Letting go of our guilt and shame once and for all
Those of you who read last week’s post may remember that I mentioned at the end that I wanted to write a follow-up, namely, a post discussing the aftermath of experiencing conviction. In my experience, it seems to me there are certain Christian circles that avoid certain parts of the gospel like the plague for fear of producing any sort of conviction in their congregants. There seems to be a fear that conviction = guilt = becoming overwhelmed and despondent with a burden of shame that turns people away from the faith altogether, or at least leaves them struggling with feelings of failure, low self-worth, and an unhealthy anxiety or even terror towards God.
To be honest, these fears are not completely unfounded; I have seen instances of these painful ends in the lives of dear friends of mine, and I'm sure many of you have as well. However, a gospel that leaves people in the pit of their own shame is not a complete gospel, or at least a gospel not completely grasped. The word "gospel" does mean "good news" after all! However, a gospel that lies about the state of our hearts and leaves us stranded in a valley of empty (even toxic) positivity and attempted self-justification is not a complete gospel either. For this reason, we must walk through the valley of conviction, for it is an unavoidable stop on the journey that leads us up through redemption, sanctification, and ultimately to the mountaintop where sits the throne of Christ Himself.
One of my favourite models of how to practically handle conviction is written about in the aftermath of David’s debacle with Bathsheba. We'll pick up the story in 2 Samuel 12, just after Nathan has confronted David about his sin:
13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan said to David, “The Lord will forgive you, even for this sin. You will not die.14 But you did things that made the Lord’s enemies lose their respect for him, so your new baby son will die.” 15 Then Nathan went home. And the Lord caused the baby boy who was born to David and Uriah’s wife to become very sick. 16 David prayed to God for the baby. David refused to eat or drink. He went into his house and stayed there and lay on the ground all night. 17 The leaders of David’s family came and tried to pull David up from the ground, but he refused to get up. He refused to eat with these leaders. 18 On the seventh day the baby died. David’s servants were afraid to tell him that the baby was dead. They said, “Look, we tried to talk to David while the baby was alive, but he refused to listen to us. If we tell David that the baby is dead, he might do something bad to himself.” 19 David saw his servants whispering and understood that the baby was dead. So David asked his servants, “Is the baby dead?”
The servants answered, “Yes, he is dead.”
20 Then David got up from the floor. He washed himself. He changed his clothes and got dressed. Then he went into the Lord’s house to worship. After that he went home and asked for something to eat. His servants gave him some food, and he ate.
David’s sin was indeed quite extreme, and the conviction he experienced was similarly dramatic. David himself, when confronted with Nathan’s parable, unaware that it was a story of his own sin, said the man who committed such a crime deserved to die. He felt his guilt – really, really felt it, and didn’t eat or drink or get up off the floor for an entire week because of it. He didn’t try to tell himself it wasn’t actually that bad, that lots of other people had done similar things, or try to justify himself with excuses about how he was home alone and bored, or console himself by reminding himself about all the other times he’d been obedient in his life; no, David fully embraced the weight of his guilt.
Yet as soon as he heard that his baby son had died, he got up, washed himself off, ate, and got back to life, albeit a humbled man. His odd behaviour provoked confusion and questions from his servants, to which David simply replied, “While the baby was still living, I cried and refused to eat because I thought, ‘Who knows? Maybe the Lord will feel sorry for me and let the baby live.’ But now the baby is dead, so why should I refuse to eat? Can I bring the baby back to life? No. Some day I will go to him, but he cannot come back to me.” (2 Samuel 12:22-23)
David knew his guilt, and knew he had no defense before the Lord. He knew he depended fully on the mercy of God, and once God had dealt with the situation, David trusted that the matter was sorted.
To David’s servants, and perhaps some of us reading the story today, his response may seem inappropriate, like it lacks the proper weight of remorse. But I’m not sure this is true.
Whenever we sin, however big or small, it is right that the conviction of our sin brings about mourning. Any sin, whether ours or another’s, is participatory in the brokenness of our world, and that brokenness is objectively heartbreaking and something our Lord himself wept over while beholding it in the flesh here on Earth. Furthermore, the love we feel for our God and reverence for His holiness should indeed lead us to be broken-hearted and incensed that He should ever be sinned against – and when that sin has occurred by our own hand, there is a rightness in feeling devastated for what we have done. However, this is where the part that’s about us ends. We recognize our guilt, we hate what we have done and feel the weight of remorse over it, and that is the end of the active part we play in the matter. From here on, we turn our eyes to Christ for He has taken the next steps fully into His hands.
David quit his dramatic display of repentance once God dealt with the situation. The price God demanded was paid, and once done, David moved on because He knew the character of the God who dealt it. In Psalm 103 (my favourite one), David tells his soul to “Praise the Lord”, the One who “…forgives all [his] sins” and “redeems [his] life from the pit and crowns [him] with love and compassion”. He goes on:
8 The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. 9 He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; 10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
David fully knew something very important: God’s forgiveness was not really that much about him. David had just murdered a man, the final sin in a train of unholy dominoes that also included adultery with a dear and faithful friend’s wife, whose willingness to be a participant in all this could also be brought into question. All while being king of Israel, the one God had risen up from obscurity to lead His people in morality and justice. If the delivery of God’s verdict depended on David, he didn’t stand a chance.
