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Let’s say you do something bad—really bad. You knew better, and you had plenty of resources to resist the temptation, but it was one of those moments where you just said, “Shut up, God, I’m doing this.” So you did it. And it was bad. And now some other people are really messed up because of what you did. But then you reached the point of sincere repentance. You stopped with the rebellion and you are now back in alignment with God, sincerely wanting Him to have His way in your life. There are now consequences for what you did in your life and in the lives of others. And in the midst of those consequences, you feel really terrible. You just feel perpetually awful about what you did. Well, isn’t this how you’re supposed to feel? After all, you sinned intentionally. So if you did something super bad, isn’t there supposed to be some limit to how joyful you can ever be after that? If you just go skipping forth in joyous freedom, isn’t that another form of sin? This is what many Christians believe: they think that once someone does something bad enough, it’s wrong for that person to ever make a full recovery, let alone soar to epic heights of soul peace and freedom. Well, what does God say?
THE THEOLOGY OF GUILT
Guilt doesn’t exist in isolation, it is fueled by beliefs. God wants us to go through life embracing truth, not lies. So let’s take that really bad sinner who has since repented and gotten back into a good place with God. Why exactly are we telling this guy that he is supposed to feel at least partially wretched from now on? Well, there are two schools of thought on this.
THE VICTIM’S ARGUMENT
When someone sins against you in a way that totally messes you up, it is quite natural for you to intensely resent the idea of them ever being joyful in life again. At bottom, you feel this is terribly unjust. Suppose Joe got drunk when he knew he shouldn’t have. Then he got in a car and drove when he knew he shouldn’t have. Then he hit you with his car and now you’ve lost the use of your legs while Joe walked away uninjured. You’re now crippled for life but Joe can walk. Here’s where the seething hatred sets in on your side, because you feel like Joe got away with trashing you. Where’s Joe’s punishment? Why doesn’t he have to also become crippled? How come he gets off scot-free while you get shafted?
Let’s think about this: is Joe really the problem in this situation? It’s not like Joe runs the universe. He didn’t wave some wand to protect himself at the time that he hit you. He could just as easily have rammed into a tree and ended up with some severe brain injury. Yes, he was being a defiant little punk, but did he choose to run you over? Not really, he was drunk and swerving all over the road. Do you realize how many gazillion factors had to be coordinated to get you into the path of Joe’s car right at that moment? This whole series of events was directed by God. He could have protected you, but He didn’t. He could have only trashed Joe, but He didn’t. So when you’re seething at Joe, your anger is misdirected. God is the One who you should be mad at, because God is the One working this situation out so unfairly.
Or let’s take the nasty serial killer who sneaks into your house when you’re not home and assaults and kills both your wife and daughter. The guy gets caught, does some pathetic amount of time, then he gets off on parole. Meanwhile your guts are ripped out with grief. Talk about unfair. But the real clincher comes two years later when you run into the creep who ruined your life, and guess what? He’s the worship pastor at the church you just started to attend. He’s talented. He’s popular. Everyone loves him. And he actually uses the story of how he assaulted and killed your precious ladies during some sermon on mercy. When he’s done, everyone applauds and a bunch of people go up to receive salvation. Wow. The guy took everything from you and now he’s Mr. Big Stuff in the Christian community while you’re wallowing in grief. How is this fair?
Well, let’s think about this. Who arranged for your daughter and wife to be so conveniently home and helpless when this creep arrived with his malicious intentions? Who arranged for their screams to go unheard? Who arranged for the judge to be so lenient? Who arranged for your enemy to land in such a warm and welcoming Christian environment where his past wouldn’t be held against him? Does your enemy have the power to make the universe turn so majorly in his favor? Of course not. God is the One dumping the blessings down on that guy’s head while He simultaneously used his season of willful rebellion to totally trash your life. Given this, who is it you should be directing your rage at? God, not the man, because God is the One who really stuck it to you. Sure the killer was intentionally looking to hurt people and destroy lives when he broke into your house that night. But let’s get real: a billion things could have gone wrong that would have stopped him in his tracks.
