Words shape us. When the doctor delivers the baby and announces to the parents, “It’s a girl!” those words begin to shape their lives, and will for the next few decades. When a child hears repeatedly, “You’ll never amount to anything.” it may take a lifetime to get over that.
Back in the days of the draft, if you got a letter from the Selective Service of “Greetings!” you knew your life was about to change. What if someone told you, “You’re forgiven! You can begin again”? Wouldn’t that shape your thinking about yourself, about your past, present, and future?
In John 8:1-11 there is recorded an event in Jesus’ life where he expressed that sentiment. Although the event is not present in some of the earlier manuscripts, the incident isn’t out of character with Jesus. In this situation, a woman is caught in the act of adultery. She is brought by the religious upper-stuck-uppersy, the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. They made this woman stand before the group, heightening her shame, and put Jesus to the test of how he would rule as judge in this case. These experts in the Law of Moses declared the sentence that the Law commanded – to stone the woman. They then put the question to Jesus to see what he would do.
John tells us that they used the question as a trap. If Jesus would uphold the Law, the majority of his followers would fall away. If he said to let her go, then they would have a basis of accusing Jesus of undermining the law, the basis of their society.
Instead, Jesus bends down and writes in the ground with his finger. They continued to badger him about what he would do. Jesus then straightened up and said to them “if any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then Jesus went back to writing on the ground. We don’t know what he wrote on the ground. Some surmise that he listed the sins or sinful desires of the accusers. Confronted with the failure of their own righteousness, they began to leave one at a time. The older ones left first, knowing the wisdom of Jesus’ words, followed by the younger, until all had left. The scene now only has the woman standing there, still in shame, and Jesus bent over.
Jesus straightens up and asks the woman, “Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you? I imagine the woman sheepishly states without certainty, “No one, sir.” Jesus, the only one without sin, the only one who could pronounce the sentence of condemnation, instead gives grace and hope. “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
I wonder how those words shaped her. Hopefully, she experienced a wondrous release! She was freed from her sin and guilt. She could begin again. No longer need she wallow in her self-pity, in her self-condemnation. The slate has been wiped clean. Forgiveness has come, and with that, the freedom to begin again.
Many of us fall into guilt trap. We know we have done wrong, and we let the guilt of that wrong, the shame of that wrong, keep us in its grip. We live in self-condemnation. Even the acceptance of others will not keep us from the experience of guilt and alienation. We may try to deal with it by denial, acting like it doesn’t affect us, but it does.
No matter how deeply we bury it in denial, it is still there, eating away at us, telling us that we are guilty. And we are guilty. We have sinned. We have done wrong. That is why we feel guilty. The guilt we have can only be removed by confessing our sins to Jesus and claiming his forgiveness. 1 John 1:9 states, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
In confessing our sin we acknowledge our failure before Jesus, the Righteous One. He does not condemn, but forgives the sin. More than that, he cleanses us, taking away our guilt and shame, allowing us to start afresh. He can remove the doubt and self-condemnation. We can forgive ourselves because Jesus has forgiven us. The slate can be wiped clean. We can begin again.
— Andrew Wade is pastor of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Logan and a member of the Logan Ministerial Association.