Some time ago, a friend wrote to me a blog comment in which she raises a very tough question She writes this —
We have a dear, Christian friend who has stage 4 cancer. Although he lives a good life, helping others and spreading the word of God, he believes that God is punishing him for his past sins by giving him cancer. Do you believe God punishes people for their sins? Especially after a person has found the Lord and changed his/her life?
I wrote back —
Wow, big question. It depends on how you define “punishment”. Certainly, God allows natural consequences for our behavior. A life-long smoker may develop lung cancer and God may choose not to miraculously intervene. I would say, though, that in a case such as this we are really the ones who have punished ourselves, “fallen into the pit of our own making.” The good news is, no matter how much we seek to destroy our lives, God offers us abundant life in Christ for our days on this earth and in “the new heavens and earth” to come. You can’t really take away your friend’s grief over sin (and shouldn’t try if it’s “godly grief), but by your loving presence and encouraging words, you can help him be grateful for the life God has given him, make the most of the life he has remaining, and look forward to a new life in Christ — forgiven and free.
She thanked me for my response and suggested perhaps this would be a topic I could address further in another post. After some thought and prayer, I’ve decided to share the following reflection…
Pop psychology often tells us guilt is destructive to our health, that we need to get over our guilt and feel good about ourselves, to raise our self-esteem. But guilt can be good. Guilt can motivate us to change unhealthy behavior. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. Though guilt may cause us temporary psychological pain, or distress, it can ultimately lead to spiritual gain. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates 2 Corinthians 7:10 in this way —
Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.
When we are distressed, or when a loved one or friend is distressed, it is good to listen carefully and respond prayerfully. Ask yourself (or your friend, or loved one), is there sin in my life I have yet to confess to God? Is God prompting me to “come clean” about something I’ve done by confessing it to another? At times, our distress is telling us to take action in order to re-gain peace with God.
Other times, however, it is not guilt we are feeling, but shame. In spite of God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ, we supplant God and cast judgment on ourselves — that we are not worthy of forgiveness. The truth is — we are not worthy. No one is. Yet, by God’s amazing grace through the sacrificial death of Christ on a cross, we have been offered freedom for abundant life, now and forever. To cast judgment on ourselves out of a sense of shame is to reject the release of the Resurrection. Rather than receiving new life, we “end up on a deathbed of regrets.”
The best thing we can do as we face regrets is to first examine our hearts, confess our sin to God and others, then believe in the power of Christ to forgive us our sin and lead us in joyful life that begins now and lasts forever.