The other day, I was with a group of parents and grandparents talking about the mistakes we made raising our children. Each of us shared our experiences and laughed our “guilt” out—we were laughing at one another’s stories but at the same time feeling so guilty for those mistakes. After hearing everyone’s stories, I felt relieved that I was not the only parent who made mistakes!
To err is human. However, some mistakes were not laughing matters because they caused permanent damage. We could brush off the small mistakes, but some big ones leave permanent scars and make us feel guilty for life, consciously or unconsciously. Even the small ones could accumulate and weigh our hearts down. The older we grow, the bigger burden of guilt we carry.
Even though we believe in a forgiving God, we just can’t seem to forgive ourselves for some regrettable issues in life. Have you wondered why it is? Even though we confess our sins to God frequently, some guilt still haunts us. You might say it’s because God has forgiven us, but we haven’t forgiven ourselves. If so, what does it take to forgive ourselves?
We cannot maintain peace within unless we resolve the guilt issue. The worse way to deal with guilt is denial—sweeping it under the rug and ignoring the role it plays in our daily life. Guilt doesn’t just disappear if we pretend it does not exist.
Guilt is an obstacle to peace. Internally guilt makes us depressed and stirs up anxiety. Externally it ruins relationships because guilty people tend to be angry. You feel like walking on eggshells around them. Guilt makes us defensive because we fear making more mistakes that might worsen our weight. We think the anger comes from the desire for justice, but the underlying guilt also triggers anger.
So, one of the ways to deal with an unreasonably angry person is to realize that it’s not you that they are attacking but the baggage of guilt they carry. Otherwise, you might retaliate and make things worse. Then you feel guilty and become an angry person—a domino effect.
Remember, “hurt people, hurt people.” This concept turns on our empathy. If someone tries to hurt you, you realize that person could be hurting inside.
Conversely, each time we get angry or snap at others, it reveals that we have something hurting inside us. All over the world, most people walk with hunched back, weighed down by the burden of guilt. Guilt triggers discords and even wars.
Throughout history, people invented many ways to atone for their sins. There’s an ethnic tribe in Western Burma nicked named “Headhunters” because they hunt for human heads seasonally to offer to their gods as a sacrifice. That’s a primitive way of atonement.
Nowadays, people go to temples to burn incents and offer alms for atonement. Some cultures sacrifice a lamb, a goat, or a calf for atonement. Some rich people give away their money for charity to atone for their guilt. A rich man in Thailand has a garden of statues, including Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, and all kinds of gods imaginable. He waters them every morning and prays to them, hoping that at least one of them will save him.
Humans do the weirdest things to cleanse their conscience. Guilt is a universal problem in this fallen world, but none of the solutions above work because they are more like bandages than cures. It’s like Lady Macbeth washing her hands. The spot never goes away.
The good news is God knows our plights and has provided a solution through Jesus Christ. John the Baptist said,
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29b).
The Lamb of God is true atonement, so today, let’s examine how the Lamb of God takes away our sins and why some Christians still feel guilty and cannot have peace. This is the third message in the series of Cultivating PEACE Within. There are five pillars of peace forming a mnemonic acrostic PEACE. Previously, we talked about,
P – Presence: Protect God’s Presence in You
E – Emptiness: Empty My Ego
A – Atonement: Atone with Forgiveness
As I said above, guilt is a big obstacle in cultivating PEACE. It’s at the center of it and not so easy to get rid of because it keeps accumulating, but Jesus has revealed the secret. So, let’s look at how the Lamb of God teaches us to rid our guilt and cultivate peace.
[Hi, in case we haven’t met yet, I am Sam Stone, the Lightkeeper—you are the light of the world, and I am the keeper! (No pun intended). It’s my calling to help you shine your brightest so that God is glorified in you and you are satisfied in God.]
The Scripture lesson for today is from the Gospel according to John 1:29–34. [Listen to the Word of the Lord!]
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
[Blessed are those who delight in God’s Word. Thanks be to God!]
We must pay attention to two keywords to get the message from this passage: “the Lamb of God” and “the Holy Spirit.” The former is atonement, and the latter is empowerment. We cannot emphasize one and omit another. Understanding this concept is vital for cultivating peace.
As Christians, we all understand the first part, that “the Lamb of God” is a metaphor for God’s grace. As Reformed Protestants, our bumper sticker is “Saved by Grace.” As Paul said,
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. (Eph 2:8).
It says grace is a gift of God. It’s free. It’s liberating, but if we stop here, we turn God’s grace into cheap grace. One of the major problems of many churches is the teaching of “cheap grace.” It’s theologically incorrect, intellectually unstimulating, and spiritually unenlightening.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Grace is free, but not cheap.” That’s the quantum paradox of Christianity. How could something be free and not cheap? It’s not cheap because it comes with a mission to forgive.
When the Lamb of God was lifted up on the cross, he prayed,
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34).
There are two layers to this prayer. On the surface, it reveals Jesus’ grace. However, we must get the second layer of this message. Even though he was innocent, Jesus was carrying the sin of the world at this moment. We can say he is guilty of sins committed by you and me. Then why did he forgive others if the sin was on him?
Don’t you think he is the one that needs forgiveness at this moment because he is carrying our sins? Logically, he should have prayed, “Father, forgive me, for I carry the sin of the world.” Instead, he forgave others. That means the whole thing about confession is meaningless until we forgive others.
Jesus revealed to us that forgiveness is the key to being forgiven. That leads us to our first truth of atonement.
1. Forgive to be Forgiven
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Mt 5:7).
