Thursday, December 10, 2020

I Am the One

“I am the one you warned me of
  I am the one who’d never, never lie.”
— Blue Oyster Cult, 1988

Not my favorite band, for sure — but I do admire their theology.

At least in this instance.

So often we begin by thinking that evil, if it exists at all, is a thing “out there”. It’s in the world somewhere, not inside me. Me, I’m pretty good. Not perfect, maybe. But not so bad that God can’t overlook the difference (that is, if he’s really loving) and accept me as spot-on.

Then we live for a bit.

And we discover that deep down inside us are plenty of impulses to do the wrong thing. We just haven’t had the provocation or opportunity yet. But the impulses are there, and we feel them every time we deny them. Some, perhaps, we resist. Some go away. Some we deflect.

The Moment of Truth

Then comes the moment of truth: we do something of which we are definitely not proud.

And afterward, we find ourselves looking back on our recent actions with a dawning consciousness that we have done what we simply did not think we would. It was not just that our strength failed us, but our personal integrity as well. We gave in to something we now realize was entirely “beneath us”, as we formerly estimated ourselves.

We are not what we thought we were.

Perhaps then we even wish we could rewrite history. Who wants to think of himself or herself as the kind of person who does that kind of thing? But we know that history does not go backwards; and somehow we have to go on living. So we justify, explain away, deny … but really, deep down, we know …

I am the one you warned me of.”


That’s painful.

And yet, viewed differently, it’s the very first step in the right direction. For until we discover disappointment with ourselves, we have little motive to make a realistic assessment of our own contribution to the evil that exists in this world. Once we do, we all realize we are certainly in no moral position to condemn anyone else.

The road to God begins with that admission. Or, to put it in biblical terms:
“God be merciful to me, the sinner.”
That’s a dramatic verse, isn’t it?

It comes from a story told by Jesus Christ. He spoke of two men — one a respected religious leader and the other a miserable tax-collector (and who likes those?). The two are in the temple in Jerusalem praying. One is being heard by God and the other is not. The religious leader is far from God, rejoicing in his own freedom from guilt. The tax-collector is so choked with guilt he can barely speak. And these are his words.

The Primary Problem

Now, in grammar language we call the word “the” from the Greek a definite article, meaning that it signals when something is being pointed out as somehow unique in the claimed category: He’s saying, “It’s me! I’m the sinner. I’m telling you that I’m the guilty one here!”

He’s not saying no one else is guilty. In fact, he’s not concerned with anyone else at all. They must stand or fall as they may, to their own Master … not to him. He is unqualified to judge them, because he has not yet dealt with the primary problem: his own guilt. All he cares about in that moment is taking full personal responsibility for what he himself has done.

In striking contrast, the super-religious guy next to him has got his head up and his eyes roving. But as for this taxman, he will not raise arrogant eyes high enough to judge another at this moment. He has serious business to do with God. His soul hangs in the balance. He cries out in his personal torment and humiliation. And he finds mercy.

Other Cases

We find this again and again in the Old Testament. For example, we see it when Nathan the prophet indicts David for adultery and murder. He sets up David with a story about a hypothetical man doing a really selfish and evil thing, and when David jumps at it and says, “The guy who did this deserves death,” Nathan springs the trap on him. He says, “You are the man!

There it is again.

And again we find it in Paul. The early believers were subjected to a terrible persecution commissioned by the religious authorities and carried out by a mob of designated thugs. But at their head was a single man passionately dedicated to the destruction of the faith; and they all knew who he was. They called Saul of Tarsus [lit.] “the one … persecuting us”.

Then, when the Lord confronted Saul on the Damascus road, He asked him this question: “Saul, Saul … why are you persecuting me?” The “you” there is second-person singular, meaning that in spite of the accompanying soldiers, the Lord was at that moment indicting only one uniquely … Saul himself. Finally, Saul came to realize the enormity of his personal guilt. He was forgiven: yet for the rest of his life never failed to own his exclusive personal responsibility for what he had done and been in the past, referring to himself as the “chief” of sinners, meaning “first” or “foremost” and exclusively so.

