(Part 1 of 2)When people are suffering from “the terrors of the conscience” (to appropriate a Lutheran phrase), they can sometimes temporarily soothe their guilt feelings by suffering. Apparently, their theory (more of a feeling, really, I suppose) is that suffering is what I deserve; therefore, if I suffer enough to balance out my guilt, that makes things okay again. I have been paid back. (I, not God.) There’s a monk in the book, The Da Vinci Code, who is always whipping himself to expiate his guilt. There is a whole ascetical phenomenon among Roman Catholics based upon punishing oneself for ones sins.
The trouble with such an approach is that it doesn’t work, or at least not for very long. No matter how cleansed a person may feel he has become by his suffering, or even how virtuous he may feel for having endured it, before long the wolves are back at the door. The bad conscience soon re-asserts itself.
One reason for this is that no amount of suffering a person inflicts upon himself could even begin to compare with the amount of guilt he feels he has already accrued – much less what he is still racking up.
But the more important reason punishment doesn’t still the conscience for long is that the relief from guilt which people experience by suffering is illusory. Suffering pacifies the conscience temporarily while leaving the underlying problem of guilt intact. Sufferers remain just as guilty as before, and just as guilty as non-sufferers – and they know it. There is nothing about suffering per se that purges sin or delights God. Guilt needs an altogether different antidote.
Evangelicals might tell someone who was trapped in this sick cycle, “You don’t have to flagellate yourself; Jesus was scourged for you. You don’t have to beat up on yourself, for Jesus was beat up in your place. God isn’t going to get you; He had Jesus put to death instead.”
This position is indeed an improvement. It keeps a person from doing himself bodily harm. It also provides a somewhat stronger palliative, because Christ’s suffering is said to have infinite merit, while anyone else’s will never have enough.
But the truth is, suffering itself has no merit! Perhaps we feel it has because in sinning we had sought pleasure, and suffering is felt to balance out the pleasure. Perhaps it does, but it does nothing to cure the guilt; there is no connection between the two. There is nothing inherently virtuous about suffering in itself. Instead, this is the very same unhealthy dynamic as before (punishment to alleviate guilt), except punishment is now displaced onto Jesus. Now He is the One who bears the punishment in my place. Even vicarious suffering is still the wrong remedy for guilt. In fact is no remedy at all, but still only a palliative.
Worse, it allows one to avoid the only true and effectual and lasting cure for a terrified conscience; namely, making a U-turn in his life, aka repentance. Stop doing the things that hurt your conscience! Some people (not all who hold to penal substitutionary atonement, of course!) would rather suffer for their guilt than give up their guilty behavior – or better still, have Christ do it for them. This hardly shows any love for Christ! If we loved Him unselfishly, it would be no more acceptable to us that God should beat up on our dear Lord than on us. In fact, it’s less acceptable. I do not want God to wallop my beloved Christ for sins I have committed! "Let Him kill me if He cannot forgive, " would be love's cry, "but leave my Christ alone!"
Jesus came preaching: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15) Repentance is the only thing that works in the long run to cure a bad conscience, repentance and faith in God’s infinite love and measureless forgiveness.
Repentance is not merely acknowledging one’s sins and asking forgiveness. It isn’t even asking forgiveness plus trusting in Christ to save me. No, not even begging for forgiveness with trust and tears and prostrations is yet repentance. Punishing myself is not repentance, either; it is pseudo-repentance. Repentance is changing course. Until I turn around and take a new direction, my conscience is going to gnaw at me no matter what, and quite rightly, too -- no matter who suffers or how much! Conversely, once I repent in faith, the guilt simply disappears which had caused me to feel the need of punishment (whether direct or vicarious) and I discover true forgiveness, which is totally free.
Does God’s forgiveness being pure gift mean there is no need for atonement? No. It means atonement does not include literal punishment – or any kind of payment to God as a precondition of His forgiveness or in exchange for it or as a basis of it. Christ atoned for our guilt by His offering of perfect obedience (i.e., obedience even unto death) and atoned for the death in us by the shedding of His life-bearing blood, our Fountain of Immortality.
Is it wrong for God to forgive outright, freely? Certainly not. This is the sovereign Lord God, who can do whatever He pleases with His own. Moreover, sin all by itself has already meted out untold punishment, by killing us, by depriving us of life with God, by wrecking our world, by eroding character and bringing every kind of woe upon us, from sickness to war to famine to death. The punishment sin itself has inflicted upon us has the advantage of being given to the right person, the sinner, and in exact proportion to his sins. God does not need to worsen that punishment in order to maintain His perfect justice. Rather, Divine Justice means putting everything right again, which means getting rid of sin, which means on the one hand forgiving us and on the other hand curing us, for God is pleased not when sin is punished, but when it ceases, replaced by obedience.
Repent and believe the gospel. To require that God should punish anybody, whether directly or vicariously, is to deny the existence of true forgiveness. For displaced punishment is exactly that, displaced punishment, while forgiveness is remitting punishment instead of executing it, revoking the sentence instead of carrying it out, cancelling debt rather than collecting it, not exercising one's right to recompense or retaliation.
Repentance and faith and forgiveness are gifts from God, but gifts He will most assuredly give to all who ask. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.
May God open the gates of true repentance to every one of us!