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The Power Of A Clear Conscience

It’s Not All Your Fault

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | September 14, 2014

Selected highlights from this sermon

God in His mercy and grace knows your need. He knows the part that you played in bringing on your own shame and guilt, and He also knows the part that other people have played by placing shame on you that you were never meant to bear. And what’s best, He knows that it’s not all your fault.

In this message, learn the difference between objective and subjective guilt. Many of us carry around shame that really isn’t ours, and Pastor Lutzer shows us how these burdens can be lifted from our shoulders.

Sometimes I, as a pastor, preach messages that are filled with exhortation – what you should be doing. Sometimes there are messages of proclamation. I speak on various issues, and oftentimes just expounding one passage of Scripture. But today it’s going to be different. This message would be much more like counseling.

I want you to visualize that we are together. We are across a table. Take a cup of coffee, in your mind, of course, only. Shut off your cell phone unless, of course, you are going to use it for the passages of Scripture that we are eventually going to turn to. And listen carefully, because I am interested not just in challenging you. I’m interested in transformation and change. And God has brought you to this moment, to this hour, to this message for a reason, and let us listen carefully to what He would say to us through His Word and through His servant.

The title of this series of messages is The Power of a Clear Conscience and this is message number 2. And there is a verse of Scripture that kind of encapsulates everything that we are going to talk about in this series. It is 1 Timothy 1:5. You need not turn to it, but I do want you to memorize it at some point. The Apostle Paul makes this statement - the aim of our instruction. So if you want to know what it is that I am up to, what the goal is here in this series, there it is. The aim of our instruction, he says, is love that flows from a good conscience and a pure heart. You see, my friend, without a pure heart you can’t have a good conscience, and unless you have a good conscience and a pure heart, you really can’t love. Those three qualities are all connected.

You know, conscience has driven many people to an early grave. You and I know that, and some of you were brought up in situations where you are carrying guilt that is really not your guilt and not your shame at all. And yet it has been imposed upon you, and today you bear it. And today I want God to show you that He is available to take your load of guilt from you. In fact, I want you to think of yourself walking along with this heavy backpack, and today God is going to give us the opportunity of laying it down.

I’m going to be using the words guilt and shame almost interchangeably. I know there are those writers who want to distinguish and all, but I think that shame is a subset of guilt, and certainly the two of them relate together, and that’s why I will be perhaps using them within the same context.

Well, my friend, it’s not all your fault. A lot of it is, but it’s not all your fault. Let me begin by saying, first of all, that you and I oftentimes inherit shame and guilt. We inherit it particularly from our parents. It is passed on from one generation to another, and we know how debilitating it is. Let me give you some examples.

First of all, we are prone to accept false guilt because of harsh parents who have just devalued us. You know I think to myself of what I’ve seen in a supermarket where a mother will yank her kid and say, “Why are you so stupid? Don’t you know how to behave?” and on and on, and perhaps slapping the kid. If that goes on in a supermarket, imagine what goes on when they get home. And I want to say to myself, “Don’t parents know any better than that, treating these tender children in that way?”

But it’s not just harsh parents. We now know, of course, the whole idea of abusive parents. Abuse is going on in homes. You know the whole world got upset because a famous football player punched his girlfriend out in an elevator. And I understand. Yeah, you can get upset, but my friend, today, if there were security cameras or hidden cameras in the homes, perhaps even that are represented here, and certainly that are listening in our wider audience, not to mention other people, we would discover that abuse exists almost everywhere, oftentimes behind locked doors, and oftentimes even in church families. Who are we kidding? This is not unusual. It’s happening and it’s happening probably right now.

My wife and I were driving into the city this morning, and I said to her, “I wonder how much abuse took place in this city last night, or this morning.” It’s all around us, and you and I, if we were victims like that, would inherit the shame and the guilt and the debilitating attitude.

And then, of course, we can think also of addictive parents. There are addicts, and you’ve had to lie for them, and you’ve had to keep all of these family secrets that have been kept so carefully. And some of you bear that weight. And then when you get older you discover that these parents want to still manipulate you through guilt. I remember a woman who said, “You know, there are those who actually have a guilt franchise.” And she said, “It must be because my mother has the whole Midwest distribution of guilt.” And so they say, “Well, didn’t we raise you? Don’t you owe us money?” Now I think we should take care of our parents. The Bible says we should, but what I’m speaking about here is the fact that many of them manipulate, and they are toxic. And the question that you always have to ask yourself is, “Do they own their own stuff?”