Guilt, you see, really matters. It matters because without it we have no knowledge of our personal need of God. We have no reason to repent. We have no reason to seek salvation. Step one in coming to God is conviction of our need.

But what would happen if this need were not tied to anything specific? What if we felt guilt but did not happen to believe in sin? In that case, we feel misery without remedy. We get all the symptoms and misery of the disease but absolutely no prospect of diagnosis or cure.

What the Scholars Say

This is the state in which we find our society today: guilty and devoid of explanation for it.

Do you doubt it? Look at our “Pride” parades that march in so many cities every year. To quote Shakespeare, their guilt is truly “full of artless jealousy”. The absurd extremity of the exhibitionism eloquently testifies to the performers’ nagging feelings of guilt. The empty hope is that by putting shame on display, making it completely overt and unapologetic, and through the solicitation of much public acclaim, practices specifically identified by God as sinful will be magically stripped of their guilt, and condemnation will simply disappear.

Or see again the simmering anger of the woman who has indulged in promiscuous behavior and then murdered her own child: see her rage at being questioned, and her endless attempts to justify her wickedness as “choice”.

Or to make the matter more personal, look at each of us, and how every one of us has the habit of retelling our sinful acts of the past to others, all the while trying to convince ourselves as much as our listeners that we could not have done other than we did — and at the same time, we know we’re lying.

Yet so long as there is no recognition of sin there can be no personal admission of guilt. Without admission of guilt, there can be no remedy — only persistent guilt.

Facts and Feelings

But we have ample encouragement from modern Western culture to respond this way. As social critic Ken Myers has pointed out:
“There is much in modern [North] American culture to encourage us to believe that whatever’s wrong in the universe, it can’t possibly be our fault. We are much less bothered about being guilty than about feeling guilty, in part because we are perpetually reminded that who we are is determined by how we feel about ourselves.”
Philosopher James Sire has spoken cogently about the modern dilemma. He says that under our current social climate, “One is left not with the fact but with the feeling of guilt” [emphasis mine]. That is, one continues to feel guilty, but one has no facts by which one can gain some measure of control of the situation. Under our self-justifying patterns of thought, guilt becomes a sort of free-floating misery, without name and without remedy. So he writes:
“In a universe where God is dead, people are not guilty of violating a moral law; they are only guilty of guilt, and that is very serious, for nothing can be done about it. If one had sinned, there might be atonement. If one had broken a law, the lawmaker might forgive the criminal. But if one is only guilty of guilt, there is no way to solve the very personal problem … we are left not in sin but in guilt. Very serious indeed.”
Non-Judgmental Ethics

This partially accounts for our present-day preoccupation with non-judgmental ethics. Although the reintroduction of moral standards is exactly what can remedy the nameless misery of guilt, allowing it immediately inflames the badly blistered ego by reawakening it to its culpability. For the Law is like a physician who must handle the wound in order to produce healing; but this kind of contact is exactly what the patient reacts most strongly against.

Non-judgmental ethics, with their relativism and universal tolerance are, of course, quite powerless to remedy the common experience of guilt; however, they do somewhat dull the pain and make life a little more bearable; and thus modern people defend them with a visceral and irrational fervor.

This irrational fervor against the “sin” label has even come to infect the private beliefs of many religious people, and has even become mainline theology in some denominations. As Myers continues, “In such an atmosphere, salvation means being freed from bad feelings about who we are. The gospel contextualized in such a setting redefines Christ as the ultimate source of self-esteem.” Christianity itself, then, has also been called into service as therapy for overcoming these persistent, generalized feelings of guilt.

