Can our guilt be wiped away What is sanctifying grace

are guilty. indeed, we are hounded, tormented, plagued, overwhelmed by our guilt. Some of it is related to things that we did when we knew we were wrong. We cheated on a test; teased another person mercilessly; stole from a supermarket; lied to a teacher, a parent, a friend. We swore a false oath, we consciously gave a bad piece of advice, we were not fair to a child, we were ungrateful to a parent. We bribed a public official, we disillusioned a young admirer, we subtly but effectively undermined the self-esteem of another, we mistreated a neighbor. We had a serious auto accident because we were drunk. We flirted with another woman's husband, tried to seduce another man's wife, harassed a woman whose job depended on us, tempted a man whose weakness could lead to our progress.

We try to kid ourselves about these actions. We argue that everyone did them, that no one was hurt, or that they were not really wrong. More generally we blame the cultural mores of the moment or the unfairness of the world that rewards those who take what they can get. But deep down inside we know that we were responsible for doing something wrong. The deed is done, we may be sorry for it, or at least we may regret the harm that followed; but we did it nevertheless, and we are guilty.

There are other areas of guilt for which we are not clearly responsible personally. There is hunger and injustice in the world, racism in our country, cruelty in our prison systems, war being waged all over the world, inequality in our places of business.

It is not enough for some of us that we want to correct the injuries and injustices of the past, or that we are doing all we can to improve conditions for the poor and the oppressed in the present. We must feel collective guilt (which is often more powerful than the guilt we feel for being unkind to our children or harsh to our spouse or inconsiderate of a neighbor). And of course it is somehow more comfortable to feel the overwhelming guilt about what is separate from us in time and space than it is to feel guilty about something we did to someone close to us.

Oftentimes these social guilts result from an even vaguer free-floating guilt that drifts around in our personality looking for something to fasten itself to. We are guilty and we do not know precisely why. Somehow we have failed, we have let people down, we are not good enough, we haven't been able to live up to our talents or to other people's expectations. We are, we fear, no good at all.

All of us experience some self-hatred; all of us engage in self-punishment. Many of us cannot stand ourselves and wish desperately that we were someone else. We spend much of our time punishing ourselves for our own worthlessness, sometimes by compulsive and obsessive behavior and other times by cruelty to those who love us. For some of us, self-hatred is so powerful that we slowly destroy ourselves by overworking, overeating, overdrinking, and drug addiction. We devote our whole lives to punishing our own contemptible worthlessness. A few people are so filled with self-loathing that they inflict the ultimate punishment of suicide on themselves.

Some guilt is real, other guilt is neurotic, and much of our guilt is a complex combination of the two. In practice, guilt feels pretty much the same whatever the cause. It makes us feel low, mean, miserable, despicable. How can anyone possibly love us when they know or can find out what we are really like? It often seems to us that such filth should be wiped off the face of the earth. We have betrayed just about everyone.

And yet we are aware of the possibility of healing and forgiveness. Our mother catches us stealing the cookies, listens to the obvious lie, and then sighs, smiles, shakes her head, and asks us not to do it again. Unaccountably and undeservedly, we have been forgiven. We forget a critical birthday or anniversary and the offended party just laughs it off with some comment about how much we have on our minds. Again, for some strange reason we have been forgiven. We draw a complete blank about attending a party and we are invited back. We blow an important responsibility and the boss or the client shrugs it off and says that we don't do that sort of thing very often so it's all right. We do our best to pick a fight with a loved one and the other overcomes us with tenderness. We are unfair to a child and the little one brings us a present.

Despite our guilty behavior, then, the other person refuses to hold us guilty. The objective fact of what we have done is still there, but the other graciously dismisses it as unimportant to the continuation of the relationship. The other person basically likes us and forgives us easily, readily, charmingly, because of the affection he has for us. Love bears no ill will.

