A palpable angst was percolating in Europe during the opening years of the twentieth century. Romanticism had failed to deliver the kingdom, and, despite economic headway made during the Industrial Revolution, many looked into the future and saw an encircling gloom. Irish poet W.B. Yeats (1865–1939) captures the mood in his work “The Second Coming”:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.
The machinery that had promised peace became armored tanks. Unable to escape the battlefield trenches of the Great War, men looked into their own souls and found an even uglier form of dysfunction. Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream illustrates the emotion—the agonized posture of a figure standing on a boardwalk bridge against a tumultuous red sky. The brooding angst of humanity demands explanation.
Human agony exists in all shapes and sizes: the abused, the addicted, the lonely widow, the one who waves a fist toward heaven in angry defiance. But there is an even deeper, more crippling form of anguish—an underlying agony that condemns and then enslaves, namely, the persistent sense of guilt and shame one feels on account of sin. It’s a cruel taskmaster from which we all need freedom.
Sometimes described as the twentieth century’s most famous Christian physician, Paul Tournier (1898–1986) was a Swiss clinical doctor who spent decades reflecting on humanity’s experience of guilt. His classic book Guilt and Grace has a chapter that is particularly penetrating as it concerns the problem. It is titled “Everything Must Be Paid For.” Drawing from his Reformed theology, Tournier suggests that the angst of humanity is in some sense derived from the awareness that “everything must be paid for.” He writes:
The idea that man defiles and degrades everything he touches, although it does not reach such intensity in healthy people, nonetheless exists in everyone. It is a measure of the existential guilt which every man bears vaguely within himself, the Promethean sense of man’s curse.
In this deafening din of condemnation, the human soul thirsts for deliverance. Minds are haunted by returning to past faults, remembering some dishonorable conduct or failure, perhaps a scalpel of a remark that cut into a friend’s life. Even though you may have said it in ignorance, you observed the consequences, and the memory remains with you to this day. Humans live in the shadow of such guilt, and none of us, even the most circumspect, manage to avoid it. There is a corner of every heart, including the most immaculate, that is in disarray, stained with the filth of this world. Whenever you visit that corner in your heart, where injurious patterns of guilt reside, the voice of condemnation clears its throat and screams.