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You asked for a Sermon Concerning Our Guilt


Psalm 51:1-14          Romans 5:1-5          Mark 3:1-6


Why doesn’t the church accentuate the positive?   Why do we persist in the “miserable” prayer of confession every Sunday morning? Since guilt is burdensome, why don’t we stop using the word and rid ourselves as well of everything associated with it?   We don’t do this for many reasons, not the least of which is this: a person with no sense of guilt is to be pitied.  More to the point, a person with no sense of guilt is to be dreaded. A person with no sense of guilt is a psychopath, utterly conscienceless.  Psychopaths are aware that certain behaviours are followed by the severest social sanctions: if you rob a bank, you go to jail.  Psychopaths, however, have no sense of wrong.         They think a jail sentence for bank robbery to be social arbitrariness, nothing more. Psychopaths can never be trusted. They are housed in a maximum-security institution in Penetanguishene.  The person with no capacity for guilt is the person who has to be locked up and never let out. At the same time, all of us are aware that the burden of guilt can be so very burdensome as to be crushing.


I: — The sermon is only a minute old, and already I’ve used the word “guilt” several times. When I use the word am I referring to a state or a feeling? Most people have a feeling in mind whenever they hear the word “guilt”.   The judge in criminal court, however, has only a state in mind.  When a judge declares the accused to be guilty before the law, the judge is describing the offender’s state, the offender’s condition. The judge doesn’t know how the offender feels, and may not care.  Undoubtedly a judge pronounces to be guilty many offenders who don’t feel guilty at all. Still, we all agree it’s appropriate for someone who has done wrong to feel guilty. It’s appropriate for state and feeling to match up. When people who are guilty also feel guilty, their guilt (feeling) is called “real guilt.”  When people who haven’t done wrong feel guilty none the less, their guilt (feeling) is called “imaginary.”

Suppose I feel guilty when (according to most people) there’s no guilty state. I eat a piece of chocolate cake (one piece) when I’m convinced I need to lose ten pounds. Most people would see my guilt-feeling as purely imaginary, trivial even.  Calling it trivial, however, does nothing to reduce the feeling.  The feeling of imaginary guilt can be so very intense as to be immobilising.

Imaginary guilt is said to arise largely from taboos we absorbed during our childhood, or from taboos acquired from our social environment, our colleagues, our friends, our parents (chiefly our parents.) We move into adult life with our childhood taboo-system firmly in place (and no less firmly in place for having been acquired semiconsciously, even unconsciously.)   We move further into adult life with our society’s taboo-system in place, always aware that there are social penalties for violating social taboos. Many people are embarrassed to admit what they feel guilty about, I’ve found, because the taboo appears, from a rational standpoint, to be trivial.         As trivial and arbitrary as they tell themselves it is, their guilt-feeling remains. Not only does it remain, it frequently goes ever so deep and is ever so destructive.

“I’ve got the solution”, someone insists, “the guilt associated with parental upbringing and social convention is always and everywhere imaginary. Since it’s all imaginary, let’s do our best to forget it and focus on the guilt that’s real.” Such a “solution”, however, is no solution at all.
Anthropologists tell us, for instance, that all societies have a taboo concerning incest.  Does the fact of the taboo mean that all guilt concerning incest is imaginary, imaginary only? As for my parental upbringing, my parents taught me that murder is wrong; dishonesty of any sort, theft, slander, lying – all are wrong.  Does the fact that my parents taught me these are wrong trivialise the guilt associated with murder and theft?

At the same time, as we mature we all recognise that there’s imaginary guilt around many parental edicts that we have come to disregard. Concerning these parental edicts we now merely smile and wonder why we were so long shedding the guilt associated with them, so pointless is it.  The question still has to be asked and answered, however, as to how we come to sort out real and imaginary guilt.  On what basis do we distinguish them?

Distinguishing them isn’t as easy as we might first think, since both kinds are pervasively intertwined in us.         Because untangling the two kinds is more difficult than expected, we are prone to pursue the “quick fix” of labelling our guilt as all imaginary or all real.  I begin by telling myself that my guilt is all imaginary.   The amateurish “pop” psychology ready-to-hand in our society aids and abets this. Besides, labelling my guilt as all imaginary makes it easier to live with until I can dump it. But before long I am driven to admit to myself, “It’s not working.”  After a while I know, deep down, that I’m making excuses for myself where there are no excuses; I’m letting myself off much too easily; and I’m letting myself off where I let no one else off.

Then perhaps my guilt is all real.  I deserve to feel as bad as I feel. I know I’m a defective person, defective on many fronts; and if ever I appear in danger of forgetting this, there’s no shortage of people to remind me.  Plainly I am as bad as I feel.”  After a while, however, I find I can’t live here.  My responsibility for my guilt is more than I can endure.  The burden is so very burdensome as to be overwhelming.  In order to ease my burden I tell myself I’m being much too hard on myself. Back goes the pendulum toward imaginary guilt.  Back and forth I swing. First I think I’m tormenting myself unrealistically; then I think I’m excusing myself irresponsibly. Finally I shout that regardless of how often I change the labels on my guilt-feelings I don’t feel any less guilty and I’m still confused as to whether I should feel guilty.