You see, the reality is that no one sins in isolation. While we certainly make intentional choices to stick it to each other, the only way we can ever succeed in carrying out those intentions is if God helps us. So when you act like the human was your main antagonist, you’re just playing games. God is the One who really stuck it to you, and given His absolute control over all things, His actions were far more significant than the human’s. After all, humans are depraved. You should expect them to be selfish little beasts who jump at the chance to knife each other in the back. But God is good, so what’s His excuse? Oh, that’s right: He says this nasty sequence of events He’s just allowed is His way of helping you in life. Well, if you’re honest, you don’t consider this very helpful. In fact, you’d have to admit that you are royally furious with God for what He did to you. But we Christians don’t want to face how angry we are at God in such moments because facing how intentionally God hurts us raises up serious doubts about the goodness of His Character. Since we have no immediate way to resolve these doubts, and since we need God to help us deal with the pain that we’re now in, we decide that we can’t afford to be honest about what just happened. So we refuse to direct our anger where it belongs and we fixate on the human instead. It’s all the human’s fault, and we want the human to suffer forever because of what he did.
Now wait a minute—why exactly is it so right for the guy who hurt you to wallow in torment from now on? Because you’re in torment, so you want things to be equal. Well, why are you in torment? Don’t go blaming the other human, because he doesn’t control your options in life. Yes, he certainly played a role in trashing you, but he hardly controls your entire life. God has given you options that your attacker can’t take away from you. You can choose to respond to your situation in a myriad of ways. God says if you listen to Him about how to respond to it, He’ll turn this tragedy into a blessing. In fact, God says the whole reason He caused this to happen to you in the first place was to draw you closer to Him and help you end up in a better place than you were at before. So this whole affair is about your personal growth, not just about the fact that some other human tried to stick it to you. Yes, the guy who sinned against you was wrong. But you’re also wrong for fixating on him instead of taking responsibility for your own stuff. This is a growth opportunity. You didn’t want it or choose it, but here it is. God forced it on you and He used that other human to do it. So the question now is: how are you going to respond to the opportunity God has put in your own life? Every time you try to beef about what your attacker is doing, God is going to push you to pull the focus back in onto your own walk with Him. Because at the end of the day, how happy or sad your attacker is doesn’t have bumpkus to do with your own walk with God.
When you’re a victim of someone else’s sin, it’s just so darn tempting to obsess over them instead of dealing with your own issues. And while you’re obsessing, you’re taking on this arrogant attitude of telling God how He ought to run His own universe. No, it really isn’t acceptable for you to tell God Almighty who He can and can’t have mercy on. And when you wallow in this kind of attitude, guess what? You’re being rebellious and defiant—you know, like your attacker was when he came along and messed you up. Now you want your attacker to be eternally punished for the very same attitude which you are now harboring. And while you want him to be punished, you think you should be rewarded for doing the same sin. See how it works? When we refuse to direct our anger where it belongs and cooperate with God’s plans for us, we end up quickly spiraling down into a bunch of ridiculous hypocrisy. Before long, the guy who sinned against you has taken care of his spiritual business with God. His rebellion is in the past—now he’s sincerely wanting to please God. But you’re still stewing in rebellion as you seethe over the fact that God is blessing the creep who so intentionally hurt you. This is the kind of thing Jesus was talking about when He said:
“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matt. 7:1-5)
The kind of judging Jesus is talking about here is when you try to make judgments about someone else’s heart attitude. You start deciding for them where they’re at with God when that’s just none of your business. As a human, you can’t see into the soul of another human because God is intentionally blinding you to things that He says are none of your business.
Here’s what you know: your father molested you. You know about his behavior, but what do you know about the motivations that drove his behavior? What do you know about his personal resources and his own wounds and his own background of abuse? You don’t know. You are missing all of the pertinent information. All you know is that your father did things to you that majorly messed up your mind, and now you’re having to deal with all of that fallout and you just hate the man’s guts. Well, hating his guts is instinctive, but it’s also a total waste of time. Yes, your father was wrong to do what he did, but God says He’ll deal with your father in the way that pleases Him. And whenever it comes to God judging another soul, He once again intentionally cuts you out of the loop.
You aren’t inside your father. You can’t eavesdrop on the conversations that go on between his soul and God. God isn’t going to make you any guarantees about making your father suffer to some minimal degree. On the contrary, God is going to tell you that it’s not your place to tell Him how to judge His own creations. God is going to tell you that what He does with your father is between Him and your father. What you should be focusing on is what is going on between you and God. God used your father to mess you up: that creates a major conflict between you and God. God not only used your father, He controlled how devastated you’d be by the abuse. Not all molestation victims react the same to their abuse. Some get help early on, some can’t get any help. Some are abused once, some are abused continuously for years. In every situation there are so many factors involved and God is the One controlling those factors. So to sit around blaming your father for a bunch of factors that he had no control over is utterly useless. Sure, your father intentionally messed you up—but he was no doubt doing it for his own gratification, not because he was hoping to make you feel exactly as you feel today.
