more important than keeping tabs on who you’re sleeping with or whether or not you told a lie? Plus, doesn’t God know that nobody is perfect? So, the thinking goes, if God doesn’t care about this, then maybe you shouldn’t either—so stop beating yourself up with all that guilt, there won’t be any judgment or punishment for you.
But of course, this line of reasoning only works if God doesn’t care about how we live…but what if He does? What if He cares a great deal? Wouldn’t the fact that a God who gives us a universal Law make us assume that He does, indeed, care? Wouldn’t the fact that we, ourselves, care very deeply about this not be a hint that the God who made us likewise cares? And if we, imperfect people though we are, care about this, how much more so would a perfect God care?
But all of this is still conjecture, of course. How are we to know what God is like? If there is a God who can give us a moral law, couldn’t this God also make Himself known to us? This is why traditional religion, religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam hold so seriously to their sacred texts like the Bible or Qur’an because in them the God makes Himself known—we are not simply supposing or guessing.
This is contrary to the more modern idea of how to find God. What is common today is to look inside ourselves to find God, to search through our feelings and to try and reach out and experience God on our own terms. This is popular in the affluent, liberal West today, and especially popular in America, encapsulated in memoirs like Eat, Pray, Love or lifestyle gurus like Oprah. But the funny thing is, of course, that when you talk with people who believe this, the God they describe to you sounds an awful lot like themselves—a God with the same values and preferences of affluent, liberal American people. And if that is what your God is like, how do you know that God isn’t just a figment of your own imagination, a Freudian projection intended to just help alleviate your guilt?
This is the benefit of having a God who reveals Himself outside of our internal feelings, through creation, and especially through written words. But as we read the texts of traditional religions we find something in common with them all: the God described in each one cares very seriously about how you live your life and teaches that your guilt is real, legitimate, and a precursor to a judgment. This isn’t because God is bad, but precisely because He is Good—or, to use the Bible’s word, Holy.
Option 3: I’ll make it right
Which brings us to our final option: I’ll make it right. If you have exhausted the first two options, you have been convinced that what you have done isn’t just some psychological hiccup, but there is an objective standard from God you have transgressed—what do you do? You work to make it right. You either try to go back and fix the problem, or you resolve to do enough good in your life to make up for the wrong.
In the classic novel by Robert Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the brilliant Dr. Jekyll realizes that he has a mixture of good and evil inside of him, and the evil desires are constantly hindering the good. So he creates a concoction that will give him the ability to separate his two natures, so that during the day he could be unalloyed good, while at night he would let his more base desires reign. To his surprise, however, the evil part of him—My. Hyde—is ten times more wicked than he anticipated. Hyde does horrifying, atrocious acts—killing, hurting, gratifying himself however he desires. When Dr. Jekyll finally realizes just how evil Mr. Hyde is—how evil he is—he vows never again to use the potion, and dedicates himself from then on to charity and good works to make up for what he has done.
This is the path the majority of people take—whether we are part of a formal religion or not. For religious people, this looks like becoming more devout in their religion and acts of goodwill towards others. For irreligious people, this looks like becoming more concerned about others and a general effort to be less selfless. This effort, whether religious or not, is the castle you fly to when you the arrows of guilt and condemnation over your failures begin to rain down —Yes, I know I did wrong…I know I’m guilty …but, I donate money, I pray, I go to church every Sunday, I help others, and I’m not like those people over there who are ruining their lives, ruining our society! And the more good we have done (and the lazier and more pathetic other people around us seem) the higher and thicker those castle walls become.
But the dilemma with this option, friends, is that it will lead into one of two places: pride or despair. You will either be hounded by despair and the question: have I done enough? Have I atoned for my guilt? How good must I be to balance the scales? Your castle walls turn out to be made of paper and do nothing to stop the shafts of condemnation from pinning you to the ground, and you sink into despair. Or, more tragically, you will become proud, complacent, and self-righteous: Look at how impressive my good works are, why aren’t other people as good as me?
In the novel, as Dr. Jekyll is sitting on a park bench reflecting on all the good he has done to balance out the crimes he committed as Mr. Hyde, he realizes just how superior he is to all the common people. We read: “But as I smiled, comparing myself with other men, comparing my active goodwill with the lazy cruelty of their neglect…at the very moment of that vain-glorious thought, a qualm came over me, a horrid nausea and the most dreadful shuddering…I looked down…I was once more Mr. Hyde.” Suddenly Dr. Jekyll involuntarily transforms into Mr. Hyde without the potion. He can no longer control the transformations. Overwhelmed by this, Dr. Jekyll eventually kills himself.
Why did this happen? Stevenson is offering an incisive critique for us: it is while Dr. Jekyll believes he is at the height of his morality, at the height of his pride, that he no longer needs a potion to transform into the most wicked version of himself. Or, to use the language of the Bible, “All our righteous deeds are as filthy rags,” Isa 64:6. Timothy Keller comments, “Like so many people, Jekyll knows he is a sinner, so he tries desperately to cover his sin with great piles of good works. Yet his efforts do not actually shrivel his pride and self-centeredness, they only aggravate it. They lead him to superiority, self-righteousness, pride and suddenly—look! Jekyll becomes Hyde, not in spite of his goodness, but because of his goodness.”