But our God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” He’s the one who “does not treat us as our sins deserve”. “He will not always accuse, nor will he harbour his anger forever.” “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him.” And because of all this, even when we enter his courts blackened and filthy and covered with the blood of our deepest, darkest, atrocities, as far as the east is from the west, so far will He remove our transgressions from us.
It’s worth noting that “as far as the east is from the west” is a distance that seems to intentionally not make sense. It’s as if it’s saying there is no unit of measurement that applies to forgiven sin, that even the attempt to measure is nonsensical. Our sins have been so obliterated they’re not even in the same dimension anymore, they have absolutely no bearing on the person we are anymore, and can’t be redrawn or once again unearthed because they just don’t even exist in a shared universe where they have any chance of being tied to us ever again.
So once the punishment has been carried out, David gets up and lives his life as if the sin never happened. Not with complete insensitivity to others, we might add; the Scriptures note that he went to Bathsheba and comforted her after the death of their child, but we don’t see him rehashing his shame at any point in the rest of his story. David knew the extent of his sin (as much as any human can), felt the full weight of his guilt, repented in a state of devastation, then got up once God had completed His sentence because He so fully trusted His Lord’s character and heart.
I used to struggle a lot personally with the concept of grace. Somehow whenever the Bible told me that I was forgiven, it was almost like I had a suspicion that it was only because maybe God didn’t understand how truly awful I was, how petty and vain and selfish I could really be. As if every time the Bible said, “For God so loved the world…”, I said, “No, but God, you don’t understand. You may love the rest of the world, but have you ever noticed x about me? Now that’s truly inexcusable and unlovable.” In some ways, it seemed like maybe David’s dramatic, explicit sins like murder and adultery were easier to forgive than the petty, subtle, slimy ones that constantly infiltrated and bled through so much of my everyday life. I wrestled with God and with my own theology, despairing that no one could truly have mercy on such a petty sinner as I.
But, of course, this is where I was wrong. My eyes were set on the wrong target. When it comes to God, however deep the pit we’ve dug for ourselves, the vast riches of his mercy and grace will fill it and overflow. However heavy our shame and guilt, His love and compassion and valuation of us will so outweigh it that the scales will just completely tip over as if there were nothing weighed against them at all. The massiveness of our God and His goodness makes anything pitted against Him completely irrelevant, no matter what the size.
When we think of all that Jesus went through, descending from on high, the King beyond all glories contained in bruisable, bleedable flesh, with a heart caged in by breakable ribs, fingers that could be slivered, toenails that needed to be cut, and generally a body that contained and participated in most of the other undignified functions of humanity; interacting with humans that passed by Him on the street completely ignorant of who He was or His role in selecting the colour of their eyes, His sovereignty over their entire family history, His superiority in knowledge, wisdom, experience, and authority – can you imagine just how far He had to descend to meet us on our level! Then, arrested by the very people He created and watched over from the day of their births, spat at and tortured by the creatures He was dying to save, submitting to the mock authority of the ones He gave permission to live with each breath that He gave them to breathe. If that is what our justification depends on, the extreme price paid by this act alone, what right do we have to mull about, still writhing and wallowing in guilt and shame? Was this sacrifice not enough? Was the weight of it somehow insufficient?
Any time we begin to doubt that somehow some sin did slip through, or extend above our max limit, we need to turn our eyes away from our sin and back to the One who both completed the payment in full, and the One whose love for us is as “high as the heavens above the earth”. David faced his conviction with sincere mourning and repentance, but once the punishment had been delivered in full, the Scriptures tell us He got up and worshipped. And then he went on with life, in full knowledge that only by the mercy of His God was He spared both in this life and the next.
Like David, when we experience conviction it will be right that we feel the weight of it and bring it to God with the same sincerity of repentance. But also like David, the Son has already died, the punishment has been fully delivered and dealt with. What we are called to now, what is appropriate in accordance with the mercy delivered to us, is not wallowing – no, not at all! To continue to wallow would be living in contempt of what Christ has picked up for us and accomplished on the Cross, living as if He had done absolutely nothing for us and left us abandoned to our own devices. No, like David, we are to get up and worship. Not just once, but today and every moment of every day. His punishment and the punishment we’ve been spared means our whole lives are lived by the mercy of God. Like David, let us confuse those around us by the freedom we find, the truly innocent shamelessness we embrace, and the love and gratefulness for our Saviour that permeates our lives no matter what in our pasts tries to prevent us from it. Our God is bigger, and whatever we have done, it’s the size of His love, not our sin, and the thoroughness of His sacrifice that the verdict of our lives ultimately depends on. Let’s place our confidence and the foundation of our peace in that alone.