Guilt and Compassion

Tremper Longman
Friday, August 3rd 2007
Nov/Dec 1997

Stereotypes concerning the Bible abound in this day of near biblical illiteracy. One of the most pernicious is the idea that the Old Testament God is a severe, judgmental old man, while the New Testament presents this God's happier and more mellow son. Violence, judgment, and guilt emanate from the Old Testament; love, tolerance, and good feelings from the New.

I remember vividly a movie I saw in the early 1970s that illustrates this common misconception. It was called The Ruling Class, and starred Peter O'Toole. At the movie's beginning, Jack, the character played by O'Toole, thought he was Jesus, and he treated everyone with great kindness and benign generosity. The theme of the movie was that someone like Jesus could not survive in contemporary society, and so Jack was consigned to a mental institution.

The most interesting scene came in the middle of the movie where another patient who thought he was Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, was introduced to Jack. This patient was abrupt, rude, and violent, the stereo-type of what most people, even some Christians, think today of the Old Testament God. He promoted guilt in those with whom he interacted, while Jack, the Jesus figure, left only good feelings behind.

Does the Bible view God with this dichotomy? Is guilt an exclusively "Old Testament thing"? Hardly-neither is compassion and forgiveness a purely "New Testament thing." The Old Testament God is not an arbitrary, dark figure, and Jesus is not all flowers and light.

Yahweh never lightly nor arbitrarily punished anyone. On the contrary, the witness of the Old Testament is consistently that he is a "merciful and gracious God … slow to anger and rich in unfailing love and faithfulness…" (Ex. 34:6). He punished only after repeated rebellion and insistent warnings. And he always had a heart for his people's salvation even when they grossly offended him.

Perhaps the most powerful passage in this regard is presented by the prophet Hosea. In the context of Israel's repeated sins, God determines that the time has come to follow through on his repeated threats to punish them. But as he does, he reveals his heart in a startling way. Hosea reports God saying the following rending words: "Oh, how can I give you up, Israel? How can I let you go? How can I destroy you like Admah and Zeboiim? My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows. No, I will not punish you as much as my burning anger tells me to. I will not completely destroy Israel, for I am God and not a mere mortal. I am the Holy One living among you, and I will not come to destroy" (Hosea 11:8-9).

It is hard to maintain the view that the Old Testament God is a heartless despot in the light of this speech. Don't misunderstand, however, he does judge in this instance; his compassion holds him back from complete eradication. Hosea was speaking as a prelude to the first great judgment on the people of God-the defeat of the ten northern tribes by Assyria in 722 B.C. They had sinned, and they would suffer for their unrepentant guilt. But this judgment should be held in tension with the equally strong picture of God's compassion in the Old Testament, a compassion that starts with the fact that humanity survived its first rebellion in the Garden.

As the Old Testament God is not a bully, so Jesus Christ is hardly an icon of passivity. He did not let people sin and get away with it.

A scene which captures well Christ's connection with the divine judgment of the Old Testament is the cleansing of the Temple. Jesus goes to the Temple, sees that it has been devoted to illegitimate commerce, and is totally outraged. Taking a whip, he forcibly drives the money changers out. The scene inspires the Gospel writer to see a parallel with the psalmist's sentiment when he declared that "passion for God's house burns within me" (John 2:17, quoting Ps. 69:9).

Even a superficial reading of the Old and New Testaments disabuses us of the idea that the Old Testament God was a stern judge, while the New Testament God was completely open and tolerant. Unfortunately, the stereotype can live on because even surface readings of the Bible are a rarity these days.

The stereotype has a positive reinforcement because many people's real agenda is not accurate description of the Testaments' theology but rather to discover ways to undermine the concept and feelings of guilt. If we can relegate guilt to a primitive past, then we can rationalize our attempts to ignore or inoculate ourselves against such dark, inhibiting feelings.

I remember the advice an older cousin gave me when I hit adolescence: "There is no sexual act which should make you feel guilty. If it is unnatural, you can't physically do it. If you can get your body to do it, it is natural." I thank God I did not believe him then, even though he was one of the city's leading psychiatrists.

Contemporary culture is going through a crisis of doubt concerning its own feelings about guilt these days. On the one hand, like my cousin, society wants to rid itself of those nasty next-morning feelings that restrain us from pursuing our lusts. But, on the other hand, the lessons of contemporary society have also produced predators who kill with no apparent remorse. As cultural critic Christopher Lasch describes in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, they "have nothing to look forward to in the way of a future, they are deaf to the claims of prudence, let alone conscience." (1) In response, it is not unusual these days to see appeals to restore feelings of responsibility and remorse in our children.

However, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, one dead white male who is still having a huge impact in our society, pointed out that if God is dead or even impotent then guilt is "bad faith." It is based on nothing. If there is no absolute truth, no final standard, then who or what can judge me guilty?

One of the messages of the whole Bible, Old and New Testament, is that there is a person who holds us accountable. God's will is absolute, and infringement brings guilt and judgment. Here it is important to see that guilt in the Bible is first and foremost a legal term. We tend to think of it as a feeling.

We can feel no remorse but be horribly guilty, on the one hand; or we can feel remorse and not be guilty. Indeed, there is both true guilt and false guilt, and this does not always square with our feelings. We should not confuse the legal state with the emotion. Perhaps we should be more consistent in our use of two different terms to describe the two: guilt for the legal state and shame for the emotion.

Of course, the biblical ideal is that we feel shame for true guilt. And, not only does the Bible teach us, but our own experience shows us that we are all guilty before God. The law of God, according to Paul (Gal. 3:15-29) is a schoolmaster, whose purpose is to show us how bad we are, in order that we might flee to Christ to find forgiveness.

And here is the ultimate irony. In our attempt to escape the ugly feelings of shame, we try to eviscerate any standard of guilt. But by doing so, we end up obscuring the only avenue to true forgiveness, Jesus Christ.

Some years ago, the movie Flatliners told the story of four young medical students who flaunt ethical conventions by experimenting with near-death experiences. When they return from their self-induced death after four or five minutes, they feel exhilarated. Soon, however, those positive feelings give way to vivid remembrances of past sins which come back to haunt them. One character discovers the path to redemption: asking the offended party for forgiveness. He finds the little girl, now a woman, whom he persecuted in the schoolyard. After he asks her forgiveness he finds peace; his psyche no longer tortures him.

The problem with the movie, however, is that it stops short. As the psalmist relates in Psalm 51, the title informing us that it was composed by David after Nathan confronted him with his sin of adultery, "against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight" (v. 4).

We will not escape guilt by simply willing it away. The irony is that we must first embrace our guilt-that is, acknowledge it-before restoration can come. We must flee to the one whom we have so grossly offended, because he is the only one who can heal us: "so now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. For the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you through Christ Jesus from the power of sin that leads to death" (Rom. 8:1-2; The New Living Translation). Only in Christ is there true forgiveness.

1 [ Back ] Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: Norton, 1995), 214.
Friday, August 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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