When we sin against others, it’s for our own selfish gain. We’re not planning out 1,000 steps in advance. We’re not even capable of anticipating the full ramifications our actions will have. Humans are very shortsighted creatures. We act, and then we’re often quite surprised by the impact our actions have. So while your father was probably focused on the one goal of self-gratification, you’re now blaming him for fifty other things that happened as if he actually chose all of those things. Well, he didn’t. He acted like a selfish beast and probably never thought twice about the mess he was making for you. But God is an entirely different story, because God not only knows everything, He controls everything. God knew very well how big of a mess your father was making by abusing you the way that he did. While your father was just thinking of the moment, God was seeing the whole future. So again, if you’re going to be mad at someone, you need to be mad at God. If you’re going to blame someone, you should be blaming the One who had the power to prevent the whole thing from happening.
When you focus on God, you move closer to submitting to this very difficult part of God’s plan for your life. Practicing submission positions you to grow through this experience and be positively changed by it. But when you refuse to focus on God and instead fixate on the human who hurt you, you end up wallowing in hate and stagnating. Even worse, you practice domination over God by trying to influence how He’s dealing with your abuser.
When you’ve been badly hurt by others, you want endless sympathy. Some sympathy is an important part of the healing process, but the day comes when we have to also be willing to do some work. You aren’t going to find peace of soul by forever hating your abuser. And once you have real peace of soul, the fact that he also has peace of soul will cease to bother you. You see, when we can’t stand the fact that someone else is at peace with God, it’s because we’re not at peace ourselves. We feel like the hungry man who looks in through the restaurant window watching some criminal get to stuff his face with fine dining. We’re mad because we’re hungry and he’s not. And because we keep feeling those hunger pains gnawing at us, we just can’t forget about how miserable we are. It presses on our minds, and we get stuck in endless comparing and griping. So what’s the solution here? It starts with walking away from that window. Watching our enemy eat is not going to fill our own stomachs, it’s just going to drag us down into jealous anger. We need to stop hovering over our enemy and turn the focus inward to focus on what God is teaching us. He’s the One who can help us heal from our wounds. And when God’s done with us, we’ll find ourselves sitting in that restaurant happily eating ourselves. Because we’ll have an abundance of food before us, we’ll no longer grudge our enemy some food. On the contrary, the closer we get to God, the more we don’t want anyone to be stuck outside feeling hungry. A compassionate attitude is one which does not find pleasure in revenge. If you saw your enemy stuck outside without food, you’d want to take your plate outside and share with him. This is the effect God has on us—this is the caliber of people He turns us into when we cooperate with His program. We find joy in being gracious. We find mercy more satisfying than hate. The question is: what kind of person do you want to become? Do you want to settle for hurting and hateful, or do you want God to help you evolve into someone who is compassionate and gracious?
God puts us through painful experiences to help us mature into better people. He breaks us to build us stronger. When someone wrongs you, you are suddenly thrust into a situation that you can massively benefit from. It’s like someone saying, “Hey, I’ll teach you to read.” Actually learning to read requires a lot of work and pushing through a lot of frustration, but the benefits are fantastic. Once you can read, it changes your life in enormous ways. But suppose the only way you could learn to read was if someone offered to teach you. What if no one ever offered? You’d be permanently stuck. In the same way, if God never gave you problems in life, you’d never have the opportunity to learn certain lessons. When a new trial comes into your life, you can either focus on how rotten it is or you can start looking for the positive ways in which that trial can change you. God pushes victims to be receptive to the positive lessons He wants to teach them, but that starts with honesty about the fact that God is the One turning your life upside down in the first place. Simply blaming other humans and fixating on how those other humans are doing in their own walks with God will get you nowhere.
THE SINNER’S ARGUMENT
Victims want their abusers to remain in a perpetual state of misery for entirely carnal reasons. First, they want revenge. Second, they want to control how God judges others. Third, they get perverse joy out of seeing someone they hate suffering. Clearly there is nothing God honoring about any of these motivations. But now let’s consider the perspective of the sinner. Many sinners feel that it is wrong for them to ever feel truly happy and at peace again after they’ve willfully defied God. Well, why not? How is it honoring to God for you to treat His forgiveness of you like some mediocre blessing? When God tells you that all is well between you and Him now that you’ve repented, and you go around hanging your head acting like all is not well, aren’t you insulting God? Let’s take the man who is desperately poor. God hands him a million dollars and the man just sighs some sorrowful sigh and says, “Gee…thanks.” What kind of lackluster response is this?
