All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. – Psalm 73:13 ESV
In that moment of shame, after you have done what you knew you shouldn’t, it’s tempting to want to cleanse the soul by cleansing the moral palate. You read only Christian literature, listen only to Christian music, get more involved in Christian circles, and with Christian causes. You do this until you feel clean again, then you relax and go back to the business of being you. It’s psychologically sound that dipping into the cleansing pool of law abiding religion can make a psyche feel clean, but it’s not a relationship with Jesus.
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” – Matthew 27:24 ESV
In a 1971 study, a couple of researchers wanted to know how people’s behavior would change if they felt guilty for some moral infraction (McMillan & Austin, 1971). They tempted half of the subjects to lie during an interview. After the interview, they asked the subjects if they could stick around and help the researchers set up for a completely unrelated test. Those who didn’t lie stuck around for a couple of minutes to lend a helping hand. Those who lied stuck around for over an hour. People who are trying to compensate for their own guilt will be more giving and helpful than those who aren’t experiencing guilt. Being helpful and giving doesn’t mean that you have a relationship with Jesus.
Back in February a study was published where a few researchers wanted to measure prosocial behavior as it relates to feelings of guilt (Xu, Begue, & Bushman, 2014). They had a group of people recall and write down a personal failure that affected a significant other. These people were divided into three groups: those who washed their hands after writing down their story, those who watched a video of someone else washing their hands, and those who watched a video of someone typing. They were, then, given a questionnaire to fill out within three weeks that would help a doctoral student achieve her PhD. Those who washed their hands sent fewer questionnaire’s back, those who watched someone else wash their hands sent an average of a few more back, and the group who watched someone type sent the most questionnaire’s back. This shows two things: physically cleaning yourself can reduce feelings of guilt and the less guilt, the less prosocial behavior you will exhibit.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! – Psalm 51:2 ESV
We want the memory to go away. The flashbacks of strobe light snapshots cripple us with the dirt we let in. Wash me! screams the heart, the mind, and the eyes closed onslaught of our mistakes and our fault. Can any amount of prosocial behavior, moral standard achievement, or fancy soap cleansing make our deepest spiritual fissures subside and allow us sleep?
Tragic is the soul who quiets without the Blood. A wolf under the fence. Lost is the man who can perform his way into a peaceful conscience.
All we know is that we have to put as much distance between ourselves and our sin as possible. If we can fill out time with with good-guy behavior and hyper-moral activities, then maybe it will drown out the sulfuric stench within us.
… the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. – 1 John 1:7 ESV
Have you ever felt like super-morality was an attempt to compensate for something? Or wondered what they’re hiding with all of their religiosity? Do you notice the fear laden gasp when you teeter on a tightrope you didn’t even know you were on? People can and do feel like better people when they clean up, help others, and get some religion. But, it doesn’t mean they have a relationship with Jesus.
Like pickled ginger on your sushi plate, cleansing the palate isn’t a bad idea. It’s helps alleviate the dissonance. But, don’t rely on your own ability to keep yourself clean and emerge thinking that you’ve accomplished something. It doesn’t work like that. Churches are full of the helping hands of the guilt wracked. Don’t emulate what you see. Trust in the Blood and walk through the Gate.
McMillen D. L., Austin J. B. (1971). Effect of positive feedback on compliance following transgression. Psychon. Sci. 24, 59–61
Xu, Hl, Begue, L., & Bushman, B. J. (2014). Washing the guilt away: effects of personal versus vicarious cleansing on guilty feelings and prosocial behavior. Front Hum Neurosci. 2014; 8:97.