And sometimes it’s necessary for us to set boundaries in our family. I remember talking to one man who said, “Whenever my mother-in-law comes, she destroys the relationship. What she tries to do is to build a wedge between me and my wife, and she tries to even take the children and criticize us to them.” And I pointed out that there are times when you just need to put up boundaries. But all of the guilt that is inherited is unbelievable, and it carries itself with us.

So there’s that which is heaped upon us. There is also guilt that happens as a result of our honest mistakes. This, of course, also is false guilt, or some people might call it subjective guilt. Objective guilt means that I’m actually guilty. I have objective shame because I did something shameful, but we’re talking today about that which is imposed upon us. And sometimes it is because of our honest mistakes.

My parents knew a woman who convinced her husband to go to a concert one evening. And he didn’t want to go but they went, and they were involved in a car accident and he was killed. For 13 years that woman made a trip to the grave, heaping upon herself all responsibility, all guilt for having convinced him to go to the concert with her. And I’m saying to myself, “Lady, God does not want you to live that way.” Now if you had intended that he be killed, that would be a different matter. Like one woman said, “You know I’m having such a hard time settling my husband’s estate that sometimes I wish he wouldn’t have died.” That’s a different category.

And then I think of the woman (oh God bless her) whose little daughter – 5 or 6 years old – looks up and says, “Mommy, can I cross the street?” And the mother said yes, thinking that she had looked and there were no cars. The little one darts across the street and is killed by a car.

Now I understand where (that) you never really get over something like that. I get that, but the simple fact is, folks, that as a result of that God doesn’t lay all that on you, and many of you are struggling today with guilt, and with shame that is not your own.

I want for a moment for us to turn to 2 Samuel 13, and I want this to illustrate victimization, particularly sexually since that is one of the hugest problems in our society, and we want to talk here about shame. Now I’m not going to read the whole passage. I’ll tell you the story and you can turn to it if you wish, but here’s what happened.

Absalom had a beautiful full-blooded sister, that is to say they were of the same parents, named Tamar. Amnon was a half brother to Absalom and Tamar. Now here is Amnon, and he is a man filled with lust. David, of course, knew what his son was like because of previous engagements with him, and Amnon wanted Tamar sexually because the Bible says she was very beautiful. In fact, he even told a friend and said, “What do I need to do to get her?” And then that friend (watch the friends that you have and the advice they give) said, “Look, why don’t you pretend that you are sick, and then ask that your half-sister, Tamar, come and bring you some food, and then when you are together in the room you can do whatever you like. You can overpower her and sexually assault her.

And so it sounded good and so he pretends that he is sick, and then David foolishly says to Tamar (in verse 7), “Go to your brother Amnon’s house and prepare food for him,” and she does. And then when they are in the room alone he says, “Come lie with me, my sister.” She answered, “No, my brother. Do not do so and violate me, for such a thing is not done in Israel. Do not do this outrageous thing.”
But mark my word, cries of help are not heard by abusers. The next message in this series, by the way, is entitled How to Become an Impossible Person, and we’ll talk about the person whose conscience has been seared as with a hot iron. They do not hear the cries of those whom they abuse.

So what happened is this. She asked this question in verse 13, “Where could I carry my shame?” It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes. What is she going to do with her shame? Where will she park it? How will she take her backpack that is going to be loaded on her as a result of something that wasn’t her fault, and how is she going to deal with it?

Well, what happened is this: Amnon did violate his half-sister, and then it says in verse 15, “He hated her with very great hatred so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her.” In abusive families what you find particularly regarding sexual matters is that hate and lust sort of go hand in hand. And you know what she does? And we’ll hurry to the conclusion here.

“Now she was wearing a long robe (verse 18) with sleeves, for this is what the virgin daughters of the king were wearing. So his servant put her out. (She was cast out of the room.) The door was bolted, and Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore, and she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went.”

And then I’m skipping now to verse 20, “So Tamar lived a desolate woman in her brother Absalom’s house.” And that’s apparently where she lived for the rest of her life. This beautiful woman was ruined by shame, not because of what she did, but because of what someone else did.

