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Grace Notes

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Cure for phantom guilt

By Nancy Kennedy

A patient of the late Dr. Paul Brand had serious and painful circulation problems in his leg, but refused an amputation.

As his pain increased, so did his bitterness until finally he couldn't stand it any longer and told Dr. Brand, "Cut it off!"

However, he wanted his leg preserved in a pickling jar so he could put it on the mantle where he could taunt it - 'Ha! You can't hurt me anymore!"

After the amputation, the man experienced excruciating phantom limb pain. The leg was gone, but the pain remained. Brand wrote, "He had hated the leg with such intensity that the pain had unaccountably lodged permanently in his brain."

For Brand, a Christian physician who worked with lepers, his patient's phantom limb pain gave him an insight into guilt. He wrote, "Christians can be obsessed by the memory of some sin committed years ago. It never leaves them, crippling their ministry, their devotional life, their relationship with others.

"They live in fear that someone will discover their past. They work overtime trying to prove to God they're repentant. They erect barriers against the enveloping, loving grace of God ...  and become as pitiful as (the man) shaking his fist in fury at the pickled leg on the mantle."

So, what do you have pickled on your mantle? What is it that has you haunted by guilt? What have you confessed repeatedly but still aren't sure God has forgiven?

I asked some Facebook friends, promising not to use names. I'm reasonably certain those who answered didn't reveal their deepest guilty secrets because there's usually too much shame involved. But here's what some said: food, not living up to expectations, the "I shoulda, coulda, woulda" when reflecting on things, when I've been a stumbling block to those who are trying to walk with the Lord, letting my parents down, letting God down, having an only child by choice - and my favorite answer, everything.

The one I call my uncle dad talks often about guilt. He says true guilt has four steps: (1.) you do something bad, (2.) you confess, (3.) you get punished and (4.) you get free.

But there's a false guilt, he says. That's when you don't have a (1.) - you haven't done anything wrong, but you feel like you did and it haunts you.

"If you don't have a one, you can't have a four; you can't get free," he says.

That's the pickled leg on the mantle and the phantom pain in the leg that's not there. It still hurts and haunts and the pain is still intense and mocking, but there's nothing there.

That's what lots of people live with, maybe even you. My uncle dad still remembers when he was small and his dad was drunk and threw a plate of spaghetti at the wall. He says he felt it was his fault, that if he was a better little boy his daddy wouldn't get drunk.

Lots of people have phantom thoughts like that. If I had done things differently. If I had only been more loving, less strict, more diligent, less lenient, more forgiving. If I had prayed more, memorized more scripture.

Please God, forgive me. Please?

I imagine God in heaven hearing such pleas for forgiveness and scratching his head saying, "What are you talking about? There's nothing to forgive."

For me, the best part of being a Christian is knowing that my guilt has been taken care of. That's the whole point of the cross. Jesus took on all of our bad stuff (the No. 1s) and then suffered our deserved punishment (No. 3) so we could be free (No. 4).

The missing point (No. 2) happens when we confess our sins and believe that "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

There's a cure for phantom limb pain, and it's not drugs. It's done with mirrors where the amputees fix their eyes on the reflection of their remaining limb. Somehow the brain is rewired to think, "Oh yeah. There's no more source of pain. It's gone."

The cure for false guilt is looking at Jesus and at the cross and hearing him say, "It is finished."

Our guilt is gone. No matter how loud the condemning voice in your head, no matter what others may think or say, for those of us who have run to Christ for forgiveness, our guilt is gone. It's no longer there! It's gone.