Befriend guilt.

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.

Published by Brenda Jung

This is 40. Yesterday I turned 40. Turning 40 is like having to exit the theater of a live show I didn’t want to end. I step out onto the street humbled with grateful wonder. I know my soul was changed. I want to go back in to re-live the story, ponder the themes, understand the characters in greater depth, and most of all, hear all the music again. But I cannot. It was a live performance. I must exit the theater and move on. What makes aging tough is the inability to hold on to moments. When a significant moment is happening, I want to preserve it. Sometimes I get to snap a picture or record a video. Then, it’s over. I have to let it go. So many beautiful moments go uncaptured, unprocessed, unpublished. Life is a series of these moments, these ever-passing days, these premature goodbyes. And then you turn 40. “When I grow up” is no longer future. This is it. This is 40. 1. 40 feels like a mid-term evaluation. How much have you done? What do you have to show for yourself? I find myself trying to validate myself, which I don’t remember doing at 30. And why do I feel a need to apologize for leading an ordinary, average life? 2. The accusing voice in your head that tells you you should be doing more, you should be doing better, is often your own greed and ego. “More” and “better” are vague and meaningless standards. Just do your best with all your heart. 3. Regarding my body, it’s like I tell kids when passing out lollipops: “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” A good diet and regular exercise can help, though maybe not as much after 40. 4. Create something. We are happier when we are creating--a cake, a scarf, a sonata, a sermon, a drawing, a painting, a poem, a presentation, a lesson plan. This is because we are made like God, who is Creator. 5. A lot of prayer requests can be discovered by finishing the sentence, “I am afraid of...” --such as, I am afraid of insignificance. Or, I am afraid that godly contentment will always be only theoretical. Or, I am afraid I will ruin my children. Then, pray hard. 6. Regarding stuff: You almost always get what you pay for. There are some things you shouldn’t skimp on by buying generic, such as potato chips and rice krispies cereal and ice cream. Brand names are better. 7. Regarding money: Tricky. Very tricky. Perhaps Satan’s best disguise, second to serpent. Be careful with this one. 8. Jesus is still very busy dying for me. Until I stop filling my water cup with lemonade and telling people I am fine when I am really crying inside, He will need to keep His blood flowing into little plastic cups for me at least once a month. 9. Everything is interesting. If a thing isn’t interesting, type it into the Google search box and spend one minute reading about it and looking at pictures of it. I promise you, everything--a tool, a disease, a plant, a planet, an insect, a war--is interesting. 10. Guilt is suicide. Clear your conscience, at all costs. Pray. Confess. Admit fault. Say sorry. Forgive and beg forgiveness. Try to take back the words. No amount of money, no good deed, no extravagant vacation can substitute for peace with God. This is the hill to die on. 11. Rebellion against God is the simple explanation for so many of our problems. Sin is the single most helpful concept for understanding our temper tantrums, sagging skin, cellulite, credit card debt, communal loneliness, and dying fruit trees. 12. Idols will age and grow with you, if you don’t kill them while they’re young. After decades of care and coddling, my gods of performance, productivity, and pleasing others are well-fed, healthy, and strong. I have done a fantastic job of raising my idols into adults. Now what? 13. Grown-up sins require grown-up grace. Every birthday, Jesus gives me all the love and blood I need to atone for all the sins I will commit over the next year. Forgiveness for the same sins I’ve been committing for decades is no ordinary birthday present. Brenda Jung

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