How do you talk with contemporary people about guilt? If you grew up with a fairly traditional Christian set of categories, it can be tricky. In a self-consciously post-Christian world, people tend to blow off the things you would normally say. There’s a place and time to preach a barn-burner, but in general, my goal is to speak about guilt without taking the role of the Accuser. The devil’s got that one covered. It’s not like he needs my help.
The fact that guilt and brokenness don’t fit into the contemporary sense-making scheme doesn’t mean that contemporary people have somehow eliminated them. One of the dangers of thinking everything is a “language game” or everything is socially constructed is that you think you can change reality just by changing language. Guilt and shame are enduring realities; people today are as guilty and broken as a preconversion Luther — but unlike Luther, they’ve been deprived of the language to make sense of it all. Because that language has lost currency, there is no generally accepted way of talking about those realities, but people try to put them into words anyway. I spend a lot of time listening for what language this person is going to use. Some common options include absorbing the sin into their identity (“I guess I’m just a cheater”), attempting to positive self-talk it away (“I just gotta stop focusing on the negative”), or aspirational sociopathy (“Eh, shit happens; gotta move on”).
If I can help someone put their guilt into words, then I’m not the one who’s accusing them of something. They introduced the problem; I’m just helping them sort it out. At that point, I can introduce sin by way of contrast:
“We used to talk about this kind of thing as sin. We’ve kind of ruined the word; anymore the only time we talk about sin is when we’re selling desserts or lingerie. But it used to mean something. In the classical sense, sin doesn’t mean you had 5% too much fun or some crap like that. It means missing the mark. It means that you were built for a purpose, and you stepped outside the design parameters in a way that’s gonna hurt you and others around you. See, God is not a tight-shoed, overly regimented Father who says ‘Don’t play!’ He’s a caring Father who says ‘Don’t play in traffic.’
“What I’m hearing you say is that you did play in traffic, and you got hurt, and some other people got hurt because of you. You can’t make it all better, and you don’t know what to do about it, because the culture you live in has deprived you of any way to make sense of that and deal with it.
“The good news is that what’s happening in you is actually totally normal. You’re not crazy or negative or neurotic; you’re actually built to notice when you’re outside the parameters in damaging ways. Just like physical pain is designed to tell you when something is wrong, guilt is moral pain designed to tell you something is wrong. Just like with physical pain, the purpose is not to punish you for doing a bad thing; it’s to motivate you to correct the problem. Even though the culture is a little brain-dead on this, God hasn’t forgotten how to deal with it.”
From there, I can go straight to what the cross and the resurrection really mean, or I can take a more priestly role and lead them into a direct confession of their sin in the situation we’ve been discussing, in order to then talk about the cross and God’s promise of forgiveness and life.
Lots of people have heard of Jesus dying on the cross; many of them don’t know what it means. When Jesus was crucified, every sin, every weakness, every sickness, every character flaw, every dark thing that separates us from God, all of it was nailed to the cross with Jesus. Died on the cross with Jesus. Was buried in the heart of the earth with Jesus. And when God raised Him from the dead three days later, Jesus did not come out of the grave dragging along a Hefty bag of your crap. It’s gone. It’s done.
Anything that you think is separating you from God — He’s already tended to it. You could let it go today, right now, and be free for the rest of your life.