Thoughtful readers will be objecting that I have suggested living without guilt as if the crucifixion of Jesus was not crucial. I admit I have circled around the practical outcome in our lives rather than the theological explanation.
My reason is that Christians need to dump unnecessary guilt before they can see clearly why Jesus had to die. There was a similar sequence of teaching in His ministry. For the disciples during the three years of training the cross was still on the horizon. Jesus told them he would be crucified, but apparently he gave very little teaching about how his death relates to our forgiveness and acceptance in the family of God. Reflection on the doctrine of the atonement came later.
To understand the cross we have to know the cost of loving. Anybody who loves deeply will get hurt. Parents hurt their children. Children hurt their parents. Husbands hurt their wives, and wives hurt their husbands. And often the one who hurts us does not even know it. But the more we love, the more we are likely to get hurt. Those who love and serve others experience ingratitude, being taken advantage of, misunderstanding, and often being hated.
Now if we project our little human experiences of loving and being hurt to infinity, we get some idea of how much God is hurt in loving us. We ignore him, resent his concern, think we know better, blame and curse him, hurt those he loves so much, put on a show of loving, and are cheats, hypocrites, ungrateful, self-willed, and much prefer to edge him right out of our lives.
This means that the wounds and hurts of God began with the first image of God humans in Genesis 1:26. Whether the hurt of God began before that with angels or other beings is a theological question which need not concern us.
The only way to avoid being hurt is carefully to keep away from loving, and that is the route many humans attempt to take. They withdraw into themselves and build walls to keep out those they might be tempted to love. If however we decide to keep loving, then part of that loving is a commitment to accept the costly hurts that come our way and forgive those who hurt us. This an essential part of parent love. It is also required in any marriage that is going to survive beyond the initial chemistry.
In the second chapter on wrath we noted that a lover may need to assign consequences, and God certainly does this. A mother may need to take her children and escape a husband who is constantly drunk and dangerously abusive. But when she assigns those consequences she could still love and forgive him in the same way that God keeps loving us when he has to assign consequences for our behaviour. Admittedly, the legal process of divorce does its best to make that impossible.
But whether or not wrath consequences have to be assigned, we can forgive, and forgiveness is always at one's own cost. In some sense we have to absorb the hurt in our own body. Parents will accept the shame of their son ending up in jail, will pay to bail him out, keep visiting while he is prison, and still love and treat him as a son when he comes out.
In that sense each of the three Persons of the Trinity must have got hurt long before that Friday when Jesus the Son of God died on the cross. The Father is always cut to the heart when a human refuses His parental love. The Son was jilted in the Garden of Eden when He wanted to come for a walk with Adam and Eve, and they hid in the trees of the garden. The Holy Spirit feels the rejection of those who refuse his wisdom, prophetic and artistic inspiration, his concern to pray, and empowerment for doing exploits in God's service. All three Persons of the Trinity are still being wounded by every one of us, and mostly we do not know the hurt we cause in the very heart of God.
On Good Friday the enormity of the wounds of God became visible in one place and time for all to see. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus as man felt the full force of the temptation not to keep loving when humans did their worst to Him. Having settled that he would keep forgiving, however much hurt and humiliation was involved, he was apparently concerned whether the Father could still keep loving those who so terribly wronged His Son. "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." If the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit had pulled back from the enormity of the cross, the love of God would have been as limited and conditional as ours.
One way of limiting the extent and the quality of our loving, and the consequent hurts, is by conditional love. We decide that we will only love those who deserve our love. They will have to work for it. Let's face it, a large part of human loving is of that kind. If our children, or friends, or enemies, or other Christians, don't measure up to our standards we limit our commitment to love within the bounds of what we think is reasonable.
Because we are so used to conditional love we imagine that God loves us in that same conditional way. A common view of God is that He watches our performance, and keeps an exact tally. In the day of judgment He will hold up the scales and put our good deeds on one side and the bad on the other. If there is more good than bad we go to heaven, but if we fail to make the standard we go to hell.
Unfortunately that conception of God keeps infecting our thinking. People who do not know the good news of Jesus in the Gospels assume that God only loves good people, and bad people are likely to go to hell. Jesus Christ made it absolutely clear that with God there is no passing grade. The three Persons of the Trinity want us in their family, all are welcome, and all are loved unconditionally.
