What Do I Do With This Awful Mess?

September 20, 1998 / 2 Corinthians 5:19-21

Human beings need to be held accountable for our behavior. Part of being an adult is admitting it when you have made a mess and knowing what to do to begin cleaning it up. Our American pragmatism has long made light of guilt with the dictum that one simply canít change what is in the past and therefore "guilt feelings" are not helpful to our psychological growth. Balderdash! When one child pushes another off a chair, the instincts of most parents rise above saying, "Well, sheís already been pushed off, so thereís no point in doing anything about it now. And I sure hope the child who did the pushing doesnít feel bad about it later!"

A few years back now, Katherine Power turned herself in to authorities for her part in a 1970 bank robbery. A bank guard, the father of nine children, was killed during the holdup. Ms. Power had evaded discovery and prosecution for nearly 25 years. When she turned herself in in 1993, she said she wanted to regain a sense of her self and "full authenticity" as a final step in her therapy for depression. Yet she asked that her deeds be weighed in light of the turbulent, anti-Vietnam sentiment of the 1960s. Specifically, she compared herself to the man who released the so-called "Pentagon Papers," Daniel Ellsberg. And her case elicited considerable press and public sympathy. A judge who wasnít convinced by her self-justifying defense sentenced her to eight to twelve years in prison.1

I fear that episode is something of a microcosm of how our culture has come to see itself and what will yet happen when we stand before the Judge of Heaven and Earth. Yes, the God of the Bible is infinitely merciful and loving. But he is also infinitely holy and just. He therefore has the right to demand upright behavior of us ó and to hold us accountable for our rebellion against righteousness.

If you lie to me, you shouldnít feel good about it; you have undermined our friendship. If I commit adultery, I should feel condemned in my wifeís presence; I have betrayed my covenant commitment to her. If someone cheats on his taxes or in her business dealings, he or she ought to feel uncomfortable at church; that man or woman is in rebellion against the will of God.

But what are we supposed to do when we really mess up?

Responding to Personal Guilt

Guilt is not the end but the beginning of the work of a healthy conscience. It is a red flag to warn us that something needs attention. It is an alarm bell to call ethical people to repentance. It is heavenís invitation to come home, to be forgiven, to restore oneís relationship with God. If we allow what I called "therapeutic religion" to replace the biblical message, though, we will reduce all guilt to mere guilt feelings, make peace with the warnings meant to put us on a journey back to God, and forfeit the process that was meant to bring us salvation and peace with God.

Less than three weeks ago, I sat on a plane for almost an hour past its scheduled departure time. The pilotís voice came over the cabin speakers to explain, "One of our sensor lights came on during the pre-flight check that signals a problem with one of our engines. We think the problem is with the sensor, but weíve asked maintenance to check it out before we push back from the terminal." Well, since I was already restless about missing my connecting flight ó as others were as well ó I marched into the cockpit and asked permission to get on the intercom. "Does anybody have a hammer in your luggage?" I asked. "We can fix this problem by just bustiní the red light thatís flashing!" So somebody handed me a hammer, and I proceeded . . .

Seriously, you know I wouldnít do something like that. It would be stupid for me to break the sensor lamps rather than let the mechanics check for the real problem. But we are doing the spiritual equivalent of that when we dull our consciences and compromise with evil behavior.

The defense Iíve heard some people advancing during the latest Washington scandal is the old everybody-does-it line. "Everybody lies. Everybody cheats on his wife. Everybody does anything he thinks he can get by with." That simply isnít true! Many people still care about principle. Many still honor their promises. Many still tell the truth, keep their marriage vows, and treat other people with respect. Yet all of those people sometimes do things that are wrong. Their moral sensor lights flash ó and they pay attention.

Yes, there is such a thing as false guilt and unjustified guilt feelings. For example, many people who have suffered verbal, physical, or sexual abuse have incredibly low self-esteem as a result of what has been done to them. Thus they internalize practically everything that happens in terms of guilt and shame. These people need to be encouraged to see reality more clearly ó to be angry about the wrong done them rather than carrying around guilt feelings (i.e., a false sense of guilt) about their past.

We are supposed to feel guilty and dirty when we do something wrong, not when something wrong is done to us. The human mind can be tricky here! A Christian therapist can often help a person distinguish between relevant guilt and irrelevant shame, between wrong to be repented of and wrong to be offended by. But someone who dismisses the notion of guilt out of hand is not helping anyone. One person helps another person in the greatest way one human can aid another by pointing him or her to real forgiveness for real guilt.

Forgiveness: Two Dimensions

So let me try to help you understand about forgiveness for your guilt, if you donít already know Jesus Christ. I would like nothing better than to take you to the place and person where you can lay down your load of guilt ó as I have mine. There are two dimensions to forgiveness, and it is important that you understand both of them.

First, there is the objective reality of forgiveness. God does not remove guilt by overlooking our sin but by the all-important biblical procedure called "substitution." The wages of sin is death, and heaven graciously permitted Jesus to bear the penalty we were due to suffer. He substituted himself for us at the cross. "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting menís sins against them. . . . God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:19, 21).

Firefighters who battle the monster forest fires in the western United States have a technique for survival that illustrates the one God has given us. If surrounded by flames and unable to find an escape route, a firefighter sets a fire right where he is standing. Letting it burn outward from his location, he digs a shallow grave and covers himself with a reflector shield in his backpack. Salvation is in that burned-over place.

Similarly, our salvation is in the burned-over place called Calvary. Sinís just due was meted out to Christ on the cross. He suffered the death you were due to die. Now, if you are willing to put your full faith for salvation in that event, God will credit you with his perfect righteousness. If you are willing to lie down with him in his grave, the same power of the Spirit that raised him from the dead will give spiritual life to you.