And what did David do about it? You’ll notice in verse 21 it says, “When King David heard about these things he was very angry.” Well, good for David! Why didn’t he step in? Why didn’t he begin to adjudicate? Why didn’t he begin to defend her? Why didn’t he take care of Amnon and all the evil that he had done? I’ll tell you why. In the previous chapter David committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then he murders Uriah. So he had lost all moral authority when it came to this issue, and so he became angry, but he didn’t do anything about it. It’s just like in some homes today where the father becomes angry but doesn’t know how to control his dysfunctional family. So that’s the story.

Now the question is how do people deal with guilt and shame? If we don’t deal with it biblically, what happens? Well, how do we manage these consequences? First of all, there are those who become addicted to failure, and addicted even to abuse. You find that abused women, if they were abused as children, may indeed end up marrying an abuser. You say, “Well how can they do that?” Well, you can go online and you can study this and you’ll find that there’s an addiction to abuse. In other words they feel to themselves that they are so defiled and unworthy that they deserve somebody who is going to abuse them. It happens over and over again so they become addicted to failure. There is such a thing even as learned helplessness. They have the opportunity to change. They have the opportunity to walk away and they will not. It’s a terrible state to be in.

Let me also mention that oftentimes the result is compulsive behavior, latent anger, always dissatisfied with themselves and unable to relax. Let me just list a number of different consequences here. An example is compulsive washing of hands. I think it’s two or three weeks away but I’m going to preach a message entitled Why Lady Macbeth Didn’t Have to Commit Suicide, and Why You Don’t Have to Either. And we’re going to give explicit instructions on the cleansing of the conscience. But you remember that she was the one who kept washing her hands. And she said in one place that even if she would wash her hands in all the rivers of Arabia, the rivers would become bloody but still her hands would not become cleaned because she had murdered the king. Wow! All of that! Now, of course, in her case that was objective shame and objective guilt, but God has an answer for that too.

And so what you find sometimes is young people cutting themselves. They feel so guilty. They feel guilty for simply being alive. They feel as if they should not have been born because they have been so belittled and so devalued because of their upbringing or because of their relationships, even as Tamar. Perfectionism! What happens now is the perfectionist wants everything absolutely perfect so that within his hollowness and his fear of being exposed, and as being seen as inadequate or being seen figuratively speaking as naked, everything has to be perfected, but at the same time, never happy with everything. And so on and on the cycle goes.

And then what you have is paranoia. You have those extreme examples of paranoia, but you also have paranoia oftentimes in the most natural relationships because, you see, the paranoid person is saying to himself, “I expect to be betrayed, and if you criticize me, I assume that you are an enemy and your intention is to betray me, and you are actually connected with other individuals, and all of you are setting out to destroy me.” All of that because of a feeling of being empty or being seen as less than we want people to see us, and as a result of that, we go into paranoia, a creation of false worlds therefore, a world in which we even become the hero because we do not want ourselves to be known by anyone. So all of this denial, all of these defenses are built with deep care, and denial goes down deep into the roots, and into the cellar of their lives, and there they are. I’m praying today that God will enable all of us to put down our defenses and to allow His grace to bring healing that no other relationship can really do.

And then what you have is the power addict, the control freak. What he is doing is he is making sure that there will be no further shaming in his life, and so he wants to make sure that if he can control his environment, if he can control other people, then indeed he will be satisfied and never be shamed again.

Now what does God have to say about all of this? There are two passages I want you to turn to very briefly. One is found in the book of Isaiah – Isaiah 61. You’ll notice that God here is speaking to Israel, and I understand that this application goes to Israel first, but I think that this is what God does for His people even in this age. Remember that Tamar put ashes on her head. It was a sign of her humiliation. It was a sign of her helplessness, and she felt herself locked into that lifestyle, so she lived desolate for the rest of her life. But notice what God says in verse 3, and this follows the words of Jesus. Most of these words were recited, when He was in the synagogue, about the Spirit of the Lord being upon Him to anoint Him.

And then it says in verse 3, “to grant to those who mourn in Zion — to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes.” God says, “The shame of the ashes can be taken away, and you have a beautiful garland to wear,” which is really what the Hebrew text means. “The oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.”

