“Will all the world’s oceans wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, instead my hands
Will stain the seas scarlet,
Turning the green waters red.”
— Macbeth, Act 2 scene 2
William Shakespeare had a remarkable gift for translating mere concepts into emotional realities. In the above scene, Macbeth is suffering from the guilt of killing his king in order to take over the throne. We all understand the intellectual concept of guilt; these words of Macbeth help bring the experience to life.
Sometimes we forget that before he became a hero and the greatest prophet and priest of ancient Israel, Moses himself personally experienced this kind of guilt (Exodus 2:11-15). He had committed murder. He had hidden the evidence. He was on the run from the king. We can only imagine his thoughts and feelings as he ran from the luxury of his adoptive royal family and off into the desert. What will he do now? Will he ever see his friends and family again? What must God think of him — the same God who had rescued him as a baby — now that he is a man? Moses’ guilt and shame cannot be underestimated.
In that moment, Moses could have never foreseen what God had in store for him. He knew he was a murderer and fugitive, but he could not have known he would one day be God’s prophet and lead the Hebrews to freedom. He could not have known just how true it is that God reveals redemption through broken people.
One of the fundamental revelations in the Bible about God is that God shows mercy to sinners. God is so often remembered only for the portrayals as wrathful, but anyone familiar with the Bible will remember that God has mercy even on the world’s first murderer, Cain, by offering him protection. God has mercy on Abraham, who is lauded for his faith but still made many mistakes. God will have mercy on Moses, though he cannot see how. And in the 21st century we sometimes take for granted God’s supreme act of mercy, when he destroyed sin and death on Jesus’ cross.
But God’s mercy does not spare us the hard lessons, as God shapes us through our failures. Surely Moses had been shaped by God’s mercy toward him when he asks God to extend the same mercy to the impatient Hebrews. And of course we don’t always enjoy that shaping. Jesus referred to it with the metaphor of a plant being pruned so that we will bear more fruit. Ouch. But we know that failure is one of life’s best teachers, so it stands to reason that God would utilize our failures to help us mature.
In those painful moments, it’s crucial to remember that God’s plans for us are far greater than we can imagine. Sitting by that well in Midian, looking down at his guilty, murderous hands, being chosen by God to lead the Hebrews to freedom was probably as far from Moses’ mind as the east is from the west. But this is also the distance from which God is willing to remove our sins from us (Ps. 103:12). So putting our faith into action as we work through our guilt and shame can sometimes be as simple (though not easy) as gritting our teeth and remembering what God has done for us in the past, including the distant past through people like Moses.
1) Can you recall a time when guilt was weighing you down? Did you work through it? How?
2) Guilt for wrong actions can often transform into a sense of shame, which says, “There is something wrong with me.” Are you wrestling with self-messages of shame? Are any of those messages undeserved?
3) God never appears in today’s passage, just as God doesn’t appear in 2:1-10. Does it encourage you to know that sometimes God may not be obviously present, and nevertheless working behind the scenes?
4) We often feel paralyzed by our own guilt — has it ever occurred to you that God’s will is in no way disabled by our guilt?
5) Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christians believe that sin itself has been put to death (2 Cor. 5:21). While we still live repentant lives, how does this once-for-all act of Jesus change how we think about guilt?