The other day I sat across from my daughters in a booth at Chick-Fil-A. This is where we have our deep conversations about the mysteries of the universe and life in elementary school. I was thinking about a friend who was drowning in the consequences of a pile of bad choices and decided to talk to my kids about it. Because that's the kind of mom I am: the downer kind.
I said, "Girls, I have this friend. One day she made a bad choice. She didn't like making bad choices. She didn't want to make a bad choice. But she did. After she made that first bad choice it was easier to make another. Soon she had made a lot of bad choices and because bad choices have consequences, she's dealing with more consequences than she can handle. She is so sad right now, because she can't see a way out of all this trouble."
I said to my daughters, "You have to be careful making bad choices because they pile up and soon the burden of them is more than you can bear."
Eve nodded, brow furrowed. "Yes ma'am, Mommy."
London though, she wasn't sold.
Always the independent thinker, she said, "That's not true."
"Mom," she told me, "my burdens don't pile up. When I make a bad choice God forgives me and I let it go. It's not hard to make a good choice again."
She stopped for a second, put a bite of ice cream in her mouth, licked the spoon twice, and then looked me directly in the eye. "Mom, your friend needs to be baptized."
Last June my daughter London's behavior was out of control. As were her emotions. Justin and I couldn't believe how much trouble she was having with simple acts of obedience. Too, we'd noticed her heart getting more and more... I don't know... dark? One night, I watched as London--London who LOVES animals; gentle, caring, compassionate London-- I watched that London lift her foot high above her unsuspecting, trusting cat, her face changed, overtaken really with something unmistakably evil, and I knew she was about to break her cat's back.
I yelled, "LONDON!" And it was like something snapped inside her, like she returned to who she was and realized what she'd almost done. She looked at me shocked and melted into a pool of tears.
She cried, inconsolable, for an hour.
Later that night I laid in bed with her, trying to help her talk through what had happened. Her guilt, thick and suffocating, dripped from every word and ran down her cheeks in thick, muddy rivers. She said, "I am so tired of making bad choices." She said, "It's so hard to do the right thing." She said, "I always feel heavy." She said, "I want to make good choices, but I can't."
It's hard to listen to your seven year old say things like that. It's hard to watch her weep, lying beside you in the fetal position, her heart and gut in pain.
If this had been an adult I'd met at the grocery store or connected with at church I would have been full of joy and hope. I would have disguised my eagerness some, but I can guarantee you I would have been sure of what to say next. I would have said, smiling, "You need Jesus." I would have said, "This is exactly how it is without Christ. We humans can try and try but we'll never get it right. We need Jesus to wash away what we've done wrong. We need Jesus to help us do better. And we need Jesus again when we've stumbled and gotten these new clothes all dirty."
This moment, with an adult, would have been an undeniable gospel opportunity.
But I wasn't talking to an adult. I was talking to a seven year old. My seven year old. My daughter who knew what Jesus offered. My daughter who could give the gospel speech. My daughter who'd been asking to get baptized since she was four. My daughter who seemed way too young to be enslaved by the power of sin and death.
But here we were and here she was. Guilty.
Can I be completely honest with you? I tell people that Jesus takes away sin. I tell people that in Christ we live a no-condemnation life. I tell people that with Christ all things are possible--even holiness. I tell people things will change when they die in the water of baptism.
And I believe it when I tell them.
But then my daughter comes along and wants to be baptized. And needs to be baptized. And I have to look in her eyes and tell her that Jesus will save her, that in the moment when she rises from that water she will be clean, forever washed in the blood of Christ. That so long as she wants it and walks toward it, Jesus' blood will protect her from the weight of sin and guilt. That life will be harder with Jesus, but righteousness will be easier and her heart, though always weighed down in part by the sins of others, will be lifted, freed from the Titanic sin dragging it down.
I have to tell her this and then live beside her every day after she's risen. Meaning, I had better be one hundred percent sure it's true. Because I could not bear offering her something like that, something magical, only to find it a mere bandaid for her mortal wound.
A friend asked me, "What if she's baptized and still feels guilty afterward?"
I worried about that. My husband did, too. But, we decided to have faith. We decided to believe God's offer was true. We decided to tell London the good news--no caveats and no hedging. We both laid in our bed with her curled up between us. We listened to her talk through her concerns--she too was worried it wouldn't work, that maybe she was too young for deliverance. That maybe baptism wouldn't take and she'd have to do it again when she was older. We asked her if she felt trapped. We asked her if she felt like she was a slave to sin. We knew she did. She said she did. And then we said, "Well, God can rescue you. Do you want to be rescued?" "Yes." she said. "I do."
London was baptized a couple days later at Inks Lake, about an hour's drive west of our home. She wanted to be baptized in nature. She sees God there. A few of our friends came. I told the story of when she was little and thought everyone who was baptized actually, physically died in the water to be resurrected on the way up. She would stand on our pew to get a better look and when the person would emerge from the water she would holler and clap and stomp her feet. "He's alive!!" she'd yell. Even at four years old she saw the miracle in the moment.
Justin, my husband, read a passage of scripture. He asked London, "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that He died and rose again, that He's coming back to get His people?" She nodded, the biggest grin on her tiny face.
And then London led us in prayer. She thanked God for saving her. She thanked Him for washing away her sins.
When she came up out of the water, her face seemed freshly lit, bright and alive like the first flame when a match meets a wick.
