In the famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an albatross (a large sea bird) leads a ship to safety. But soon after their rescue, the main character, the mariner, shoots the albatross, and the ship is again in peril.
To punish the mariner for his churlish action, the ship’s crew forces him to wear the dead albatross around his neck. As he watches the crew succumb to death, the albatross serves as a constant reminder that he is to blame. Today we use the term, “wearing an albatross around one’s neck” to signify a psychological burden, often brought on by one’s own foolish or careless action.
Unfortunately, many Christians today live as if they are that ancient mariner, wearing their guilt around their necks like a big dead bird. I became aware of that recently when, within a span of a few days, I had a friend tell me he still dealt with guilt about things he’d done more than two decades before; another friend confided that she still felt shame for actions committed years before; and another person talked about the anguish he felt daily about the sins he’d committed.
Understand, these are all devout Christians who have been walking with the Lord for decades, who have confessed these sins repeatedly, yet they still function as if they are bound and condemned for them.
I have a feeling these are not isolated cases. But by worrying about, thinking about and feeling guilt and shame about our past sins, we are seriously impairing our ability to live the abundant life Jesus promised.
I am set free and no longer under condemnation, so why should I feel guilt or shame?
It’s not that I don’t understand where my friends are coming from: I have plenty of sinful behavior in my past and I regret having caused God the pain of my actions. I still suffer from some of the consequences of those actions.
But I no longer feel guilt or shame for them. I choose instead to believe the truth of the words in Romans 8:1-2: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” This is one of the greatest statements in the Bible. I am set free and no longer under condemnation, so why should I feel guilt or shame? And it’s not just the Romans passage that gives me that confidence.
- Jesus came to set the captives free (Luke 4:18)
- God has removed our sins as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12)
- Jesus set us free to have freedom (Gal. 5:1)
- God sweeps away our sins and remembers them no more (Isa. 43:25)
- God has taken our blood red sins and washed them white as snow (Isa. 1:18)
- The Lord will never charge us with our sins (Rom. 4:8)
- Jesus offered himself as the sacrifice once for all sins (Heb. 7:27)
There are a number of other scriptures in the same vein – that once we are in Christ Jesus, once we are following him as our Lord – all of our sins have not only been forgiven, they have been removed completely from our account. We are free and we are washed clean.
But, you may argue, you don’t know what I’ve done in my past. No, I don’t, but it doesn’t matter. Really.
What matters as a Christian is not what you have done but what Christ has done for you. No evil of your past can compare with the abundant life of your present or the glory of your future.
If God no longer condemns you, why should you condemn yourself?
The difference is where you choose to turn your eyes and ears. Will you keep looking behind you at how you have failed, or will you focus on Christ and how he has overcome? Will you look at your weakness, or his power? Will you accept the lies of the enemy, or listen to the voice of the Great Shepherd calling you to the truth?
As a follower of Christ you no longer have to be captive to shame and guilt for your past actions. All you have to do is accept the truth that you are free and no longer under condemnation. If God no longer condemns you, why should you condemn yourself?
The ancient mariner could never get over the guilt of killing that albatross, forced to wander the earth to tell his tale of woe. But as a Christian, your guilt has been removed. Christ died for that guilt so that you, unlike the ancient mariner, can live a life of victory.
Gary Kauffman is Bible teacher, Christian life coach and freelance writer/photographer living in North Augusta, South Carolina.