God delights in showering mercy on the heads of the undeserving, and we are all undeserving. God is extremely generous with His grace, forgiveness and love. God doesn’t love in some hesitant, squeamish way now that you’ve done something awful thing. God doesn’t find your presence taxing or the sight of you repulsive. God is like the father who rushes over to his little son, scoops him up, and showers him with kisses. How does God want you to respond to His intense love for you and His incredible mercy? He wants you to be abundantly joyful. He wants you to be thrilled. He wants you to experience some huge load lifting off of your shoulders and so much freedom from guilt that you just want to sing and dance. This is God’s ideal plan for you, but He knows you’re not going to get there without a lot of help.
It is total soul freedom, peace, joy, and relief that God is going to push you towards because God does not love in part, He loves completely. He does not half accept you, He fully accepts you. There’s nothing lukewarm about God’s desire for you and He delights in obedience. So when you return from rebellion and go running back to Him with sincere repentance, He’s running to meet you with open arms. There’s no standing aloof with His arms crossed and some disapproving scowl on His face—that’s what your victims are doing, and they want you to believe that they are accurately reflecting God’s attitude towards you. But they are not, because God’s response to you has nothing to do with how other souls currently view you.
God judges each of us alone, and He judges us according to our response to Him. Divine judgment is like you walking into a private room where only God is standing waiting for you. He tells you to come over and stand in front of Him. You’re dreading that He’s going to start listing off every nasty thing you’ve ever done or that He’s going to start talking about what a depraved little scumbag you are. But no, what He’s going to talk about is you and Him. He’s going to talk about what your current attitude is towards Him, and how receptive you’re being to the things He’s telling you. He’s going to talk about your general response pattern to His convictions—do you tend to blow Him off or listen? He’s going to talk about how much you care about being pleasing in His sight. And it will be based on these things that He will then say how He feels about you.
If God sees a soul within you that earnestly wants to do right, then His response to you is going to be extremely positive. If He sees a soul who longs to be pleasing in His sight and who desperately wants to be approved of by Him, He’s going to be intensely delighted with you. Sincere repentance is when we go from willfully defying God to sincerely wanting to please Him. We don’t go from rebellion to indifference: we swing to the other extreme and land in a place where we sincerely want God to be pleased with us. This is the kind of repentance that God accepts, and His acceptance of it isn’t some tired sigh. It’s an enthusiastic embrace. If God enthusiastically embraces you, how do you think He wants you to respond? By shoving Him away? Be refusing to hug Him back? No, when God showers enthusiastic acceptance onto your head, He wants it to be enthusiastically received. This principle isn’t hard to understand, for who wants to give a present to someone only to have that person react with indifference or a polite smile? It gives us humans joy when the recipient of our gift joyfully receives it, and it’s the same with God. It pleases Him when you enthusiastically receive His grace, love, mercy, forgiveness, and acceptance of you. It pleases Him when you focus on what He’s giving you right now instead of focusing on all of the ways you messed up in the past. It pleases Him when you fully submit to His acceptance of you instead of telling Him that He can’t really be over what you did. When God says He’s over something, He’s over it. When He says it’s time to move on, He wants you to take His hand and walk with Him, not keep dragging the past behind you like some ball and chain.
The reason it is not correct to go through life in some state of perpetual guilt after sin is because it is insulting to God. It is a rejection of what He is offering you. It is a refusal to fully submit to His love and acceptance of you.
For both victims and sinners, there is no valid argument for why someone should remain in perpetual guilt or self-loathing after they have repented out of their defiance. There’s nothing God honoring about wallowing in the past and refusing to accept that God is the Supreme Ruler whose judgments trump all others. So our motivation for rejecting guilt and embracing full soul joy and peace after repentance is to honor God. God wants submission from us, and for the repentant sinner, the command is to submit to joy.
Recovering from Abuse: Forgiveness vs. Reconciliation
Help For Murderers: Finding Peace With A God Who Loves You
Understanding Divine Judgment: Illumination, Empowerment & A God Who Delights In Mercy
Why You Shouldn’t Ask God to Change People: Improving Your Response to Grudges, Rebellion & Grief
What To Do When People Won’t Forgive You