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 Healing the wounds of guilt

[In regard to responsibility for sin see also Who sinned? Who is blind? at Lent 4 A.]

The ancient Israelites used to sing in the Temple:

Happy are those whose transgressions [sins or wrongs] are forgiven. It is a normal part of human experience to know that it feels good to be forgiven. It is a quiet sweet kind of happiness: not the sort of happiness which one would want to boast or shout and dance and about, as one might when winning a contest. It is an inner peaceful kind of happiness. If it is shared at all with others it may be only within an intimate relationship or with the closest of supporting friends.

We do not parade that kind of happiness, because to be happy about being forgiven means that we know we were guilty. The great thing is that the guilt can be put away and left behind us. It is as if it never happened, and we do get on with our lives without the burden. The special peace of forgiveness comes from being able to leave the past behind, knowing that there was something bad about it.

If healing comes after the wound, and we know we are healed, that is a very different matter from saying there never was any wound. If a relationship is restored after the taste of tears that is a different kind of happiness from bravely pretending there never was anything wrong.

The sad avoidance of guilt

It is a very sad thing when friends and counsellors of people who feel guilty say "you were not wrong", "you could not help it", "you had no choice", "you needed to do that", "it was the other persons fault", "don't feel guilty", "claim your rights", "be strong", "assert yourself". They who say these things say in effect there is no such thing as sin, that there are no moral laws except what seems right to you at the time, you should look after yourself. They might also say, there is no God, or if you feel the need to believe in something you don't need that old punishing father figure -- get yourself a better god, so that he or she will encourage you to be yourself, a god who finds nothing wrong with you. I say that is a very sad thing because deep in our hearts, much as it might appeal at times, we know it is not true, and it will not last. However tempted we might be to justify what we do, the time will come when reality will catch up with us.

Not that we want to give people an attack of guilt. That is something people have to come to honestly themselves, and they do often enough, even if they deny it. It is not for us to accuse them. It is one of the things that non-believers, or people who are separated from the church most fear from "confessing" Christians. Indeed I have seen enough to think that we fear it from one another within the fellowship.  Too often in pastoral work it has seemed to me that people who in trouble could and would have been supported had they not been afraid of judgment from the very people who could and would have helped them. People tend to think that church people are always judging them, and ready to condemn, and what is more they believe that anyone who does that must be a hypocrite. Yet it remains true that Christians are more likely to consider themselves sinners than are non-believers. The difference is that we know we are forgiven.

Knowing that you are forgiven, even before you seek it, is what makes it possible to admit being wrong. This confidence in the love that will forgive is what allows faith to grow in strength with experience in the journey of life. The special quality of Christian joy comes from knowing that we are redeemed sinners. That, at least, is one thing we all have in common.

Because sin is the experience of separation from God, the happiness that comes with forgiveness is an experience of a restored relationship. That is why it feels good, whole and healthy. The healing of a wound in a broken relationship restores the wholesomeness of that relationship. It is the same in our relationship with God as in our human relationships. And the same healing works within a person. Wholeness is restored when guilt is overcome. Health and salvation are basically the same. We believe such wholeness is a gift of God, and that it is available to all through the work of Christ.

The fall from paradise

Where did this sense of sin or separation come from? It all began with Adam and Eve. Yes, it really did! O come, the modern man or woman will say, you don't believe those fairy tales do you! How can you not take notice of what we know about the evolution of the human species and the origins of civilisation! Let's be realistic, they will say, surely science not ancient myth is a better basis for understanding humanity. And anyway, anyone with only the most elementary knowledge of psychology can see that the myth of Adam and Eve is a primitive tale of explanation to account for the experience of sexual guilt. The desire aroused in the woman by the snake, the man's willing share and the shame of nakedness, it all fits. And, the non-believer will say, it is all so terribly oppressive, especially of women, making out that people are inherently guilty, always prone to do the wrong thing and to feel bad about it. Would it not be better to grow up a little and leave these primitive tales behind? Then we might be able to go forward boldly to enjoy life. Indeed, perhaps it would if we could live without guilt, if we always in fact did what we know is right. But which is more true to human experience: the bold of assumption of the autonomous individual free to chose and free of guilt, or the knowledge that we do in fact sometimes do what we know to be wrong?   It should be clear enough in our common experience that we have freedom to choose and that we sometimes deliberately do wrong, it it might be wondered whether we are inclined towards choosing to do what is wrong.

It is a question of significance for humanity, whether we are predisposed to sin, of whether we are inclined to chose what is wrong if we are tempted. Is there something in human nature that makes us rebellious. The story of Adam and Eve suggests that there is. The story of what happened in the Garden of Eden that led to their being shut out of paradise is a symbolic story about man and woman in general. You can accept the best scientific and most extensive knowledge of the development of the human race without fear of contradiction. Christians need have no fear of the truth and we can know something of the truth about God and the world by scientific methods and from history. We can and should rejoice in greater knowledge of creation whether it comes from science or poetry or any source that gives us insight into the truth of how God made the world and our place in it. It makes no difference to the meaning of the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, unless perhaps to make it more interesting.