I want you to see yourself here. Think about yourself being in that state of shame and God says, “You don’t have to bear that because I am covering it. I am giving you a beautiful garment.” And He goes on to say, “But you shall be called the priests of the Lord (verse 6); they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God.” Verse 7 says, “Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot.” There you are. The shame is taken away. And then you’ll notice it says in verse 10, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation.”

Let me simply encourage you by saying this, that God in His mercy and grace knows your need. He knows the part that you played in your shame and in your guilt, which would be objective shame and guilt, and He also knows the part that other people have played. And He knows that it’s not all your fault. And today, no matter what the source of that shame and guilt may be, I want to encourage you to see God is bigger than that. I want you to understand that in His grace and in His mercy, He can meet you in your need so that you would have a pure conscience and a sincere faith.

I want you to take your Bibles and turn to one other passage today, and that is found in the book of Hebrews - Hebrews 12:1 where the Scripture says these words. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

What the writer of Hebrews is saying is that when Jesus died on the cross, He scorned the shame connected with the cross. As He was hanging there He knew that it was a shameful experience. He knew, in fact, that He was being cursed because “cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree.” But just like He was bearing our guilt, He was also bearing our shame. He was bringing about a deliverance that would go down into our hearts so that we would be free, and say, “We no longer need to carry this.”

I was speaking to a woman recently who was telling me how, even here in church, she walked around with this heavy weight of shame and that she could not see herself as a worthy person. She could not see herself as a daughter of God. And then as God began to lift the shame, she began to realize that she could walk around (and I encouraged her to do that) as indeed someone who has value, someone for whom shame is not the last word. And that can happen to you as well.

Rodney Clapp some time ago wrote these words, speaking about this passage. He says,

“Does shame bind us? Jesus was bound.

Does shame destroy our reputation? Well, He was despised and rejected of men.

Does shame reduce us to silence? He was led as a lamb to the slaughter and a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.

Does shame expose our apparent weaknesses? “He saved others,” the crowd mocked. Himself He cannot save.

Does shame lead to abandonment? Well, you think of the words of Jesus Christ on the cross. He said, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”

Does shame diminish us? He was crucified naked, exposed for gawkers to see. He bore our sins. He bore our iniquities. He bore the weight of our guilt, and the weight of our shame.”

So I would say that the first thing that we have to understand as the bottom line is simply this: that shame loses its power in the presence of the cross. And I would like to encourage you, and I know that this is difficult to do, you know, in a congregation where everyone is present, but what you should do is get alone with the Lord and claim the fact that shame no longer has to bind you. It no longer has to debilitate you. Whether that’s justified shame because of your sin, or someone else’s sin, the fact is that the Lord is with us to help us, and give us the sense of dignity and self-worth that He created us to have. Of course, in the process, what you are going to have to do is to forgive those who have done wrong against you. And remember that when you forgive, you not only are blessing these people with the blessing that the Lord has given to you, namely the gift of forgiveness, but also you are releasing them to God. Perhaps your parents are dead, and you say, “Well, I can’t connect with them anymore. I can’t be reconciled to them.” That’s true, but there comes a time when you submit your anger and your shame and your resentment and you give that to God.

There was a woman who was in one state, and she took a train to another state where her mother was buried to stand there at her grave and simply let it all spill out. Her mother actually was a prostitute. So here’s this young woman, getting rid of all this, standing there saying, “God, I give this to you. I can’t bear it anymore.” And she need not bear it. It wasn’t even hers. It was imposed upon her. And she stood there so that she could walk away a free woman.

So the first thing that is very important is to come to the cross and to receive the forgiveness of God for guilt, and also the covering, and the help and the deliverance from our shame.

And I want to say this, that if God doesn’t totally deliver you and if you still struggle afterwards, you should not feel guilty about that. God uses all kinds of people who are still struggling with these issues. But you and I must be willing to see God as greater than whatever may be going on within our hearts.

So, first of all, shame loses its power at the foot of the cross, and secondly, our self-worth is not based on how we feel. Your self-worth is really based on who you are in Jesus Christ if you have received Him as your Savior. It is based on the work that He has done, and who He calls you to be, a son or a daughter of the Most High. And you and I must know that our feelings and all of the things that have happened to us oftentimes distract us from that, but God wants you to be free to serve Him with joy. The goal of our instruction is love that flows from a good conscience, and a pure heart.

