Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2014: Out With Guilt; In With Thanksgiving

As January arrives—ready or not, here it is—we encounter yet one more holiday tradition: the ever-popular list of New Year’s Resolutions.  It is out with the old year and in with the new.  Likewise, out with the “old me” and in with the “new me.”

Before determining our resolutions, we must take time to evaluate where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going.  We identify those things about us and our lives that we want to change.  Then we are ready to set resolutions to accomplish these changes.

I believe that evaluation can be a good exercise that promotes healthy growth.  The issue is how and why we go about it and what we do with it.  The typical New Year’s resolution process begins with shame and ends in expectations of self.  Guilt is foremost in the process, both as the result of evaluation and as the means of beating ourselves into meeting expectations in the future.  This is a good time to ponder two New Testament verses:

Luke 22:31—Jesus saying to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat.”

Rev. 12:10—“Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night.

Guilt is a favorite weapon of Satan, to be sure.  It is guilt that is Satan’s main tool of accusation.  In His words to Peter, Jesus was referring to Peter’s upcoming denial, one that would certainly heap guilt and regret upon Peter’s head.  “Sifting like wheat” tells us what guilt does: it separates us like a sifter separates one type of particle from another.  Guilt keeps us focused on ourselves and convinces us that we are undeserving of love and company.  Guilt encourages us to hide, from God and from one another.

Sherlock Holmes, in the new interpretation packaged as Elementary, had this to say to his assistant about guilt:

             I am an expert on poisons, Watson.  I know virtually everything there is 
             to know about them.  But I’ve come to learn over the last few years that 
             there is nothing on this planet quite so toxic as guilt.

So, what do we do with our regrets that pop up as we evaluate ourselves and our recent history?  Once again, Scripture leads us to a much more powerful and much more effective antidote to our sin than our own efforts at fixing ourselves:

I John 1:9--If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Romans 8:1—“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

When our end-of-the-year evaluations bring us to an encounter with our sin, failures, and shortcomings, we have a choice: we can wallow in guilt and concoct an elaborate plan to fix ourselves, or we can confess our sins and trust in the work of Christ to fix us.  It is easy to think that it is more spiritual for us to fix ourselves, to take responsibility for our messes and clean them up.  While I am wholeheartedly in favor of cleaning up one’s one messes (particularly in my kitchen), the fact of the matter is that we cannot heal ourselves of our sin nature and our sinfulness.  And in pursuing guilt-driven fix-myself strategies, we reflect our spiritual ancestor Eve in trying to do what only God can do.

Reliance on Christ does not lead to a lack of responsibility or spiritual laziness as we might expect.  Quite counter-intuitively, it leads to a humble dependence on the work of Christ and the appropriate work of repentance.  We take responsibility for our wrongdoing, confess to our Lord and often those we’ve wronged, and make up for what we’ve done as far as it is possible.  Finally, we demonstrate our heart’s sorrow at our sin by welcoming the Holy Spirit into our souls to do the work of exposing and healing the darkness and brokenness.  Change, then, becomes deeply and eternally real as it expresses God working in us and through us.

Dan Hamilton, one of my favorite authors of Christian fiction, has written a short story in which Seeker must deal with the guilt and shame of his past sins that will potentially be revealed by Shadowhawk (Satan).  Friend has taken Seeker into His temple to deal with Seeker’s sins.  Friend has this to say to Seeker:

            “You know what Shadowhawk will do with what he has collected—see now
            what I will do with all that you surrender to me.  Behold your shadows….You
            must either cover them with light or they will drown you in darkness.”1

So then, as we review and evaluate our lives this past year, I would encourage us to bring our failings to Christ and end the holiday season as we began it—with thanksgiving to a great and good God for His work for us, in us, and through us.

1From The Inn At The End Of The World, a forthcoming collection of short stories by the author of The Beggar King Trilogy.  Copyright 2013, Dan Hamilton.  Used by permission.