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Guilt: When I Fail

It’s a cold, dark Sunday evening, and I’m at the drugstore. The only other customer in the store is at the checkout, taking a long time. She’s fumbling with her money, her bags, getting herself organized. She has the look of someone who is less-than-fortunate (and really, who would be riding a bike on such a night if they had any other option?). I patiently wait for my turn as she has the cashier split up her stuff into two bags, “one for each handlebar for balance”, and talks about the ice on the roads and taking a longer route home with fewer hills. I even smile and tell her to “be safe” as she leaves, and mentally pat myself on the back for being so very kind and patient. But then…I wonder if I should offer her a ride. I truly am worried about whether she’ll get home safely. As I leave the store, she is still struggling to get situated on her bike. I walk by slowly, full of indecision, wishing she would ask for help, or make any sound so I can stop pretending not to notice her. I hesitate at the door of my van, paralyzed between guilt and…fear? Why am I getting in my van and driving away? What is wrong with me??

I drive home crying. By not offering to help, or at least starting a conversation with this woman, I have just failed to “do justice”. Funny thing is, I am on my way home from church, where a sermon on James has just moved me to think (again) about living out my faith. It’s like God just offered me an opportunity to do exactly that, and I blew it! I could list off many reasons and excuses that popped into my head: maybe she’d be offended by the offer to help…my personal safety could be at risk if I have to take her somewhere sketchy…my family needs me to get home quickly…but none of this really rings true to me. Last time I checked, the Bible didn’t feature a list of good excuses not to help my neighbor. So, I cry out of guilt, and frustration, and definitely a bit of anger at the world that even makes “personal safety” an issue in showing kindness to others. But, mostly it is guilt. I have not acted justly and I feel horrible about it.

So, all that’s left to do when I get home is pray, confess, apologize. Of course I know in my head that I’m already forgiven, but honestly, sometimes that just doesn’t make sense to me. Because even I know when I’ve made a wrong decision, so how can God, who is a whole lot smarter than me, just say, “ yeah, that’s okay” and let it go? But then it hits me – God’s response is not like that of my friends and family, who will undoubtedly say all my excuses are understandable, maybe even add a few I hadn’t thought of, and tell me not to be so hard on myself. God’s forgiveness says that yes, I chose wrong, but that debt is already paid and he loves me anyway. He’s not really saying, “that’s okay”; he’s saying, “yes, that may have been wrong, but I’m over it.” It’s a subtle difference, but it helps me to let go of the guilt, even while I experience the tension of being a broken person trying to do justice in a broken world.

I hope that next time I will act differently. But it’s entirely possible I’ll still miss out on opportunities to “do justice”. Either way, God never misses an opportunity to remind me of his loving grace.

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