I've kept a close eye on London since she got baptized nine months ago, and I can say with absolute certainty something big changed that day. It's not that she doesn't sin. She does (though less often and with less intention). It's what happens after she sins that's so completely, supernaturally different.
London never feels guilty, not for more than a second or two. Every time she sins (at least the times she realizes she's doing something wrong) she acknowledges it, confesses it, asks for forgiveness and moves on. If my husband or I point out a bad choice she might pout a little, but within ten minutes she's apologized, been forgiven, and launched into a drawing or conversation or bike ride. She tells me, "I don't need to feel guilty. God is washing me. I'm clean."
London LOVES feeling clean. She trusts God's offer of washing, stepping eagerly into John's words, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
She is a child transformed. Full of the Spirit, abundantly alive.
The thing that's the best about London's no-guilt life is what she mentioned at the very start of this post, and it's in stark contrast to the way I often live. For London, because she doesn't experience the crippling effects of guilt, making a good choice after making a bad choice isn't particularly difficult. Without guilt hanging around clouding her judgment and making her feel small, she can easily lean into God's power and overcome temptation.
It's not as easy for me.
When I sin I too often let guilt hang around. Instead of quickly brushing away my bad choice, like a bit of dust on my shoulder, I hold it and look at it. I think about how weak I must be to have made this bad choice. I think about all the other times I've made choices like it. I think about how disappointed God must be at all the times I've sinned like this. I think about how I'll never be a person who makes good choices.
And like we do with one of those magic hockey-puck-shaped washcloths my kids get at birthday parties, I immerse my sin in tears, wallowing and self-doubt, watching it grow and get heavy in the submersion.
I could put it down at any moment. But now that it's heavier it's harder.
Soon opportunity and temptation will strike again. This guilt shackling my hands and heart, I will struggle to reach for the wisdom and power I need to overcome it.
This plays out every day in different ways. One step into gluttony enables another. One glance at something I shouldn't look at makes the next one more likely. One unkind word paves the way for the next. Every bad choice compiles, and at any moment I'm shouldering burdens I was never intended to bear, burdens becoming hurdles, bigger every minute, to my ever making a good choice again.
Guilt leads to guilt leads to guilt, until finally I've left the path of light and the washing blood of Christ altogether, wandering deeper and deeper into the dark.
Guilt, for the Christian, is a gateway sin. It seems innocent, holy even, at first glance. But don't be fooled. It's evil and it will drag you down to the pits of hell.
I know a lot of people who feel guilty most of the time. And it makes no sense. Not when those people are God's people. Not when I've died to sin and been raised to new life. Not when God offers limitless forgiveness and an eternal blank slate. Not when there's cleansing to be had.
We look at the water and look at ourselves and decide we'd rather be dirty or maybe that we have to be dirty, though that couldn't be farther from the truth. So we don't confess. And we don't walk away.
Others of us do confess and do ask for forgiveness but then we don't trust it. We don't believe God's promise. We decide what we've done is too big for God to forgive. We figure the cross didn't cover our particular brand of offense. We think maybe God missed a spot in the washing.
That's ridiculous, and most of us know it.
Here's the truth we need to embrace: Humans sin. God forgives those sins and frees us from the power of sin and death in baptism. From that point on we live as freed men and women. Sin, while it may trip us up in the moment, has no authority over our lives. When we stumble, we acknowledge it, are washed of it, and walk on, spotless.
God's people are guiltless. They refuse to bow to sin as it is not their master. It was for a time; it never will be again.*
I taught the first, second and third graders at my church a few weeks ago. The lesson was titled "Jesus Saves Us From Sin." I knew these kids knew those words. I wondered if they knew what they meant. So I pushed and prodded, asking questions, asking questions about their answers. I realized they didn't know what they meant. Not exactly.
I looked across the faces in the room and my eyes landed on my daughter London, London who did know what it meant. And so I asked her, "London, would you be willing to come up here and talk about your baptism?" I knew this was asking a lot, to stand in front of her friends and talk about something she'd done that none of her friends had, something that made her a little bit weird. I knew just having everyone look at her would be a trial. I expected her to shake her head.
But she didn't. She said, "Okay" and she walked up to the front of the room while a few friends giggled. I told the kids London knew what it meant to be saved from sin because she'd been a slave to it. Every eye in the room locked in; mouths shut. Twenty children were completely still while London talked about guilt--about what it felt like to carry it and what it feels like to live free from it.
She told them, they'd know when they needed saving. And she told them Jesus would be happy to save them when they needed it.
That's London testimony--that God saves His people from sin. He saved her. He'll save you.
*So why is it we feel guilty? Even when we know we shouldn't? Even when there's no reason in the world for it?
The New Testament has no mention of this phenomenon. It seems the first century Christians didn't struggle with guilt like we do. The only guilt mentioned is actual guilt for offenses unforgiven and the washing away of guilt in the blood of Christ. The Holy Spirit doesn't inspire any instruction to people who feel guilty for sins God already forgave.
Because this post is already miles long and because its purpose is simply to remind you that guilt is bad and you should put it down, I'm going to have to postpone a fuller answer.
But there is an answer coming. This summer I'll be launching a book and series of workshops across the southeast centering on how to take charge of our thought lives. We'll call it Think Good. Guilt, as it often manifests in the lives of Christians, is a thought problem, one easily defeated when we learn how, by the power of Christ and the gift of discipline, to make our minds mind. I'm really looking forward to it and hope you can join me!
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