This is the dilemma of attempting to fix your guilt on your own. You are either are left in despair over your inability to fix the guilt in your life, or you become so enamored with your own goodness that you become vain, self-righteous, and cold. Despite doing good things, you fundamentally are still doing them out of selfishness, out of self-interest. And this is what sets Christianity apart from every other religious or irreligious option in dealing with our guilt.
The Surprising Alternative
When John the Baptist sees Jesus of Nazareth approach him while standing next to the river Jordan, he exclaims: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This is an odd statement, of course. Jesus is a man, not a lamb. Further, “lambs…who take away sins” in the Jewish world did not have an enviable job. From the very beginning of the Bible we know that the consequences of sin is death (Gen 2:17), so for sins to be taken away there still must be a death (Heb 9:22). Thus, lambs who take away sins are lambs who are killed.
At the Passover, the Jewish celebration of the day that God delivered His people from Egypt, lambs were killed. The blood of the lamb was smeared on the doorframe of the homes of God’s people, the blood representing the extinguished life of the lamb (Lev 17:11). When the angel of death came, it would see the blood, and pass over the home—but if there was no blood, the angel would enter. Each Jewish home had to do this, or the life of their firstborn would be forfeit—the assumption being, that their lives were just as liable to judgment as the Egyptians were. Just because of their ethnicity or heritage as Israelites did not inherently make them exempt from judgment. Only the blood of the lamb turned away the judgment.
Thus, for John the Baptist to describe Jesus as: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” is an alarming statement for Jesus—you’re going to die. It is even more shocking when we reflect on the fact that just a few verses earlier, at the beginning of John’s Gospel we are told who Jesus really is: He is God in the flesh, the second member of Trinity, God the Son (John 1:1-2, 14). If God were to come down in the flesh He would certainly be worthy of reverence, worship, praise, fear even—but to be a lamb to die for sins?
Later, Jesus teaches His followers that He did not come to be waited on and served like some royal dignitary, but to serve others and “to give his life as a ransom for many,” Matt 20:28—a ransom; a payment to free others. He taught them that He knew the authorities were plotting His death, but that He was actually choosing to lay down His life (John 10:18; Luke 24:7). John’s statements would not have alarmed Jesus; He knows the aim of His life will be to die. Even further, He deliberately chooses to provoke the authorities during the week-long celebration of Passover, and it is on the very day when the Passover lamb is killed that Jesus is betrayed and arrested (Mark 14:12). Jesus knows He is the lamb.
You see, there is more going on during the events of that fateful Friday than meets the eye. As Judas is betraying, the disciples abandoning, and the Pharisees scorning and condemning, God is working. As Pilate is crumbling to the clamoring crowds, as the Roman guards scourge Jesus’ back, force the thorns into his brow and pound the nails in, ransom is occuring. As the heavens darken, the earth quakes, and the Father turns His face away, a debt is being paid. A lamb who takes away sins is a lamb who is slain, slaughtered. As our crucified Messiah, our Lord, our God in the flesh, breathes His last and proclaims, “It is finished,” He reveals the spiritual reality that has been going on the whole time: our guilt has been taken away, and our sins atoned for—the work of salvation is finished. Jesus is the greater and final Passover lamb, the lamb who bears the sins of the people and dies in their place, takes their penalty. As Jesus perishes on the cross, He is absorbing into His body the sins, the guilt of His people and then taking the judgment and wrath those sins deserved from God the Father. The lamb dies instead of us.
Jesus is fulfilling what Isaiah foretold of when he wrote of the suffering servant: “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities,” Isa 53:10-11. It was God’s plan all along to crush His Son, so that He would not crush us, but pay our debt, and make us righteous. The sinless Son bore our sins, so that sinful people could be made sons.
What does Christianity teach us about what we do with our guilt? (1) God is holy and righteous and He demands obedience to His holy Law—He really cares about how you live your life, (2) we all have really failed to live that way and our guilt is meant to warn our souls that something is terribly wrong and it must be made right before its too late, and gloriously (3) our holy and righteous God has sent His own perfect Son to be a substitute for us, to die in our place as a payment of our sins, so our guilt can be taken away and we can be made right with God, so that now when God looks at us He does not condemn us, but welcomes us in as His children.
Are you not a Christian here today? The offer of Jesus is available to you. You do not need to keep exhausting yourself on remedies that will never fix your guilty conscience, that will never cure your wound. You can keep running and working and trying to tell yourself that things are really okay—but you know, deep down, it will not be enough. It never will. But do not despair! Turn now to Jesus and trust in Him and His work on the cross to pay the debt that your sins have owed. If you want to know what it means to follow Jesus, please talk with the person who invited you here tonight.
Are you a Christian? Marvel at the transcendent, inexplicable grace of our God. We can understand the idea of earning our spot, paying God back; we can wrap our head around God creating a system where we atone for our sins through our acts of piety—but this? The God against whom we have sinned stepping down and dying so we, the guilty ones, can be forgiven? This transcends all bounds, this makes no sense, this leaves us only to fall at His feet with broken hearts and profound joy. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Rest—your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. You don’t need to prove anything to God.
Obey—follow your Savior where He calls you.
Worship—what God is like our God? Sing to him, marvel at Him, adore Him.
Guilty, vile and helpless we Spotless Lamb of God was He Full atonement can it be? Hallelujah! What a Savior!