Before World War I, a certain frustration was growing in Europe. Despite the industrial revolution’s technological development and its attendant optimism, there was an increasing awareness that something was missing. Romanticism had failed to deliver the kingdom and the cheerful hope of economists was gradually exposed as a façade. The Irish poet, W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) captures the mood in his work, The Second Coming:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The pain of World War I only intensified the agony. The machinery that had promised peace became armored tanks. Unable to exit their battlefield trenches, men looked down into their own souls and found an even uglier form of death and dysfunction. Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, conveys the emotion. The agonized posture of a figure standing upon the board-walked bridge against the tumultuous red sky makes the point. The brooding angst of humanity cries for expression.
Sometimes described as the twentieth century’s most famous Christian physician, Paul Tournier (1898 – 1986) was a Swiss clinical doctor who concentrated on pastoral counseling. His classic book, Guilt and Grace, has a chapter titled “Everything Must Be Paid For” which is especially instructive here. Drawing from the resources of his Reformed Theology, Tournier suggests that the angst of humanity is in some sense derived from the awareness that “everything must be paid for.” He writes:
The idea that man defiles and degrades everything he touches, although it does not reach such intensity in healthy people, nonetheless exists in every one. It is a measure of the existential guilt which every man bears vaguely within himself, the Promethean sense of man’s curse (177).
In the deafening din of guilt, the human soul thirsts for deliverance. Minds are haunted on returning to past faults, remembering some dishonorable conduct or failure, perhaps a scalpel of a remark that cut into a friend’s life. Even though you may have said it in ignorance, you observed the consequences later and it remains with you to this day. Humans live in the shadow of such guilt and none of us, even the most circumspect, can avoid it. There is a corner of every house, including the most immaculate, that is in disarray, stained with the dirt of this world. Whenever you visit that corner in your heart, where injurious patterns of guilt reside, the voice of condemnation clears its throat and screams.
Even as Christians, cleansed and forgiven, we still often dwell upon failures from the past, forgetting that our guilt has been liquidated by the Lord Jesus. Through his death and victorious resurrection, Christ emancipated us from the gnawing chew of guilt, reconciling us to himself, to his forgiveness and his peace. Consequently, God wants us to suffer in the neurotic grip of guilt as much as we would like to see our earthly children suffer that way, should we have any. Actually, that is not true. God loves us far more than we love our children. Take a moment and consider the implication of that.
It Is God Who Has Paid
The blood of Jesus is more powerful than any one moment in our past, regardless of what that moment might be. The future tense of Old Testament hope (“behold, the days are coming)” has become the emphatic present (“the kingdom of God is in your midst”). This makes all the differences in the world. It is also the point where Tournier calls down fire from heaven. After exploring his “payment required” notion, he presents a stunning chapter titled “It is God Who Has Paid.” You might want to close your office door, take off your shoes and kneel before the Father as you read this following quote:
But the wonderful announcement of God’s free grace, which effaces guilt, runs up against the intuition which every man has, that a price must be paid. The reply which comes in the supreme message of the Bible, its supreme revelation; it is God Himself who pays, God Himself has paid the price once for all, and the most costly that could be paid—His own death, in Jesus Christ on the cross. The obliteration of our guilt is free for us because God has paid the price (185).
No human wish or vow can evoke divine grace. It is purely a gift. Jesus was our personal substitute, having borne our sin, taken our place, embraced our curse, died our death, and grasped our guilt. To underscore the point, before bringing his atoning sacrifice to completion, Jesus declared, “It is finished!” In this simple sentence, our Lord articulated the most definitive response ever to be marshaled against injurious patterns of guilt, one that we would do well to reiterate whenever we hear guilt’s hellish scream.
“It is finished.”