The story I’m about to tell has rarely been uttered. To this day it scares me how close I came to having a very different life. Truly it was a matter of inches and I might have been a criminal forever.
My buddy Dave, who lived down the street, and I had no problem finding mischief. Oh, we have stories. But this was the crowning achievement.
One day when I was in middle school we took his dog for a walk to the local elementary school. We walked into the big school yard and soon found an old 33rpm vinyl record along the fence line. Dave pulled it out of the sleeve and tossed it a short distance. We noticed it flew nicely with a forehand frisbee type of toss. Because it flew nicely we started backing away from each other to see how far we could fling it. The tosses started getting longer as we put more and more gusto into it.
We didn’t dare try to catch the flying vinyl. Pieces of the edge of the record started breaking off and making a sort of jagged edge to the disk. Catching it meant our hands being cut, so we just let it land. 20 yards, then 30 yards, then 40 yards apart. Dave was two years old than me so he really could make the record fly. He was 50 yards away when he put everything into throwing the vinyl. The record soared rather magically in the air way up high. It was a thing of beauty to watch.
As I watched the flight I had turned around to anticipate the trajectory and possible landing locations. It was then that I noticed a little old lady walking along the sidewalk next to the school yard. Fear started to build in me because the landing looked eerily in the near vicinity of the woman. I looked at Dave, then back at the lady. Oh my! it’s heading straight for her. She is completely oblivious to the impending disk of doom. I braced, waiting for impact. The jagged vinyl UFO zoomed down, slicing downward vertical like a circular saw. It whooshed just behind her head, literally by millimeters. I saw her hair move. Relief for a second until she looked directly at me. I couldn’t say a thing…I just pointed Dave’s direction and started running.
I ran the direction of the park and never looked back. If the disk had hit the lady it would have killed her I’m convinced of that. Absolutely convinced. It would have been unintentional manslaughter for sure and I would have been an accomplice. Millimeters away and my life would have been different. I had nightmares for years about that moment. Guilt and anxiety plagued me. It’s not nearly as intense these days (some 40 years later) but I still think about how close it came.
Guilt is a powerful emotion. We can cling to the emotion for months and years and feel the need for exoneration the entire time. The weight of our actions and resulting guilt can press our hearts down like an anvil we can’t lift. Even years later we feel the weight and struggle to feel forgiven (if that has even been offered). Sometimes there is no one to forgive us. I never knew who the old lady was, and certainly didn’t entertain finding her to admit my actions. I would never be forgiven unless I forgave myself.
A scenario in the Bible reminds me of this forgiveness conundrum. “But he [the Apostle Peter] replied, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.'” (Luke 22:33-34) This event happened on the night Jesus was arrested, put on trial and put on a cross the next day. During the trial, Peter snuck into the house of the high priest and saw all that went on, and in fact did deny knowing Jesus three times. In Luke 22:61 it says that Jesus turned and looked straight at Peter, who felt the illuminating stare, and Peter “went outside and wept bitterly.”
Peter wept bitterly. I think I know why. He felt utterly guilty. He knew what he did, and even though he was warned by Jesus Himself, he did it anyway. Peter was so sure he would do no such thing. Always so confident…maybe over-confident. Maybe a bit short on humility if anything. And he denied Jesus while sitting there watching the trial. Oh, he was crushed. Emotionally crushed. Guilt filled his heart and mind…he could think of nothing else. I wonder if he slept that night? Was he in a funk for days afterward like I get when I blow it?
This episode makes John 21:15-19 so essential. Jesus spends intentional time (after His resurrection no less) helping Peter let go of the shame and guilt. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter answers yes each time but his third response Peter says, “Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you.” Why was Jesus so persistent? Why didn’t he talk to Peter about denying Him? Because Jesus isn’t as much about the guilt as He is about the restoration. He wanted Peter to get beyond the guilt. Why? Because guilt hamstrings us.
We can get so focused on guilt that we get stuck there…unable to move beyond to something productive. A powerful sentence in the New Testament highlights this principle, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:9-11) The Apostle Paul in the previous sentence said he was happy they were made sorrowful because it led to change of heart. A sorrow or guilt from God is intended to move us to confession and change. It is a guilt with a purpose. Guilt that just makes you feel bad, crushing you and forcing you to focus on your mistake doesn’t have a redemptive end…stalling you.
Jesus kept asking Peter “Do you love me?” to get Peter focused on Him…not on himself. When we wallow in our mistakes our focus is on ourselves. Forgiveness of all our mistakes was purchased on the cross of Christ. Each time we tell God “Thank you for your death and my forgiveness, change my heart and intentions” we embrace His truth we are forgiven. God forgets those mistakes as far as the east is from the west and doesn’t call us to account on those items ever again. He doesn’t treat us as our mistakes deserve. Such good news. So freeing. I still need to embrace the truth over and over again when I feel guilty for something I have done–whether it was this morning or 20 years ago.
So if wander again into guilty feelings, I first think if I have asked forgiveness from the one who can offer it. If I haven’t, I immediately speak to Him and ask. If I have, then I have to remind myself God doesn’t speak in guilt over and over, He speaks in grace. Guilt has a one-time purpose, to lead us to repentance and change. Over and over guilt is a mind trick of God’s enemy (who shall remain nameless) trying to trap us in self-focus. If God has forgiven me, then my effort needs to be on forgiving myself and leaving the guilt elsewhere. It’s hard work no doubt, but essential for the child of God. Living in forgiveness allows me to live in freedom from guilt and the freedom to forgive others. I’d much rather live there than wallowing in the guilt. Wouldn’t you?
So my broken record story is a reminder to me of God’s forgiveness. Things could have been very different for me, but by God’s grace His protection was over me even then when I did not know Him. Just as His protection is over you. I have learned to forgive myself, even if another person cannot. I know God’s forgiveness is always available. I hope that truth is a refreshing reminder as well, and not just another broken record fact. Blessings to you.
Wandering on purpose, Mick