Guilt Real and Imagined

Any pastor knows that one of the hardest things to deal with is guilt.  Real guilt can be the couch wetting, bone wasting kind of Psalms 6 and 32.  Imagined guilt is hard to cleanse even with the very real blood of Christ.  Here’s a lesson in both.

Maya Angelou writes in her autobiography of her early years of an incident where she came home from a lady’s house with tea cookies for her brother.  She said casually, “’By the way, Bailey, Mrs. Flowers sent you some tea cookies.’”  Her grandmother flies into a rage demanding to know what she just said.  The reader thinks Maya is in trouble for accepting gifts from someone better off implying she is poor.  After kneeling with her grandchildren, praying for forgiveness for the cursing in her home, and switching Maya her grandmother explains, “’Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Light,’ and anyone who says ‘by the way’ is really saying ‘by Jesus’ or ‘by God’ and the Lord’s name would not be taken in vain in her house’” (I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 99-100).

I can’t find any evidence that ‘by the way’ is really misusing the name of the Lord, but living in the 21st century where “O my God” is casually abbreviated OMG, I was touched by such piety even if it was mistaken and led to imagined guilt.

Then there is there is the guilt I feel over against this incidence reported in a non-fiction book about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. A corrupt politician named Tweed found out that the Times newspaper had the goods on him but hadn’t yet printed any of it.  Tweed through another man, Connolly, offers the editor, Jones, five million dollars to kill the story.  “Jones declined, reportedly saying to Connolly, ‘I don’t think the devil will ever make a higher bid for me than that.’  Connolly persisted, ‘Why with that sum you could go to Europe and live like a prince.’  ‘Yes, answered Jones, ‘but I should know that I was a rascal’” (The Great Bridge, p. 253).

It is hard to convert 1870 dollars to 2012 ones, but the same book reports that a good wage for that day was 2.25 per day (p. 209).  That means the newspaper man was offered somewhere around 88.0 million dollars (  Would I, could I, ever turn down that sort of bribe?  Wouldn’t I rationalize my way into accepting it?  Someone has said that while Jesus warned that the whole world wasn’t worth a man selling his soul for, the Devil purchases most for just a piece of it, say an 88.9 million dollar piece.

You can say this too is imagined guilt, but it’s real to me in the sense that I know that over the years I’ve been the “rascal” the newspaper man wouldn’t be.  This brings me to the story of a Russian named Apraksin.  He was charged with treason during the time of Catherine the Great.  “A year after his dismissal [from office], Apraksin was brought before a judge to receive his sentence.  ‘And there now remains no course but – ‘ Apraksin, overweight and apoplectic, never heard the end of the judge’s sentence.  Expecting the words ‘torture’ and ‘death’ he fell dead on the floor.  The judge’s last words were to have been ‘to set him free’” (Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Massie, 202).

Our real guilt surely does deserve torture and death and not just temporally but eternally.  Our imagined guilt whispers the same in the dark places of our conscience.  We can get to the state Apraksin was in if we don’t hear the words our Judge has said and re-said.  “Go you are free.  Your scarlet sins have been made white as wool in the blood of Christ.  There is now no condemnation not from real guilt, not from imagined guilt to those that are in Christ Jesus.”

Now who can causally use that Name above all names for anything but praying, praising, and giving thanks?  And having been purchased and won from all sin, from death, and from the power of the Devil, not with gold or silver, but with Jesus’ holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death which are worth far more than 88 million dollars, who has a soul to sell?  We’ve already been bought…really.


About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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