Second, there is the subjective assurance of forgiveness. For someone who comes to take his or her sin seriously, it stands to be a difficult thing to accept forgiveness, even to believe that forgiveness is possible. God knew it would be that way. So he has given us tangible, physical signs of pardon that are meant to help us receive, appreciate, and sense our forgiveness. These signs are baptism and the Lordís Supper.

Peter wrote about Christian baptism against the Old Testament account of Noah and the ark. "[O]nly a few were saved then, eight to be exact ó saved from the water by the water. The waters of baptism do that for you, not by washing away dirt from your skin but by presenting you through Jesusí resurrection before God with a clear conscience" (1 Pet. 3:18-21, The Message). The physical effect of water on flesh is not to wash away sin as if it were dirt that sticks to oneís face, arms, or legs. Sin isnít sand-lot grime ó although it certainly makes you "feel dirty." Thus God offers salvation through faith in Jesusí completed work on the cross and gives baptism as a physical sign of spiritual cleansing. Invisible faith becomes a visible action in oneís immersion. Like a bath, water baptism communicates the sense that one can "feel clean."

Then, for the community of persons already baptized in Jesusí name (i.e., the church), the Lordís Supper is a concrete, palpable sign of forgiveness. It is the covenant meal that reminds one of the price paid for his redemption, of his acceptance of Godís grace through faith, and of his role as a living witness to Godís love in accepting all others who are in the Body of Christ. "What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master," said Paul. "You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt" (1 Cor. 11:26, The Message).

Together these two events communicate to pardoned sinners that the presence and activity of God in our lives is real. The water of baptism "takes your breath away" in the startling reality of Godís redemptive work in your life. The bread and wine of the communion "nourish" your faith in his continuing work of bringing his people to the glorious triumph over sin and death he has promised.

How complete is this divine provision! Heaven has acted objectively to provide forgiveness through the substitutionary death of Jesus for sinners. And the personal, subjective assurance of oneís participation in that death is signified to each believer in her or his baptism and participation in the Lordís Supper.

The Gospel in Washington

Earlier I made a passing reference to the latest scandal in Washington. Would you please indulge me here for just a few minutes? Against the expectation I suspect some of you brought with you today, I want to say something about the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr matter that is unfolding before us daily.

I am afraid that many, many pulpits in conservative churches will ring with anathemas today. These are Bible-believing churches whose leaders are outraged by sin in high places ó as John the Baptist was outraged by the philandering, incestuous behavior of Herod the tetrarch (cf. Mark 6:14-29; Luke 9:7-9). No one who takes the Word of God seriously can approve of marital infidelity or be silent in its presence. Yet I repeat my fear that what is happening in Washington will be the springboard for angry anathemas that reflect more about culture and politics than the gospel message.

Before you tune me out as a "Yellow Dog Democrat" or compromiser of biblical ethics ó neither of which charges happens to be true ó please hear me out.

One of the principal reasons people donít come to church is the judgmental spirit they perceive in our reactions to culture. Perhaps those non-church people would even choose to use the word "hypocritical" of us. What they are accustomed to hearing are harsh rhetoric and stinging denunciations. What they are accustomed to seeing are veins raised in necks and sweat on red, scowling brows.

The net result of this unbalanced message is the following conclusion drawn by an unchurched person: They wouldnít want somebody with my history in their church. Is that the message we want to communicate? Is that the gospel? Is that what Jesus would say to our time and place?

I am praying for J. Philip Wogaman, Tony Campolo, and Gordon MacDonald ó and ask you to join me in doing so. If you donít recognize these names, they are the three ministers who have been asked to form a pastoral "accountability group" around President Clinton. "We will pray with him, study Scripture together and do our best to help him as he searches his heart and soul," Campolo said. "We want him to understand what went wrong with him personally that led to the tragic sins that have so marred his life and the office of the Presidency. We want to provide all the help that we can to spiritually strengthen him against yielding to the temptations that have conquered him in the past."

I only know one of these men personally and do not know him well. But I know Gordon MacDonald well enough to know that he will both uphold the high standard of biblical righteousness and communicate the power of Jesus to heal the most broken. Isnít that the balanced message you want communicated to our President? If these three men can communicate this comprehensive message and be heard, a man who is currently humiliated in his sin could become the poster boy for Christian redemption.

Let me put some hypothetical questions to this church: Suppose Bill Clinton were to resign the presidency this afternoon and retire not to Little Rock, Arkansas, but to Nashville, Tennessee, and buy a house three-quarters of a mile south of the Woodmont Hills church property. Would you welcome him to this church? Would you want this environment to be offered him, his wife, and their daughter for their family and personal healing? If we welcomed them here, would you leave?

Jesus wants us to be a church that welcomes anyone who has been hurt by sin and wants a Savior. That person may have AIDS, may be responsible for an ugly divorce, may be carrying a public criminal record, or may be disgraced by a political scandal.

We will never be asked to receive and provide the nurturing spiritual environment for the salvation of an American President. But we are called to be that place for one another ó and for anyone else the Lord may choose to send us. Maybe that person is you today. Others of us can tell you of the day and circumstance when we heard this word from God in this place: "Now is the time of Godís favor, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2b).


The question that ultimately confronts everyone is this: What do I do with this awful mess I have made?

The Christian response to that question is this: Jesus came to tell us that he preferred to leave heaven and die than to abandon us to the mess we have made.

Will you accept that answer as yours today?


1"Unsympathetic Judge Sentences Ex-Radical to 8-12 Years for Killing of an Officer," New York Times, October 7, 1993, pp. A1, A13.

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