Last week I ordered a full sheet cake from the bakery of our neighborhood Harris Teeter for a reception after worship on Sunday. I went to the store to pick it up the day before, and it was the usual Saturday madhouse at the supermarket. People jamming the aisles, long check out lines. And here I was with this big ol’ honkin’ cake precariously balanced sideways over the top of my shopping cart, maneuvering my way to the front door. All went well. I made it to the car, placed the cake in the trunk and took it to the church for the next day.
On Sunday afternoon, as I was heading home after a day of church activities, I suddenly realized that I had walked out of the store with the cake on Saturday without paying for it. I was so concerned about getting the cake out of the store in one piece that I neglected to stop at the cash register to pay the $72. I happened to be in my collar at the time, so I suppose no one was going to stop me. But even without the collar, I think it would have been pretty easy to slip by without paying.
There have been times when I’ve imagined what would happen if I accidently walked out of a store with something I hadn’t paid for. And now, I had actually done it. Ironically, it was no small thing that I slipped into my pocket without thinking about it, but I walked out of the store with a very large item, undetected. I was a bona fide shoplifter!
For about a half a second I thought about how I had gotten away with it and no one would ever know if I just let it go. But I would know, and I suspected that I’d probably never be able to sleep again. So, first thing Monday morning, I went to the customer service counter at Harris Teeter and reported what I had done on Saturday. I told them I had come to pay for the cake. “You came back!?” The manager was shocked. Then the cashier had to go to the bakery to get an invoice and they were even more incredulous. “I can’t believe she came back!”
I have to wonder why this was so surprising to them. Would most people in this situation have kept the money and gone on as if it had never happened? Maybe. But I’m not sure that makes me any more noble than most people. I just happen to be one of those people who suffers from OGC (overactive guilty conscience). I simply can’t live with myself if I do what is clearly the wrong thing. I have to make it right.
In our culture, guilt tends to get a bum rap. “Don’t make me feel guilty,” we’ll say, as if this is a violation of our personhood. But guilt isn’t such a bad thing. Not when it pushes us to make something right.
The problem seems to come for us, though, when we carry guilt about something that we can’t ever make right. Then, what do we do with it? We can’t be burdened like that for the rest of our lives or it will slowly eat away at us. So we confess. We hear God’s word of forgiveness. And we extend that forgiveness to ourselves and others. It's not always easy, but we really have no other recourse if we want to experience any kind of life that's worth living. And, oh, what peace is ours when the guilt is removed.
The cake incident has made me wonder about people who don’t feel guilty when they walk out of a store with something they haven’t paid for. I’m thankful that I have the capacity for guilt. And I’m even more thankful that my capacity for guilt is no match for God’s capacity to forgive.