It is very hard for us to understand the quality and extent of God's love. We always assume there must be some catch in it. Surely God cannot love me unconditionally however much I hurt Him? That is why living totally without guilt is impossible until we have accepted, entered into, and are able to presume boldly on that totally unconditional love of God.
When we do begin to bask in the love of God we are still surrounded by people who try to force us into their conditional love mind set. When we tell them God loves us they do not even understand the words. They are trained to view people as mere chemistry, or physiological systems, computers to be programmed, bundles of conditioned reflexes like Pavlov' dogs, or bodies to have sex with and pass the time without too much pain until we die.
And they make similar assumptions about God. If he is merely the source of the big bang, or gravitational force, or the evolving organisms of our world, then the language of the unconditional love of God makes no sense. Surrounded by that hostile mind set, we can only respond to the love of God if we view ourselves as children of God, use love language to describe our experiences, and talk back to Him as lovers do. That kind of love language is what the Bible is all about, and to live without guilt we need to be reminded of it every day.
The ideal is to read the Bible, talk about it, and teach it to our children and to others. If we cannot easily do that we need to hear the Word of God and have it explained in a church congregation or smaller gathering. And when we have grasped the language and the working of God's kind of love we can relate the words and stories of the Bible to every experience of unconditional love and also it's awful opposites in our daily lives.
Now we go back to the sin and hurt that God absorbs in Himself. That is what came into full view in our world with the crucifixion of Jesus. It is possible to respond to the love of God without understanding the cost of being loved. Children can know that they are loved unconditionally long before they can grasp the anguish of their parents. Similarly men and women in the Old Testament experienced the forgiveness of sins long before the cross of Jesus revealed what was involved on God's part.
The ancient world did have pointers to the love of God and the cost of loving in the practice of animal sacrifice. Whenever an animal was killed for food there was prayer and thanksgiving: "This animal is dying so we can eat." When two tribes had been at war they made peace by eating a sacrificed animal together. If a nation, or tribal leader, or priest, or ordinary person had sinned, there was assurance of forgiveness when the smoke of the sacrifice ascended to God.
In the New Testament the language of sacrifice helped the early Christians grasp various facets of the cross and its connection with the communion meal that Jesus instituted. Later on in Church history various theories or models of the atonement were offered to explain the cost of loving us and the freedom we now enjoy. But whatever explanation we give, the bread and wine of the communion service is designed to free us from guilt and free us for joyful service.
Like the prodigal son we are welcomed home to the family table by the sacrifice of the fatted calf. Peace is made by people of enemy languages, races, classes, and sexes eating together. There is no sin that is too bad for God to absorb and still keep loving us. And we respond with praise and thanksgiving and prayer for others.
As I close this chapter I sense readers saying to themselves "I like the idea of being freed from guilt. You have given a joyful picture of the Christian life. But it can't be that easy, and it would certainly be very dangerous. Christians would lose all sense of sin and judgment. Churches have built up a framework of guilt, repentance, confession, absolution, and discipline which you are dismantling. You must be wrong."
I cannot answer that objection except by appealing to the example of Jesus Himself. He was the one who told the story of the prodigal son, and He was faulted for being too friendly with tax sharks, drunks, and harlots. The common people heard him gladly because they felt freed from the unbearable guilt of their religion. It was the legalistic Pharisees who decided he had to be nailed to the cross, and his movement terminated.
But having said that, it does not follow that loving is ever easy. Jesus invited us to take up the same kind of cross of loving that He was committed to. "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34 NRSV). If we say that Jesus' sacrifice is something we cannot share in, we deny His invitation into the very love God. But if we do begin to love like God Jesus warns us we too will be hurt, misunderstood, and in some sense crucified.
This is what Paul exemplified in his life, and invited us to experience. "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present you bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be not conformed to this world; but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:1,2 NRSV).
Because God is love, and knows the eternal joy of loving, He wants us to love the way He loves, and enjoy the costly joy of loving. "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). That is the meaning of the cross and that is the family business Jesus engaged in. But there many different kinds of loving that are needed, and each of us is given a vast choice in how we invest our lives. The only caveat is that any kind of love we choose to engage in will involve costly sacrifice.
When we enjoy the love of God and then find ourselves freed for perfect love, life looks totally different. The turning point is when we welcome the idea that our free choice of loving involves the cross of being wounded and hurt. We have discovered that the cross is not only the heart of God, but the very joy of living totally, and without guilt.