Leviticus 5:1-13 – The Problem of Guilt

“‘If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible.

“‘If anyone becomes aware that they are guilty—if they unwittingly touch anything ceremonially unclean (whether the carcass of an unclean animal, wild or domestic, or of any unclean creature that moves along the ground) and they are unaware that they have become unclean, but then they come to realize their guilt;or if they touch human uncleanness (anything that would make them unclean) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt; or if anyone thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil (in any matter one might carelessly swear about) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt—when anyone becomes aware that they are guilty in any of these matters, they must confess in what way they have sinned. As a penalty for the sin they have committed, they must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for them for their sin.

“‘Anyone who cannot afford a lamb is to bring two doves or two young pigeons to the Lord as a penalty for their sin—one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. They are to bring them to the priest, who shall first offer the one for the sin offering. He is to wring its head from its neck, not dividing it completely, and is to splash some of the blood of the sin offering against the side of the altar; the rest of the blood must be drained out at the base of the altar. It is a sin offering. The priest shall then offer the other as a burnt offering in the prescribed way and make atonement for them for the sin they have committed, and they will be forgiven.

“‘If, however, they cannot afford two doves or two young pigeons, they are to bring as an offering for their sin a tenth of an ephah of the finest flour for a sin offering. They must not put olive oil or incense on it, because it is a sin offering. They are to bring it to the priest, who shall take a handful of it as a memorial portion and burn it on the altar on top of the food offerings presented to the Lord. It is a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for them for any of these sins they have committed, and they will be forgiven. The rest of the offering will belong to the priest, as in the case of the grain offering.’” (New International Version)

“Indifference is the sign of sickness, a sickness of the soul more contagious than any other.”

Elie Wiesel

Guilt comes in two forms: overt speech or action which wrongs another person; or the failure to speak or act when it was necessary to do so.

Oftentimes we think of sin as exclusively wrongdoing – an overt act of disobedience or evil. Yet, sin primarily manifests itself through indifference. The sinner is mostly one who doesn’t get involved. He walks on the other side of the road to avoid unwanted entanglements.

What’s more, sins of the tongue are much more common and prolific than sins of the body. Although hurtful words abound in this fallen world, it is also the absence of speaking up and naming falsehood for what it is that is an egregious sin before God.

The Lord will hold responsible those who are silent in the face of observing injustice.

And, if later, someone becomes aware they were complicit with an injustice through a failure to speak up, they are also guilty.

The Old Testament book of Leviticus is all about maintaining the purity and holiness of God’s people. So, the book is filled with detailed prescriptions on how to handle guilt. Going through a specific and laborious process of dealing with guilt, communicated to the people that this is important. It’s a big deal.

We need, however, to ensure we aren’t using the terms guilt and shame interchangeably.

Guilt is a function of our conscience. It lets us know when we have said or done something wrong or hurtful, or failed to provide help. It’s specific to a particular action or lack of action.

Shame, however, is a function of the “inner critic.” It interprets bad words or actions as we ourselves being bad. It focuses not on actions but on our very personhood in the form of judgmentalism leveled at myself.

Whereas guilt says, “I have done something bad,” shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt serves a redemptive purpose through alerting us that we need to deal with a wrong. Shame, however, damages our spirits through telling us we are flawed and unworthy of love and connection with others.

Because guilt and shame are not the same, they need to be dealt with in different ways:

  • Guilt, if not faced and dealt with, becomes gangrene of the soul. Over time it festers and poisons our spirits, leading to significant emotional and sometimes physical problems. Forgiveness is the primary tool in dealing with guilt. It begins with self-forgiveness and then offering an apology to another and asking for forgiveness.
  • Shame is a vampire that lives in the shadows and feeds on secrets. If shame persists, we withdraw from others and experience grinding loneliness. Therefore, the path out of shame is to openly name our shame and tell our stories. This takes power away from shame and gives it to yourself. In other words, the practice of vulnerability erases shame.

For the Christian, Jesus is the once for all sacrificial offering which forever takes away both our guilt and our shame.

Since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:21-22, NLT)

We must never stop looking to Jesus. He is the leader of our faith, and he is the one who makes our faith complete. He suffered death on a cross. But he accepted the shame of the cross as if it were nothing because of the joy he could see waiting for him. And now he is sitting at the right side of God’s throne. (Hebrews 12:2, ERV)

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
    a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
    will never be put to shame.” (1 Peter 2:6, NIV)

Guilt and shame are not erased by either ignoring them or by dismissing them as negative emotions. They are handled through the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is grace which grants us amnesty from shortcomings, failures, and sins.

Thanks be to God! Believe this gospel and live in its peace.

Holy and merciful God, in your presence we confess our sinfulness, our shortcomings, and our offenses against you. You alone know how often we have sinned in wandering from your ways, in wasting your gifts, in forgetting your love. Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we are sorry for all we have done to displease you. Forgive our sins, and help us to live in your light and walk in your ways, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

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