The pattern I’ve just described repeats itself again and again in life. Someone isn’t the business success that his cousin is.  He feels guilty about this, since he can’t provide the standard of living for his family that his cousin can, and feels worse when his wife keeps reminding him of this. A week later he tells himself that he needn’t feel guilty; after all, he never had the opportunities and “breaks” that his cousin had.  Soon, however, he tells himself that he’s making excuses for himself and should “own up” to his failure.  Now he tells himself he’s never been a business success because he’s simply not as smart as his cousin, nor as creative, nor as adventuresome. Two weeks later, however, he can’t live with such severity concerning himself; he tells himself his cousin “got ahead” just because his cousin isn’t always honest. Back and forth he swings. He’s no further ahead in his self-understanding; and his guilt-feelings, whether real or imaginary, are no less intense.

I have found that most unmarried people feel guilty for being unmarried. First the single woman tells herself that her guilt is entirely imaginary.  It’s not her fault that no one’s ever asked her to marry, is it?   Then she begins to wonder, moves on to doubting herself, and finally accuses herself: why wouldn’t it be her fault that no one has ever asked her to marry?  A variant of this theme is the person guilt-ridden at being single again. After all, marital failures don’t happen spontaneously; they have to be someone’s fault. In all such cases people oscillate when they try to sort out the extent to which they are blameworthy for developments in their lives.  When they are easy on themselves, they come to suspect themselves of being too easy, unrealistically easy.  When they are hard on themselves, they soon can’t live with their own severity. Back and forth they go, their guilt-feelings fixed fast, even becoming more intense.

The real guilt/imaginary guilt teeter-totter is complicated by the fact that imaginary guilt is often a smokescreen behind which real guilt hides. As long as I can preoccupy myself with imaginary guilt I won’t have to come to terms with what is giving rise to my real guilt, all of which means I won’t have to set my house in order.

Think of this situation. My wife and I are asked to a neighbour’s for coffee and dessert.  I sashay over in my house-painting trousers and my leaf-raking shoes. When we arrive at the neighbour’s home I find everyone better dressed.  I feel terrible about my social faux pas, guilty as can be. Then I tell myself that my guilt is imaginary.         After all, how was I to know how others would be dressed?   And wasn’t it the host’s responsibility to tell me?   The host is the guilty one here.  Any guilt-feeling I might have is purely imaginary.

But is it? Actually, my imaginary guilt disguises real guilt.  You see, I don’t like this particular neighbour.  He never cleans up after his dog.  I went to his home in my shabby clothes because I couldn’t care less about him and his silly coffee party.  Consciously I couldn’t care less; unconsciously I’d even like to embarrass him. As far as I’m concerned that man is a 14-karat jerk.  What’s more, just before my wife and I left our house we had a “tiff”, a “spat”, and as usual I lost.  I lose nearly all such tiffs and I’m tired of losing.  I know, she told me not to wear my house-painting trousers, but defying my wife was the only way I could re-assert myself in the face of my most recent domestic defeat. I thought I was inwardly saving face (my face) by letting her know I can’t be suppressed. (Hence the shabby clothes.) It turns out I was losing face (again), losing face publicly, angering her still more and causing my neighbour to think that I am a 14-karat jerk.

Much imaginary guilt is a smokescreen that hides real guilt.


II: — Perhaps you are thinking that our guilt-situation is so very complex, complicated even, that we shall never find our way out of the maze.  Yet we shall. We find our way out as the gospel brings us out.  Jesus Christ brings us out as he comes upon us and seizes us and soaks us in his unique truth and mercy and wisdom.

In the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry his opponents hounded him, waiting to catch him infringing this custom or that code or yet another taboo. When they finally caught him – healing a man on the Sabbath or allowing his disciples to eat without ritually dipping their hands or befriending those the society loves to hate – they jumped on him saying, “You’ve broken the rules. You’ve infringed the code.” Our Lord’s opponents think that real guilt arises when the code is violated or the custom infringed. His followers, on the other hand, know that real guilt arises inasmuch as we are guilty persons before God. While sin is something I do, it isn’t primordially something I do; it isn’t fundamentally, originally, something I do. At bottom sin is something I am. (Psalm 51) The sin that I do is but the excrescence of the sin that I am.  In the presence of Jesus Christ Peter doesn’t exclaim, “Oh, my gosh. I’ve done the wrong thing.” Rather he cries, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.”

