Living Totally: Without Guilt

by Robert Brow

Chapter 2


Living without guilt does not mean escaping the consequences of life. If we heat water it will boil. If we put seed into good soil, plants will grow. Heavy smoking causes cancer. If a young couple have intercourse without birth control, they normally have a child. If we sleep around carelessly, or share needles with drug addicts, we get AIDS. In the Bible the usual name for bad consequences is "wrath."

At first sight these good and bad consequences seem to be impersonal. They are part of the natural order. But there are also rather personal consequences assigned by individuals and societies. If someone behaves abominably, sexually abuses women and children, mugs and robs and keeps getting away with it, a whole society builds up anger and demands the assigment of appropriate wrath consequences.

In situations where there is no government of any kind a country reverts to anarchy. Anyone is free to assign whatever wrath consequences they please. But anarchy is intolerable, and very soon people demand some form of government to assign good and bad consequences in a predictable way. "If you drink and drive these are consequences." People who rob or rape or kill are jailed. Which means that any government is involved in assigning wrath consequences.

We may feel that the method of assigning consequences needs changing, the penalties should be more severe or less severe, and in a democracy we may have some say in this. The reasons we give for what we think should be proper consequences will be called retribution, education, correction, protection, or whatever. But our explanations all express the sense that poetic justice and legal justice ultimately derive from God (see Romans 13:1-5).

This is why the Old Testament prophets kept warning of an imminent Day of the Lord, when the Lord Himself would assign the wrath consequences of unjust wars, foolish alliances, decadent living, oppression of the poor and needy. "They carried into exile a whole people . . .they have ripped up women with child that they might enlarge their borders . . . they trample upon the head of the poor" (Amos chapters 1 & 2). And in each case the consequences will be seen in this life. Nations who behave abominably can be overthrown by another nation, or famine, or sickness, or some "natural" disaster. For similar reasons royal lines come to an end, families are terminated, crops fail, and whole nations are taken into exile.

The prophets rightly called bad consequences the wrath of God because the Creator has evidently ordered a world in which certain kinds of behaviour among nations must eventually have bad consequences.

There are also wrath consequences in family life. Children who are lied to, abused, brutalized, or deprived of love and affection grow up damaged. We are usually better at seeing the dangers in the lives of others, but all of us know of the disastrous consequences of certain kinds of behaviour and attitudes in our own lives. Even those with no religion say "He had it coming to him."

Some people try to get God off the hook by separating our world of consequences from God. One form of this view is called Deism. The model suggests that God sits up there but he really has nothing to do with our day to day experiences. Many Christians try to protect God by implying that he is a nice old sugar daddy in the sky and he loves us, but he can't really help the terrible consequences of our lives.

But that kind of thinking does not get us very far. If God is the Creator of our world, and he is personal being, and he is almighty, then he is directly involved in the consequences of our world. That is why the Old Testament prophets did not talk about merely impersonal consequences. They proclaimed a God of wrath who was directly concerned about the injustices of that day. But he could also change or delay wrath, and if there was a turning to him he could even move things in another direction.

By making wrath personal, we change our model to face the disasters of life in new creative ways. If we talk about impersonal consequences, as if there was some kind of computer working out wrath consequences in our world, then there is no way to talk back or have any imput in the situation. But when God is personal and accessible, as in the Psalms, we are not trapped in a world of inexorable wrath consequences; we are dealing with a loving God. We can somehow come to terms with the fact that even in the midst of our failures God cares and intervenes. That is the perspective of the New Testament.

Also, unlike a computer, God can accept repentance. God is willing to listen up to the last minute. In the story of Jonah God said the city of Nineveh was going to be destroyed, and Nineveh certainly deserved it. The Assyrian war machine was the most inhuman instrument of terror in the ancient world, and everyone knew that wrath must be coming to them. But the people of the city repented, they turned to God in sackcloth and ashes, and God delayed the wrath. It did eventually catch up with them because their turning to God did not last.

Of course we all know cases where wrath does not seem to operate as it should. The wicked prosper. Drunken drivers escape, and worst of all when they do crash it is often the innocent who are maimed. Job was unjustly accused by his friends of suffering the wrath his sin deserved. Like Job we should never accept guilt for consequences we did not cause. And if we are to blame, we take our consequences bravely before God but still without guilt.

