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The Cross (6/6): The Feeling that Dare Not Speak Its Name

​Rory Shiner 

 In the modern world, many things have fallen by the wayside. The horse and buggy have been replaced by the car; the landline by the mobile phone; the type-writer by the computer. We may live to see the end of cars driven by humans, computers with keyboards, and supermarkets with human staff.

But the modern world is also a story of unexpected survivors. Paper books are more popular than ever. Hand-crafted beer, urban bee-keeping, beards, fixed-gear bicycles and dressing as if one is a lumberjack—all are alive and well in modern, progressive cities.

Though its death has long been prophesied, the experience of guilt has not only lingered but thrived in the modern West. 

Another unexpected survivor is guilt. According to author Wilfred McClay, though its death has long been prophesied, the experience of guilt has not only endured but thrived in the modern West.

It’s strange, because we worked so hard to get rid of it. Philosophers prophesied that, if God was dead, then the civilisation that had killed him would also get rid of guilt.

And yet, guilt remains. Some would argue that its presence is felt more powerfully than ever—however ill-equipped we are to deal with it. We are sheepish about even acknowledging it. It’s the feeling that dare not speak its name.

In the previous article, we explored the way in which Jesus’ death deals with our objective, legal guilt before God. “Justified” is a courtroom verdict. It declares your status before God as “righteous”. It is objective, outside of you, to do with your status. This is the glorious, unshakable achievement of the cross.

Experience without Words

But guilt has a way of getting into your heart. It attaches itself to you; clings to you; follows you. It sticks to you the way cigarette smoke sticks to your clothes. In the secular West we’ve lost the once rich vocabulary to describe this experience. What was once “wrong” is now “inappropriate”. What was once “immoral” is now “outside of our code of conduct.” A behaviour that was once “shameful” or “defiling” is now “deeply problematic.” But the experience continues, even as the words for it fall away.

The ancient world had a vast religious infrastructure around guilt. Systems of cleansing and defilement, rituals, water, washing, sacrifice, holy sites and ceremonies acknowledged (often in very broken ways) this truth that sin has a half-life, that guilt clings to you, that evil defiles us. That we sometimes feel dirty and ashamed.

Those ancient systems are largely gone in the West.

Or at they?

For many observers, the impulse to find moral cleansing hasn’t gone away but simply mutated—replaced by a whole secular system of clean and unclean. The life-style of inner-city westerners, with its cycle of feasts and fasts, of work-outs, leg days, and cheat days; its aversion to non-organic produce, unsustainably-sourced foods (and defiling substances such as carbs) looks suspiciously, well, religious. The scientific evidence for the physical value of a detox diets is, shall we say, rather thin. But perhaps that’s not the point? Perhaps they have little to do with cleansing the body. Perhaps they are trying to cleanse something deeper.

According to the New Testament, the death of Jesus does not just do something for us, it does something to us. It dealt, not just with our objective status of “guilty”; it does something about our subjective experience of guilt. To grasp this, we need to go not to lawcourts, battlefields or throne-rooms, but to the Temple. And to see this, we’re going to set up camp in Hebrew 10:19-25.

Context of Hebrews

Hebrews was written to people who have come to faith in the Messiah Jesus and had been following him for a while. As Jewish Christians, they had gone through a radical change in their religious patterns, coming to the conviction that the entire sacrificial system—the sacrificing of bulls and goats, the shedding of animal blood for the forgiveness of sins, the rituals of cleansing and so on—had all been fulfilled in Jesus and his sacrifice.

Fast-forward a few years, to when the initial thrill of discovering new life in Christ has started to wear off. That’s okay at one level. Just as falling in love can lead to marriage, which is simultaneously less intense and far deeper, the Christian life can and should settle into something deeper that the initial thrill of discovery.

What’s hard, though, is when some of the sins you thought you had beat come back to haunt you. Temptations that you resisted overpowered you again. Doubts that were once at bay begin again to manifest.

What to do? For the early readers of Hebrews, life was once full of Temple and liturgies and sacrifices and ceremonies and cleansings. Now it’s all Bible studies and house churches. That just feels different. Less tactile, less kinaesthetic.

Put those two together: old sins and temptations return, and the mechanisms you once had for dealing with shame and guilt have gone. That’s the situation these guys were facing.