Opponents of Jesus compare themselves against a list of rules and note that they break 50% of them. If ever they begin to feel guilty about this they console themselves with the fact that they break only 50%; this means they keep 50%, and the man down the street manages only 40%. Disciples of Jesus, on the other hand, recognize with Peter that the code-mentality is entirely beside the point.  Followers of Jesus know that their proximity to him discloses not something they’ve done wrong here or there; their proximity to him discloses them, discloses themselves in their person, to be in the wrong before God. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” The apostle Paul adds, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”   The characteristic human deficit, which deficit is as deep in us as blood poisoning, is that we don’t mirror God’s glory.  We were created for this, and it is meant to characterize us.  It doesn’t now.   All of us? All of us equally?   All of us lack such glory equally despite the unequal attainments we undeniably display? All of us lack God’s glory, which glory is the human good, despite the different degrees of virtue which more moral and less moral people exemplify?   Yes. We all fall short of God’s glory equally.

The spiritual predicament of humankind (in other words, the predicament plain and simple) isn’t that we do this or that wrong; our predicament is that we are in the wrong before God. The first impact the gospel makes upon us is to disclose our spiritual condition.


The second impact of the gospel, the second consequence of our Lord’s presence and power, is that he puts in the right before God all who welcome him.  To cling to him is find ourselves put in the right before God, to be given new status, new standing. “Justification” is a word that many Protestants throw around but few understand.         To be justified, biblically, isn’t to be excused.   (Sinners can never be excused.)  To be justified is to be put in the right before God, to be given new standing with him. To be justified is to be given the same standing before God as the standing of that Son with whom the Father is ever pleased.  Faith clings to the Son with whom the Father is pleased.

At the time of the Sixteenth Century Reformation John Calvin spoke of justification as “the chief hinge on which religion turns.”   He was right. Justification is indeed the chief hinge on which faith turns.  Justification opens the door to peace with God and peace within ourselves. Justification opens the door to release from anxiety and freedom to venture.  Justification is the chief hinge on which everything turns. It swings open the door of prisons that have held people fast for years and lets them step out into the sunlight of life.

Martin Luther lit up every time he thought about justification.  Reading scripture with exquisitely fine attention to the logic of the text Luther spoke of justification as a breathtaking exchange.  Jesus Christ exchanges all that is his for all that is mine.  As sinner I am sunk in guilt, shame, curse, death; as the righteous one Jesus Christ throbs with glory, blessing, light and life.  Justification means that he, of his incomprehensible mercy takes on my guilt, shame, curse and death even as he clothes me in his glory, blessing, light and life. Clothed now in all that he is, I exult in that new identity which is mine for life and will be mine as well on the day of judgement.

Two hundred years after Luther, Valentius Loescher, a Lutheran theologian, wrote, Iustificatio est articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae (1718).   “Justification is the article by which the church stands and falls.” Articulus: “article”? Actually the Latin word articulus means not only “article” or “hinge”; it also means “moment” or “point”, as well as “crisis.”   Justification by faith, the glorious exchange that occurs as Jesus Christ relieves me of all that’s mine and bestows upon me all that’s his: this is the moment, the point, the critical issue where the church stands or falls. It’s the moment, the point, the critical issue that separates church from fake church.

Scripture makes plain that justification is pardon or forgiveness: all these words mean the same.  To be justified is to be pardoned is to be forgiven.  When we speak of forgiveness, however, we must be careful that we aren’t misled by a line in the Apostles’ Creed.  The creed states, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”   Strictly speaking, sin is never forgiven simply because sin doesn’t exist apart from sinners.   Sinners are forgiven. I myself am forgiven. For this reason Paul exults, “Being justified by faith we ourselves have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:1) “There is now no condemnation for those persons who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)

The second impact of the gospel is that we who are in the wrong before God are put in the right with him as we cling to the One who has promised to hold us so as never to let us go.


The third impact of the gospel is that forgiveness provides sanctuary, provides protection against inner and outer assault, provides safe living space in which we can come, in our own way and in our own time, to understand what guilt is real and what imaginary.  Justification provides the security within which we can come to terms, however long it takes, with where we should feel guilty and where we shouldn’t. It provides an anxiety-free zone that allows us the time and space and freedom to come to terms with our upbringing, social convention, our growing awareness of God’s truth, our new-found self-perception.  It provides an anxiety-free zone in which we can reflect on what we’ve been taught, what we’ve learned ourselves, where our parents meant well but hindered us none the less, where we absorbed opinions that we thought to be the soul of truth but which we now see to be anything but. Forgiveness or justification gives us breathing space, and this breathing space allows us to revisit ever so much about us, reassess it, and revise whatever has to be revised. Forgiveness or justification allows us to do this, even requires us to do this, without putting us back on that teeter-totter that always oscillates between irresponsible self-excusing and unendurable self-accusing.


“Why doesn’t the church accentuate the positive?”   What we have heard about guilt this morning in church is more positive than anything we are ever going to hear about guilt anywhere else.

                                                                                                    Victor Shepherd                                                               

November 2006