That I am guilty of sin has become a mere theory I believe, empty words I confess, not emotional reality.
I’ve become good at snuffing out feelings of guilt before they flare up. I know exactly when what I’m doing, or saying, or thinking is wrong. I know exactly when I’m judging another person, when I’m coveting, when I’m trying to get away with something. I’ve just learned to accept my sins as part of who I am, of what it means to be human, of what it is to live in a fallen world. I’m seasoned at evading the feelings of guilt that inevitably follow sin. When I sin, I simply mouth a word of repentance (“Sorry, God.”), or I confess, “I’m such a sinner.” (Oh well.) I’ve even said quick prayers of blessing to counteract the sin: “God, bless this person I’ve just judged.” (How noble of me.) And I move on. I move on knowing that I am guilty of sin without actually feeling the weight of that sin.
My sins drive me too quickly to the Savior; I am overprepared to receive His forgiveness. I know the proper thing to do is to allow my sins to crush me, to offend and disgust me in the same way the bloody floor and broken animal flesh must have disgusted the High Priest while making atonement sacrifices for his people. How long those minutes spent in the Holy of Holies must have seemed to him.
It is the act of repentance—the broken spirit, the contrite heart—that pleases God, not the certainty of forgiveness. Christianity is not first and foremost confession of a gracious God; it is confession of personal guilt. Contrary to what we might have expected, guilt does not close the door to grace; it actually opens it.
The more I think about it, the more I appreciate the Roman Catholic practice of going to confession. There is something powerful about having to talk about your sins—out loud, to a live person, in a place where you could run into people you know. It is healthy to admit your guilt. Being specific about sin is mostly voluntary for Protestants. Protestants are encouraged to be specific about sin, but in private. Public confession of sin is rare, even discouraged for fear that broadcasting your sins might cause others to stumble. The corporate confession recited in public by some congregations, “Father, forgive us for the evil deeds we have done and for the good deeds we have not done” is general enough to avoid personal humiliation. Guilt is inherently humiliating, but most of us will never have to experience that humiliation. (I wonder if regular public confession of sin would change what being a Christian and going to church is all about more efficiently and effectively than so many of our other programs and activities.)
Jesus’ death on the cross was humiliating. The tragedy of the cross is that Jesus’ death was more humiliating for Him than it was for us. Nobody looked up at Jesus hanging there, marred and disfigured beyond human recognition, and thought to himself, “That’s what my sins look like. I should be up there.” All of us see Jesus up on the cross; few of us see ourselves.
What I need to do, if I don’t want to cheapen God’s grace, is get more comfortable with my guilt, even though it is one of the most uncomfortable feelings a human being can experience. Why would anyone actually welcome that nagging itch that settles both at the forefront and in the back of the mind, deep in the gut, on top of the heart, underneath the skin? Guilt makes you scratchy all over, not unlike the hives. You want to take multiple showers. You want to rewind time and make better choices. You’re pinned down by an invisible but real burden.
Only confession—naked, unedited, humiliating confession can clear the conscience. I understand why criminals eventually turn themselves in. They have to. The only other option is suicide.