Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is a powerful short-story about the power of guilt. Hester Prynne was prosecuted in a New England Puritan town as an adulteress and had to wear a Scarlet A on her clothes as a life-time of punishment for her sin. She refused to reveal the name of the man with whom she had committed adultery (and had a baby). The man just happened to be the local pastor, Arthur Dimmesdale. He did not go public with his sin; it ate away at him and caused him to literally cut himself. He carved a letter A into the skin of his own chest, which no one saw until his death.
It should be mentioned that there is such a thing as false guilt. False guilt is when we feel guilty for something we did not do, or something we were not responsible for. False guilt can be very powerful and produce great shame. Maybe when you were young, it was strictly enforced that you were to wash hands before a meal. Even now, years later, you may feel guilty if you don’t do it. Perhaps you survived a bad accident or disaster, in which others were killed or injured, or a disease from which others have died. You may feel guilty that you survived. False guilt is also often the sad result of being abused emotionally, physically, or sexually, when we were young. Unbelievably, we are often left with guilt and shame for the sins committed against us by the perpetrators. It may take time to work through this with a counselor or with a trusted friend. What can ultimately bring healing is to start believing the truth that you are not the guilty party!
However, much of the guilt that we experience in our lives is true guilt over something we have done. So, let me ask you that question again: what do you do with your guilt? What do you do with those feelings of shame or remorse that haunt you? We all have our coping mechanisms. Someone has likened dealing with guilt to wrestling an octopus in a dark aquarium at midnight.
All of this indicates that guilt is both powerful and important. However, guilt has a pay-off; it serves a purpose and that is why it needs to be dealt with and not ignored. God has given us the ability to feel guilt very much like he has blessed us with the ability to feel pain. Did you ever think that if you could not feel pain you would never know that something was wrong? If you put your hand down on a hot stove and didn’t feel it, you might never know that your flesh was burning until you smelled it. Likewise, when we feel guilty it usually indicates that something is wrong, and that we have to do something about it. (I say “usually indicates” because we have already mentioned false guilt.)
So, what is the best thing to do with true guilt? Get forgiven. John Calvin said “Justification by faith is reconciliation with God and that consists solely in remission of sins…the only way in which those whom God embraces are made righteous, is by having their [sins] wiped away by the remission of sins, so that this justification (reconciliation) may be termed in one word the remission of sins.” (Institutes, Book III, Ch.XI, pg. 57)
REMISSION is from the Latin missio, to send off or away. When used as a medical term, it indicates that a disease is no longer present- in remission; as a financial term, it is a nice way of asking for money- please send away your money to us; and as a theological term, it is related to the Greek word for forgiveness aphesis– to send away one sins. The meaning is clearly captured for us in Psalm 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he (God) removed our transgressions from us.” (See also Micah 7:18, 19)
The Scarlet A on Hester’s dress and the one carved into Arthur’s chest represented the crimson stain of their guilt. “O to be forgiven, to have this letter taken away,” Hester cried. God said through the prophet Isaiah, ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be like wool’ (Isa 1:18).
One last thing, people “cut” themselves for many reasons like self-hatred, emotional pain, depression, etc. I thought the experience of one teen was sad, but enlightening in view of our topic: “…being a cutter, it is the scars that make me remember.” Scars put it in front of me that I have a choice besides emotional pain, and that it is an easier choice. I used to think I had a low pain threshold. Part of me sees strength in what I do now, and I can’t see myself wanting to stop anytime soon, even if I should. And there are words I can’t or won’t speak to people in my scars. Scars and blood say more for me then words ever could.”
The scars and the blood… Oh, how we need the good news of the gospel of forgiveness!
PS. Many of you know that I will be stepping down as Pastor of Community Fellowship Church on Aug 3 and will be assuming the position of Interim Chaplain of Wheaton College (IL) on Sept 2. If you are presently getting my blog via CF’s Friday Briefing that will no longer work, for obvious reasons. If you wish to continue to receive my weekly “Just a Thought,” just click the “follower” button at the end of my blog and you will receive it each week.