“How long has she been crying?”
My wife glanced at the clock. “Twenty minutes.”
The wailing over the baby monitor crescendoed, as did the needle on my own internal guilt-meter. “OK. How much time should we give her? How long is too long?”
Exhaling sharply and throwing her hands up in the same futile gesture I’d seen each of the hundred times we’d had this discussion, she shook her head. We both knew the answer to that question: There was no good answer.
In sheer frustration, I frantically Googled: “How long is too long to let your baby cry?” And as I scrolled through the results and the thousands of purported experts claiming to be the ultimate baby-whisperer, it hit me: I wasn’t searching for an answer. What I was searching for in that moment was absolution. I needed to hear words of assurance telling me that it was going to be OK. I needed to hear that my failures as a parent would not be held against me. I needed to hear that all of my botched attempts in this crash-course of fatherhood did not define me. With every fresh shriek across the baby monitor the internal voice of condemnation grew, and only an external voice of absolution had the power to free my guilty conscience.
Our daily quest for absolution takes many forms. Life in a secular world—where, as one author has said, “belief in God is no longer axiomatic”(1)—doesn’t imply that people are any less religious today than they were in ages past. Humans have always sought to assuage their guilty consciences, and we always will. The thirst for absolution hasn’t changed. It’s just that the location where such absolution is sought is no longer the confessional and the priest who dispenses it is no longer—well—a priest!
Case in point. As a young engineer, I once turned in a set of construction plans to a supervisor. I had spent months on the project, performing extensive calculations and mapping out every contour line in great detail. Eager to please, I returned the next day earnestly seeking his approval. To this day, his exact words reverberate in my ears: “To be honest, I’m disappointed. I expected more from you.”
Desperate for assurance, I received only condemnation, and I learned a two-fold lesson that day:
1. A boss is a bad “priest.”
2. There is no absolution in the law, only knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20).
Our hunger for absolution is insatiable, and we’ll fashion a faux priest or confessional-booth out of pretty much anything. The endless layers of guilt that build up in our hearts over the years demand a regular purging, and if absolution is not to be found in the church then we’ll seek it elsewhere, turning the treadmill, the boardroom, the bedroom, & any other part of life into what David Zahl calls our “preferred guilt management system.”
In our search for absolution, human beings leave no stone unturned. We’re desperate to have our uneasy consciences soothed. We long to hear that our failures aren’t being tallied, that our record is not permanent and that our sins won’t be imputed to us. We want the boss to approve of our work, despite its many imperfections. We want the Internet to tell us we’re on par with June Cleaver, despite the cries of the baby monitor telling us otherwise. We want the coach to tell us we had a great game, despite the fact that we missed half of our free throws.
This longing for absolution is nothing new. In fact, it was perhaps best-articulated thousands of years ago by King David.
"Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit." (Psalm 32:1-2)
What the 21st-century secular person doesn’t realize is that what he or she so earnestly desires to hear are the ancient words that the Christian faith has spoken for centuries: “In the name of the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit, your sins are forgiven.” There are no words like these outside of the church. There never have been, and there never will be. The faux priests & confessionals in our daily lives that we hope will assuage our guilt only end up making things worse, heaping even more demands upon already overburdened consciences.
Only another kind of priest can truly deal with the sin pressing down on our hearts. And in Christ Jesus, we have just that.
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Our ceaseless quest for absolution only terminates at the foot of the Cross, where God absolves and pardons the sin of the whole world, completely and freely. It’s here that our inner voice of condemnation is drowned out by the cries of the God-man who says, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Our guilt is gone; Jesus becomes the guilty one.
Our sin is covered over by His shed blood.
And—despite the incessant cries of our inner scorekeeper—our failures will never again be held against us.
It is finished. Taken care of.
At the sure & certain command of the Great High Priest, you and I, friends, hear those glorious words: “You are forgiven.” And in a world full of desperate people anxious to assuage their consciences, no words bring more comfort or assurance than that.