The word "Adam" means man or in general. The close relationship of humankind to the earth is symbolised by saying that Adam was taken from "Adamah", the earth. From the dust of the earth we came and to it we will return: "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust", we say in the funeral service! That is one of the things to be learned from the story. Whatever our aspirations may be to rise above the earth, even to make ourselves equal with God, or to take God's place, we are earthly creatures who die.

It was the overreaching ambition to compete with God which got man and woman into trouble.

You will be like God ... We find similar ideas elsewhere in the Old Testament: for example Ezekiel [28:1-9] warned of a violent death to those who thought of themselves as gods:

[Or in another translation [NIV]


As we read in the gospel for today, even Jesus himself was tempted in this way:

If you are the son of God ... and this was repeated [4:6], but Jesus, who could have claimed equality with God [Philippians 2:5-12], chose to accept the lowest level of human status. Together with his baptism which had just taken place, the way Jesus responded to his temptations, which included the temptation faced by Adam and Eve to be like God, was the beginning of the work by which he restored us to God. But humanity in general, man and woman, could not in the past and still cannot resist the temptation to reach for the skies, no mere as human achievement but to compete with God in the exercise of our autonomy.

First of all, for Eve, doubt had been sown about whether God was good to them:

It would seem to be unreasonable not to be able to enjoy the fruit of the garden where they had been placed. But, of course it was only one tree they were not to touch. They were not, incidently, prohibited from eating from the tree of life, only that other tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Before the doubt there was the prohibition:

Was there not then a temptation to think that the rules are unreasonable and very restrictive? People still think that way, don't they? Give people a rule and they will be tempted, you might even say challenged, to break it. Why is that? It is one way to assert ourselves. One who can a break a rule has a certain kind of greatness. To by-pass the barriers is a sign of greatness. -- Imagine you are driving along the street and you come to a section that is roped off. You follow directions and go down a side street. As you do, a big black car comes along with an escort, the barrier is taken down and some obviously important person is let through. You know he is important because he can go where others are not allowed. It is a sign of privilege not to have to follow the rules that apply to ordinary people. So the tempter says, if you break the rule, you will be great, like gods.

Knowledge of good and evil

What was the rule about? ... but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,... "Knowledge" here is not abstract knowledge like mathematics or objective knowledge like physics or chemistry or even history or anthropology. It is a more personal kind of knowledge, as in the first verse of the next chapter:

That is the kind of knowledge in which one is intimately involved with what one knows, indeed one becomes part of what one knows; and what a person knows in this way becomes part of him or her, just as the two become one flesh in marriage. So knowledge of good and evil in this way makes a person share personally in both good and evil -- of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,... To be intimately involved with good and evil would make one like God. Satan was right, as he often is in his perverted sense of truth:

It is not necessarily about sex, although sex is a good example of it. Human beings are distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom by their conscious control of sexual behaviour, by their freedom from detailed instinctive programming of behaviour, so that they do not mate automatically in response to the right stimulus and the right time for conception, but they learn to respond to a chosen mate as and when they both choose. That freedom and consciousness must have been experienced as one of the most important beginnings of what it meant to be human. It is very deeply embedded in the nature of humanity to know the freedom to choose, to say "yes" or "no", whether it be to a sex partner or in to some other important choice in our lives. Nor, of course, is sex in itself bad or necessary more likely to lead us to sin more than other powerful influences in human life. I hope no one is confused about that, but because it is a choice of great significance and has important consequences sex has potential for both good and bad depending upon the choices that we make. Whenever we can choose to be involved or not to be we have in that choice the power break rules. Things are no longer fixed for us as they are for the animals which are programmed to act in specific ways. They have the original innocence that we have lost. Eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil bars us from paradise -- at least until we can find a way of overcoming our guilt, whether it is about sexual behaviour or any other way in which our freedom can be abused. The point is that the freedom to choose allows us as act of our own will to be involved with evil.

Signs of separation and renewal

The fear and shame they felt show the sense that man and woman had of their separation from God. They knew that they were less after their rebellion against God than they ought to be. There was then a disturbance to their natural life. As the Psalmist expressed it as little further on in Ps 32 than the thought of how happy are those who know their sins forgiven:

There is a close relationship between sin and physical disease. A disturbed relationship with God causes both internal and external disintegration in the human person and family. It even disturbs the relationship between man and the soil, between adam and adamah. There are deep implications here for productive work and exploitation of the environment. That is why we have symbols of harmony in nature like the cow and bear feeding together [Isaiah 11:7] as signs of the restoration of the that broken relationship with God.

That the broken relationship with God was restored is what we celebrate at Easter and we will remember the cost of it during Holy Week as we contemplate the passion and death of our Lord. The great thing is that we do know that the relationship has been made good. That is why we can concentrate on the healing and wholeness that follows forgiveness. It is so good because now, after the work of Christ, everyone can experience that wholeness through faith in him which restores our relationship with God. Our tendency to want to compete with God, or to be equal with God, or to take the place of God, is a human tendency which has been overcome by Jesus Christ as was illustrated in his temptations in the wilderness. There he faced and defeated for himself the enemy which he overcame for us all on the cross. No one else has done that. It is the great gift of God to us, freely given, if only we will accept it:

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