In the Christ event the followers of Jesus learned that God is gracious toward us, that he does not hold our moral ugliness against us, and that he forgives quickly and easily, almost before we get around to asking him. He does so for the same reason a parent forgives the child who steals the cookies or a spouse forgives an erring partner: he loves us. In the light of their Easter experience the followers of Jesus saw clearly what he tried to drive home in parables like the story of the loving father and the prodigal son: God is almost pathetically eager to have us back. He forgives us even when we are unable to forgive ourselves. We can no more merit his forgiving love than we can merit existence. It is there ready for us to accept it. You cannot earn what is there for the asking.

The apostles now understood the meaning of the parable of the good shepherd who foolishly left his flock to pursue one worthless and stupid little lamb, and the parable of the crazy woman who invited all her neighbors to a party to celebrate the recovery of an almost worthless coin. By human standards, the readiness of God to forgive is crazy.

The followers of Jesus especially understood the way Jesus responded to the woman taken in adultery. One by one her accusers drop away before the demand that the sinless one among them begin the stoning. Then, turning to this shameful, trembling, vile woman, he calmly asks whether there is anyone left to accuse her. When she replies, "No one, Lord," he sends her on her way to begin life again. "Go and sin no more." Pardon given without petition, absolution given without confession, remission of guilt without entreaty. It would be a terrible way to run a human legal system, but it is the way God works.

When the followers of Jesus looked for a name to attach to this forgiving love, it had to be from the Greek language, because most of their writing and preaching outside of Palestine was in Greek. They chose the word charts, which we translate as "grace." Unfortunately the word has been so badly kicked around in theological controversy that another word, like'graciousness" or even "gracefulness," would convey better the kind of meaning about God we mean. When we speak of "graceful" we could mean, for example, a charming hostess, a woman of taste, elegance, sensitivity, who is skillful at putting her guests at ease, making them feel at home, and drawing out the best of them with her sparkling conversation. She doesn't have to do these things, of course; it is enough that she plans the party, invites the guests, purchases the food and drink, and serves it to them; but her grace is so impressive that when the guests leave they remember only the charm of their hostess.

St. Paul, in his many different writings on grace (and, as is often the case with a new term, he uses it in many different senses), says that grace is the characteristic that marks God's dealings with people. His love is not forced by our actions, his forgiveness is not merited by our goodness, and his affection is not won by our careful, punctilious obedience to the law. God is not an accountant carefully keeping the books, not a judge looking for grounds in the law to convict, not a teller diligently counting our merits. On the contrary, God acts with grace; he gives himself to us with unrestrained and sovereign generosity, asking only an equally unrestrained response from us. God intends that God and man shall meet in a communion of mutual giving and receiving. Grace, then, is God's gift of himself to us; it is God giving himself to us.

In the New Testament the word grace is often used in the broadest sense. It covers the whole of God's gift of himself to man. Grace is not merely one on a long list of God's gifts, it is rather the whole list; and since the whole list is summarized in God's revelation of himself through Jesus, Jesus is the gift par excellence. The union of God and man in Jesus is grace par excellence.

It is true that God's relationship with humankind has always been grace, but in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that grace is revealed in so overwhelming and special a way that one can say, not merely that the whole of God's purpose and plan is told to us in Jesus, but that the sum of God's love is offered to us in Jesus.

If grace is God—and this is surely what is meant in the New Testament—then we receive God in his gift-giving; and he expects to receive us back in return. It is an exchange of gifts much like the exchange of bodies between husband and wife in the marriage act—a comparison that did not escape St. Paul. Just as an earthly lover makes a total gift of self in love and expects the total gift of the other in return, so God expects a complete response to his complete gift. Between human lovers there is no barter, no legalism, no careful counting of obligations, and so with God; there is graciousness in the relationship between God and man. Spontaneity, generosity, and self-forgetfulness are the signs of authentic love between humans, and so are they the marks of God's love for us.

In the Greek Christian tradition there has been considerable emphasis on the "deification" aspects of grace. By giving himself to us, God establishes a union with us, and in this union we come to belong to God. The union of man and God in Jesus is but a special example of the union that is available to all humans who are willing to respond "gracefully" to God's offer of love. Grace is humankind's union with God; indeed it is humankind united to God.