I want you to visualize for a moment that I have up here a silver dollar. I don’t, but we’ve all seen silver dollars. Now let’s suppose that you are walking along and you see this little thing glimmer in the mud and you find out what it is, and it’s a silver dollar. And the silver dollar is all muddy. And you look at it and you think to yourself, “How can this thing possibly have value?” But you and I know that if you take that silver dollar and you wash it, it has just as much value as a newly minted silver dollar that you might find in Washington one of these days, because its value was not diminished by where it was found or its dirt.

And I say to you today that whether it is because you threw the silver dollar into the mud, or somebody pushed you into the mud, either way God’s wonder and God’s grace can rescue you if you are willing to come to Him and to receive the gift of eternal life and the gift of forgiveness that He gives to all those who come to Him. You don’t need to be a victim of shame. (applause) God can set you free today.

A number of years ago I had a friend who committed adultery. It was a horrible situation. I mean he lost his wife, of course, in the sense that they were divorced, and it set his kids off on a bad trajectory. Those are messes that you can’t clean up. But yet, at the same time he loved God, and he so sought God’s forgiveness amid the mess. And that’s what we have to do.

David, after the great mess that he made, said, “Lord, restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation.” He said, “I can rejoice in God again. I can’t clean up the mess. All of my tears cannot bring Uriah back to life. All of my tears cannot restore the purity of Bathsheba, but if God comes and takes all that shame and guilt away, my joy can actually be restored.” David could live again with a good conscience, if you can imagine it, and that’s where some of you may be.

But I remember riding with my friend in a car, and he was weeping, even though it was years afterwards. He was reliving the mess that he made, but he had in his car a CD by Dave Boyer. Dave Boyer sang here at The Moody Church a couple of years ago, and his signature song is Calvary Covers It All. And instead of the word stain, which is in the song, I’m going to substitute the word shame and see if I remember the words.

Calvary covers it all,
my past with its sin and shame.
My guilt and despair,
Jesus took on Him there.
And Calvary covers it all.

And even in the midst of brokenness and relationships that cannot be put back together, here was a man who found his joy in God because God says, “I will make you clean, and I will deliver you from that bad conscience.”

Today God is saying that to you, and some of you have never trusted Christ as Savior, by the way. This message is a little odd because you have struggled with shame. You have struggled with guilt, and some of you may be running, not knowing exactly where to go and what to do with this message. If your confidence is not in Jesus, today I invite you to do that because His death on the cross was a sacrifice for sinners. And do you know what He did? He anticipated your sin, your mess, your dysfunction, your guilt and your shame. He anticipated it all, and Jesus said, “When I died, I despised and I scorned the shame,” and said, “I’ll bear yours if you’ll believe on Me.”

Let’s pray together.

Father, I pray that You might take this message, and I pray that it may be applied to whomever needs it, which really is probably all of us. I pray, Father, that within the community of God’s people we might, here at The Moody Church, have safe places in our small groups and in our TMC Communities, where people can come and they can be honest, and they know that they are not going to be judged and that they are not going to be despised, because all of us are broken in one way or another. Make us, Father, as a church, a healing community where knowing that shame cannot ultimately destroy us, we can be honest about our relationships and where we are at, and we shall be accepted and received and prayed for. Grant that, oh Lord!

And now before I close this prayer, I wonder what you need to say to God today. What did God say to you? You talk to God about whatever it is that God has talked to you about. And if you’ve never believed on Christ, even while you are listening to this you can say, “Jesus, I’m a sinner and I receive You as my personal Savior. (For as many as receive Him, He gives authority to become the children of God, even to those who believe on His name.) Today, Father, I believe on You.”

Let’s just have a moment of quietness while you talk to God.

Father, I want to claim the promise from the book of Psalms that He binds up our wounds. And we pray today, Lord, that whatever wounds we may have, because of the sin of others and our own, help us to know that You bind them up, and You want to restore us so that we can know that we belong to You with a sense of dignity, and that we are daughters and sons of the most High God. Bring deliverance to Your people. Whatever it is that You are saying to us, Lord, grant us the ability to do, and help us to remember that there is power in the cross. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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