What then is the relationship between wrath in this life and our eternal state beyond death? In the Old Testament in every case wrath meant bad consequences in this life. Should we assume that wrath has no eternal consequences? That is impossible because we are moral beings. We are not robots behaving automatically the way we were programmed. We can love the light of God or turn to the darkness (John 3:19-21).

So the New Testament suggests a model in which God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, each in their different ways, do all that can possibly be done to bring many children to glory (Hebrews 2:10). The one thing that cannot be done to perfect us is to force us into God's kind of loving.

That still leaves the insoluble mystery of why and how some choose the darkness outside the love of God. How can anyone so totally reject the love of God, and any kind of human love, that they ultimately prefer hell to the City of God? That is the mystery that C.S.Lewis captured so powerfully in The Great Divorce, 1945.

Without answering our unanswerable questions, the New Testament encourages us to view everything that happens in this world as designed by God to help us into the perfect love of heaven. In such a model the wrath of God is a sub-section of the love of God. Wrath consequences never mean that God doesn't love the person. Nor do they prove that the person deep down does not love God.

Nor does wrath mean that God sends cities like Sodom and Gomorrah, or families, or individuals to an eternal hell. When a boy gets drunk, skids around a bend and wraps himself round a pole people may say "drinking and driving don't mix." But it is monstrous to add, perhaps without actually saying so, "and it is too bad he will probably go to hell."

When the prodigal son went to a far country, he experienced sufficient wrath to learn that he preferred the love of his father's home. His elder brother thought he should learn by feeling sufficiently guilty, but feeling guilty never put love into anyone's heart. Ideally all children should learn to love from experiencing love in a loving home. But there are some who miraculously learn what love is about from unloving parents. Some of us learn from friends who have hurt us. And sometimes we learn because we have hurt others and seen the consequences of our lack of love. God has many ways of helping us into His kind of love.

So in recommending a life of freedom we make a sharp distinction between guilt which makes us afraid of God and a sense of wrath consequences which is healthy. If we are involved in behaviour which is potentially disastrous, we might be able to learn from our mistakes. If we don't learn from the first stroke of wrath, perhaps we will learn from the second. But the answer is never to grovel in guilt.

But to live freely without guilt we need a model in which God can intervene. When wrath does catch up with us, and it makes no difference if it is our fault or that of others, we can put ourselves directly into God's hands. The hard part of this model shift is accepting the fact that the worst of wrath consequences are not to condemn us or anyone else. Their only purpose is to help us into the perfect love that God ultimately has in mind for us. This change of mind is needed to open us up to Paul's invitation "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 12:2 NRSV)

Finally we note the strange paradox of being delivered from addiction. It does not seem to matter what the addiction is, whether alcoholism, shooting heroin, sexual promiscuity, depression, fits of rage, or being a workaholic. All addictions eventually have wrath consequences. But helpful advice, moral exhortation, grovelling in guilt, and good resolutions achieve nothing, and usually do more harm than good.

The addicted person must first call a spade a spade. In Alcoholics Anonymous, the alcoholic has to call himself an alcoholic. There must be a cold hard look at the wrath consequences: loss of job, family destruction, degradation, liver damage, etc. This can be done without self-pity or guilt. Then there is the frank admission that one cannot change oneself.

I would encourage the acceptance of forgiveness, even before anything improves. We need to hear God say "You are forgiven just as you are, we love you, we accept you in our family, and we intend to help you into the perfect love of heaven."

Alcoholics Anonymous recommends calling on the Higher Power. In a New Testament model this is called looking to the Holy Spirit to do in us what we can never do ourselves. His wisdom and power is available for every kind of addiction, failure, and discouragement in our wrath situation. This will be explored at a deeper level in chapter 5. But feeling guilty does not at any point reduce the imminent wrath consequences of our addictions, nor does it help us change.

What we can always do is to turn to Jesus Christ himself, the administrator of wrath, and ask him to deliver us from the behaviour which we know is harmful and likely to be disastrous. "God, I deserve this (or don't deserve this) but you love me, and I am looking to you to show me the way out of this mess." That is the direct opposite of living riddled with guilt.

Chapter 3...