Such language smacks of mysticism; and well it might, because many of the people who used it—like St. Paul—were mystics. They had experienced that intense and ecstatic interlude in which the personality seems to be lifted out of itself and united with a powerful, generous, self-giving love that is perceived as animating the universe. Such experiences are not infrequent even in our day, and they can be described quite literally as grace, an experience of intimate and intensely pleasurable union with That Which Is.

But even for those of us who have no such spectacular interludes in our lives, the mystery of grace reveals to us that we are lovable beyond our wildest imaginings. The forgiveness we experience almost every day from those who love us is a hint of the grace that is at work in the universe. The healing we feel in a warm, generous, passionate act of human love is but a faint reflection of the healing that is actively pursuing us wherever we go.

The Hound of Heaven that the poet Francis Thompson wrote of more than one hundred years ago in describing God may be after us with implacable "unperturbed pace" but it is a loving gentle, tender pursuit that seeks only to give us all that there is and to be united with us in mutual generosity.

It is arguable, of course, that the universe is not that way at all. But we have hints that it is: in the ecstatic graciousness of mystical interludes, in the ordinary graciousness of normal experiences of delight and joy, and in that very special graciousness of healing and forgiving human love. Christians believe that the mystery of God's forgiving, uniting, reconciling grace revealed to us in the Christ event confirms these hints. We are not alone, after all; there is love out there and it wants us. Indeed if the mystery of grace is to be accepted, it wants us with the kind of insistent passion that makes the pursuit of a beloved by a sexually aroused lover look tame by comparison. How then do we act in responsei1 How does one react to a charming and gracious hostess? We yield to her charm. We forget our worries, our resentments, our envy, our nastiness, and we give ourselves over to enjoying the party. So the only way to surrender to God's forgiving love is to give ourselves over to it.

We must also, it appears, work rather vigorously on our own self-esteem. For reasons that escape us completely, the animating power of the universe claims to have fallen in love with us. By our own standards we are usually not very lovable and don't deserve forgiveness. We should be left to rot in the corruption of our own filth; we should be weighted down forever with the insupportable burden of our guilt. But That Which Is, the Something Else out there, seems to have other plans. He seems to find us immensely lovable. So we must accept that we are far better than we think we are, and we must treat our battered, guilt-ridden, self-hating, self-rejecting personality with more respect and affection than we have in the past.

And of course we must forgive others—which may be the biggest catch of all. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." We may say it every day, but we usually don't mean it. If God should measure his standards of forgiveness by those we follow, we would be in very bad straits indeed. Lord deliver us from our just desserts.

The story of the unjust steward is powerful evidence of what God expects. Having been forgiven a huge debt by his master, the steward then turned around and had a colleague tossed into jail for a trifling sum that the man owed him. When the master found out, things went badly for the steward. He had not got the point of the master's message: loving forgiveness should lead to more loving forgiveness. It is not merely a matter of good example. Grace extended creates an environment in which we in turn can be gracious to others. The forgiven child knows that there is enough love in the home to go around, and he does not have to be harsh with his baby sister. If the animating power of the universe forgives us all our guilt, then we know the world in which we live is gracious enough that we can afford to run the risk of not holding grudges against others.

Loving forgiveness is contagious.

Theological Notes

1. Theologians have always distinguished between uncreated grace and created grace—the former being God's free and generous gift of self, the latter being the effect in the human personality of that gift. Among Greek Christians the emphasis has tended to be on the former, and among Latin Christians, the latter. (This is for reasons having to do with the theological history of both areas— in particular the dominant influence of St. Augustine in the West, and through him the Reformation controversies.) However, at the present time it is generally agreed that the conditions in which we find ourselves call for a return in the West to the older Greek emphasis, an emphasis that is reflected in the preceding interpretation of the mystery of grace.

2. Since the Middle Ages there has also been a frequent distinction made between sanctifying grace (God's basic gift of himself) and actual grace (his support for us in individual actions). Theologians rightfully have wondered about the importance of such a distinction, because God's gift of himself to us is total and complete, even though it may manifest itself in many different ways at different times in our lives.

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