Disease Cut Off from Diagnosis

Yet even secular psychologists are very much aware that all these strategies are failures. Harvard’s Robert Jay Lifton is an expert on propaganda, self-deception and mind-control. He is also a long-time student of guilt, and in particular of the many ways in which people who had been very wicked — such as the guards and torturers of the Holocaust, and also modern mankind — rationalize actions and deny the reality of evil. He writes:
“[Today’s man is] not free of guilt. He indeed suffers from it considerably, but often without awareness of what is causing his suffering. For his is a form of hidden guilt: a vague but persistent kind of self-condemnation related to the symbolic disharmonies I have described, a sense of having no outlet for his loyalties and no symbolic structure for his achievements … Rather than a clear feeling of evil or sinfulness, it takes the form of a nagging sense of unworthiness all the more troublesome for its lack of clear origin.”
Lifton’s right. And this is what our modern world does not understand. When we banished ‘sin’ as a concept, we did not send ‘guilt’ away with it; we just cut off the disease from the diagnosis, and ultimately from the cure as well. Thus, says Lifton, today’s person is racked by “diffuse fear” and “unfocused indignation”. He struggles with feelings of being orphaned in a universe that, in the senselessness of its pain and evil, is essentially absurd. “He cultivates his anger because he finds it more serviceable than anxiety”, and gives expression to this by adopting a “tone of mockery” or general cynicism when confronted with any conventional or compulsory system of belief. He is master of the supercilious sneer and the condescending shrug.

But for all that, he is desperately needy. His self-confidence is a fake, a wall raised up to prevent the Great Physician from putting his hand on a tender, terminal wound. This wound inevitably remains open, festering and sore, despite all protestations to the contrary.

The Solution

Now, whether it is the raw, undiscovered sin of the unsaved soul or the lingering unconfessed sin of the failed saint, the starting point of healing is always the same. It is to say, “I am the man. I’m the one who did what he or she should not have done. I stand before God as one, alone and undefended, crying out for a mercy I candidly admit I do not deserve.”

And yet, with that, mercy is possible. There is forgiveness and cleansing — not just for tax-collectors, but for dictators and snipers, kidnappers and racists, liars, betrayers and perverts, self-justifiers and the self-righteous, and yes, even for me, the hypocritical, failing Christian who dares to teach others things concerning which he is also guilty.

Yes, God is just that good.

For while he who covers his sin will not prosper, he who confesses his sin and throws himself on the mercy of God shown to us in Christ Jesus finds grace, forgiveness, cleansing and new life.


There is a deep toxicity in the habit of certain mainline churches to deny the existence of human guilt and to downplay sin. By catering to the self-righteous spirit of our liberal age, they are actively preventing the natural process by which unexplained guilt blossoms into an awareness of specifics and brings the guilty person to his or her knees to beg, “God be merciful to me — the sinner.”

We need not take very seriously the modern professions of freedom from guilt. They’re not genuine. However, the dismissal from our vocabulary of the concept of sin is something that we should take very seriously. For that is a real problem. And while there is always a cure for sin, there is no cure for the claim to personal sinlessness. There never has been, and there never can be.

Practically, then, when we speak to others of their need of salvation, we need not dig very deep to discover in them the source of their personal misery and anxiety. They are alienated from God, caught in free-floating guilt with denial as their only defense. But, as when a talented and caring surgeon puts his hand to an open wound, we must begin by reassuring the patient of our intention to cure, not hurt. Then we must touch only slowly and delicately that which is so raw. We can count on the fact that it will turn out to be more tender and painful than we might expect. And we can count for sure on the fact that it will be there.

I also have not found a single person whom God was not convicting. I have met deniers of their guilt, to be sure, and many times too; but press beyond the first encounter and I have never met one who could stick to that story very long. God is always speaking, always reminding us of our insufficiency and need of him.


Guilt is unpleasant, but it is not a disease. Rather, it is a symptom. The disease that gives rise to it is a wrong relationship to God. Those who fight or deny it are only perpetuating the cancer that will eventually, most certainly kill them. But guilt can also be our ally, if we humble ourselves and realize our true moral condition.

For it is not until we say “I am the one” that we are ready for change.

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