I Corinthians 15:9–11
9 For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. 11 Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
Paul has walked many miles since that day on the Damascus road. He has climbed the high mountain passes of Anatolia and southern Turkey to sleep under the stars beside the caravan path. He has been beaten and thrown into prison in northern Greece only to survive an earthquake and a miraculous release. Paul has stood to testify in the halls of Jerusalem and among stone-faced gods on the temple-crowned promontory of the Areopagus in Athens. That day on the Road to Damascus Paul met the risen Lord and became a believer in a flash of blinding light. Jesus words, “why do you persecute me?” haunted Paul to his core and seem to haunt him even now as he writes to those he loves in Corinth. “Do you think you are sinful?” Paul says, “You don’t know sinful—for I actually hunted believers to the death and broke the heart of Jesus.”
Since that confrontation with Christ on the Damascus road, Paul has become not only a believer in The Way but a powerhouse for Christ and an architect of the early church. He has had his flame of zeal to uphold and enforce the Jewish law turned into a nuclear core of seemingly unstoppable passion to preach the Gospel to the world. Through hardship and his own persecution God has blessed and protected him as now at the end of his second missionary journey Paul can look back on hard work as a servant who has done well for the King of Kings.
But even as Paul labors in the light of Christ the darkness of his past still creeps in. For though Paul has known and experienced the full forgiveness of Jesus and preaches it continually, it is clear that he still remembers the pain he caused. The cries of children, the weeping of mothers and the anguish of fathers as Christian families were torn apart in the night or the humiliation of the elderly mocked and dragged before his courts still ring in his ears. “Night terrors” is a sleep disorder that plagues many and can rob a person of rest. When you deal with the guilt of the past you can often experience “night errors” — that remarkable ability of your mind to bring up past sins and replay them in the quiet hours like an oldies hits radio station that plays only a record of your failures and hurts. Doubtless Paul too hears these tunes in the shadows.
What do you do with your guilt? Paul shows us here that even as a believer you can struggle with your sins of the past despite knowing and experiencing the all-sufficient forgiveness of the cross. Perhaps you have a path of wreckage left behind from the days before you became a believer. A life of hurting and pain from broken relationships and selfish decisions from when you knew no different and only sought to make your way in this world among others who continually hurt you in their own sinful ways.
One thing Paul must have struggled with was that he had been good at being bad. His professional zeal to persecute the church had given Paul value and pride as a young prosecutor. Like aging gunfighter William Munny in Clint Eastwood’s 1992 postmodern western film “Unforgiven,” Paul knew the ultimate wages of being good at being bad. In a discussion with his partner, a young gunfighter, on the ultimate fate of all who “live by the gun” Eastwood’s grizzled character recalls all those whom he has killed. “Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming,” says his partner. To which Munny can only respond “We all got it coming, kid.”
Since your struggle against your sinful nature does not end once you become a believer, you can carry a burden of guilt through the Christian life that can hurt you in ways you have never imagined. Even as you hear Jesus words and seek to “take up your cross daily and follow him” [Luke 9:23] you learn, as Paul does, that you must “die daily” [I Cor 15:31] to yourself as you put off what he calls “the old man” of a sinful life and nature.
Like Paul knows, you understand that you are forgiven in Christ but the daily struggle against guilt is real. You are not even spared during the holidays. Maybe divorce has racked your family and you struggle as a parent to provide the perfect Christmas for your children out of the guilt of broken traditions. Or as a child of divorce you battle guilt as you try to balance emotional needs of separated parents and even blame yourself for their tragic breakup. Joyous holidays can become an avalanche of pain as you seek to erase the pain of the past with a season of celebration that can leave you exhausted and more guilt-ridden than ever.
Paul takes up his pen once more to continue his message of sin and forgiveness to the struggling church in Corinth. Paul knows that even though he “had it coming” he was redeemed by the One whom he persecuted—that nothing in him would ever be worthy or restore the lives of those he crushed. Paul knows that only the grace of God given to him can heal his pain and that which he has caused. This then is our hope when the “night errors” come, when the records of the past play again or once more we seem to fail.
Our hope is in the one who has already paid the price for your guilt—past, present and future.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.