You might ask, “If God’s grace is free, why does this verse sound conditional?” That’s why grace is free but not cheap. Jesus teaches this truth repeatedly through his sayings and parables because it’s vital. One of the prominent parables is known as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:23-35.
You know the story. This servant owed the king a large amount of money, equivalent to a billion dollars in today’s money, the amount he could never pay back in his lifetime. The king was about to put him in prison and sell his wife and children as slaves to recover some loss.
He begged his boss for mercy and promised to pay him back—which was unlikely due to the amount. Out of pity, that king forgave him. Don’t you think that’s an amazing grace? A billion dollars forgiven!
But, on his way home, he saw someone who owed him a thousand dollars. He seized him by his throat and asked him to pay what he owed. The man bagged him for patience, but he threw him in prison until he got his money back. The king heard it and got very angry. Jesus said,
Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ Mat 18:32–33
Then the king revoked his forgiveness and put him in prison. Jesus then said,
“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Mt 18:35).
Notice it says, “forgive from your heart.” When you clear the grudge, you clear the guilt. According to this parable, God’s forgiveness comes first, but it could be revoked if we don’t forgive it forward. So, it might sound like conditional grace, but it’s a quantum paradox. Jesus reveals to us that forgiveness is a triangle, so the forgiveness we have received is not complete until we forgive others.
That explains why some Christians know God has forgiven them, yet they can’t forgive themselves, so they don’t have inner peace. How do we forgive ourselves? We can’t tell ourselves, “I forgive myself. I forgive myself.” That’s not how it works. We forgive ourselves by forgiving others the way God forgives us.
Forgiveness is a trangle or a three-legged stool. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive others.
Jesus also taught us that if we come to church for worship without forgiving others, our worship is in vain. (Mat 5:22-23). By this, Jesus is not saying that we should not come to worship without forgiving others, but he is warning us that we cannot sit on the two-legged stool.
The miracle is that the moment you forgive others, your guilt also fades away. It’s like sitting on a three-legged stool, and you feel stable and comfortable.
So don’t find any other ways to atone for your sins. Jesus reveals that, without forgiving others, our worship doesn’t work, charity doesn’t work, confession doesn’t work, and even thanksgiving doesn’t work. Just think about this, why would God accept our thanksgiving if we don’t forgive others?
There is another angle to look at forgiveness. If you understand the concept of “no one is an island,” you will realize that forgiving others is forgiving yourself because you are part of the continent, not an island. If you understand that others are members of the same body, you will not try to cut them off. Only healing them can make you whole.
Exercise forgiveness. Each time I forgive, I feel set free and grow spiritually. Try it out. It’s very liberating. You will feel your guilt melt away.
From here, we can learn two more truths that stem from forgiveness.
2. Forgive to Enlighten
Sometimes, we want to express our anger to the offenders because we want to teach them a lesson. We think we can enlighten them with our anger and punishment. Your intention may be right, but anger, grudge, and punishment do not enlighten people. Paul said several times in his Letter to the Romans that law and punishment often make sinners worse.
There’s a saying of Zhuangzi, the great Taoist sage,
“Who would come to the wavy water to see their face?” ~Zhuangzi
In ancient times before mirrors were invented, people used a pond, a puddle, or a pot of water to see their faces so they could see if it was dirty. If the water is rough, wavy, or stirred, you can’t see your face in the water.
A heart without guilt, grudge, and anger is like still water that can reflect the other person’s face like a mirror. A forgiving and merciful heart is also like a mirror, allowing people to see themselves, realize their faults, and receive enlightenment. In other words, forgiveness can change people from the inside out.
There are people in my life that changed me profoundly through their grace and mercy, much more than those who punished me. The Broadway show, Les Misérables, is a good illustration of how grace transforms people. It’s an excellent show to rewatch now and then to get inspired about grace.
If anger could change people, God would not have sent Jesus on earth, and the Lamb of God and the cross would be unnecessary. However, no image in human history has enlightened people more than the cross because it symbolizes forgiveness. Like a mirror, it triggers profound reflections.
So, if your intention is to enlighten people, forgiveness is the brightest beacon of light.
3. Forgive Unlimited Times
Living in this fallen world, we are constantly triggered. The nuisance around us continuously stirs the pond in our hearts, causing annoyance, anxiety, and stormy water. Like Peter, we want to set a limit to forgiveness.
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Mt 18:21–22).
The Jewish standard was forgiving three times. That’s where the “Three strikes and you are out” law came from. Peter thought increasing it to seven times might make Jesus happy, but to his disappointment, Jesus asked him to forgive seventy-seven times. Depending on the version of the Bible, you may read “seventy times seven” because it’s a pun that translates both ways.
In any case, Jesus means we must forgive unlimited times. Don’t be discouraged. God doesn’t assign you a mission without giving you the power. That is why Jesus gives you the Holy Spirit to empower you to forgive. Jesus said,
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:22b–23).
Now, forgiveness is not only your mandate but also your mission. Relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, keep practicing forgiveness until nothing can stir the pond in your heart anymore.
There we have it. If you want to cultivate peace within, get rid of your guilt through the atonement of forgiveness. Denial won’t work, but there is no way to atone for our sins except through forgiveness.
1. Forgive to be Forgiven
2. Forgive to Enlighten
3. Forgive Unlimited Times
Let’s learn to forgive and enjoy the ultimate peace within. Coming up – we will talk about the “C” in PEACE, the fourth secret to cultivating PEACE. What do you think C could be?
That’s it for today. I hope you find this message illuminating as much as I enjoy receiving it from the Head Office. Until we meet again, keep your light shining brighter and broader, and harvest the fruit of profound love, joy, and peace.