The temptation to re-engage the sacrificial system was real. The writer therefore reminds them that that system was only a “shadow of the good things that are coming, not the reality themselves” (Hebrews 10:1). The blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin (10:4).

The writer makes the point that the sacrifices were repeated year after year, day after day. But Jesus, after offering for all time the one sacrifice for sin, sat down at the right hand of God. The priest couldn’t sit down. He had more work to do. He always had more work to do. But Jesus, after his sacrifice for sin, sat down. The work was done.

For by one sacrifice he made perfect forever those who are being made holy.(Heb 10:14)

In the previous article, our focus was on the objective removal of our guilty status. Notice that here in Hebrews, the emphasis is more subjective, more internal. We have had our hearts “sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and have our bodies washed with pure water” (10:22).

Everything to which the old system pointed—that need to be clean—was actually achieved in the death of Jesus; the cleansing of our hearts from guilt.

So, let’s get this nice and clear. If what the Bible says about Jesus’ death is true—and if you have trusted in his death—then it necessarily follows: You. Have. Been. Made. Clean.

No matter what you have done, no matter what has been done to you, no matter how shameful or defiling those things are, if this is true, then you have been made clean. You have access to God. You are holy. You are washed. You. Have. Been. Made. Clean.

Our Response

It’s one thing to be told that. It’s another thing to allow it to take hold of our hearts. Happily, the writer of Hebrews doesn’t just leave us with assertion. He gives us three concrete actions, to help us embed this truth.

First, he says, let us draw near to God. Don’t keep long accounts with God. Don’t get conned into a Christian version of self-atonement. You know, this whole thing where I’m aware that I’ve sinned, so I’ll give God some distance for a few day. Why? Do I now believe that there are in fact two atonements for sin—the death of Jesus, and/or the cleansing power of time? It makes us like one of those vain house-owners who, recognising they are not keeping up with the housework, employs a cleaner, only to spend the day before madly cleaning lest the cleaner cotton on to the fact that the house they’ve been employed to clean is, in fact, in need of cleaning. That literally makes no sense. 

But we do the same thing with God. We have all these little strategies aimed at doing what we can do to tidy up the mess so that when we eventually ask God to cleanse us, he’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much we’ve already done ourselves. Give it up, people! He already knows. God’s more aware of the depth of our sin that we will ever be. And yet he’s the one saying, “draw near to me.” Let’s take him at his word and draw near. It’s the blood of Jesus, not the blood of Jesus plus how bad I feel/how long it’s been/how good I’ve been since, that makes us clean.

Second, hold on.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope that we have, for he who promised is faithful. (Heb 10:23)

Remember their temptation was to go back to the old sacrificial system. In the face of that temptation, they are encouraged to “hold on” to the hope they, and we, have.

And third, lets us not give up meeting together. Notice the language: Let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing.

The Romantic movement of the nineteenth century said that your best chance to find yourself was alone, acting spontaneously, preferably in nature. We are still enthralled by this idea, with books like Into the Wild, films like Reece Witherspoon’s Wild, and the ubiquitous advertising image of a woman with a backpack on top of a mountain with her arms outstretched—alone, acting spontaneously, in nature.

Hebrews challenges this in two ways. First, it is okay with the idea of habit. “Don’t give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing.” There is some ambiguity as to whether the “habit” here refers to the habit of not meeting together, or the habit of meeting together. Either way, the problem is not that there’s such a thing as habit, but which habit has been adopted. The writer is calling us to change, not abandon, our habits.

And second, he gives us a purpose for gathering together: “Encourage one another, all the more as you see the day approaching.” In the context, this must mean encouragement along the lines of saying to one another: “Remember, brother, sister, God has made us clean!” My heart (like yours) is a Big Bowl of Crazy. I need your words of encouragement, I need to hear songs written by others, I need prayers prayed for me as well as by me if I’m going to have even a fighting chance of getting into my thick skull and cagey heart that God has made me clean. I can’t do it alone.

Rory Shiner studied Arts at the University of Western Australia and theology at Moore College in Sydney. His PhD is on the life and work of Donald Robinson. He is senior pastor of Providence City Church in Perth, where he lives with his wife, Susan, and their four boys. He has written books on Union with Christ and on the relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and our own.

Rory serves as a member of the TGCA Editorial Panel as Editor for the Arts and Culture Channel and for Book Reviews.