Guilt’s Hellish Scream


In the years leading to World War I, frustration mounted in Europe. Despite the optimism of the Industrial Revolution’s technological development, many sensed something was missing. Romanticism had failed to deliver the kingdom, and economists’ cheerful hope was gradually exposed as a façade. The Irish poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) captured 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 technology that promised peace instead proferred war. Huddled in 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 a bridge against the tumultuous red sky makes the point. The brooding angst of humanity cries for expression.

The Problem

Sometimes described as the 20th 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 an especially instructive chapter titled “Everything Must Be Paid For.” Drawing from the resources of Reformed theology, Tournier suggested that the angst of humanity is in some sense derived from the awareness that “everything must be paid for.” He wrote:

The idea that man defiles and degrades everything he touches, although it does not reach such intensity in healthy people, nonetheless exists in everyone. 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 later observed the consequences, which remain with you to this day. We 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.

God Has Paid

The blood of Jesus is more powerful than any moment in our past. 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, “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 is 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 delivered the most definitive response ever marshaled against injurious patterns of guilt, one that we would do well to reiterate whenever we hear guilt’s hellish scream. It is finished.

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