True confession: this post has had me tied in knots all week. The importance of the message has weighed on me heavily, yet in all the time I’ve spent on it I haven’t been able to achieve the “click” I typically hit while writing. Any message you are able to glean from this, then, is entirely the Holy Spirit’s fault. Ah, humility. . .why is it that God always answers “yes” to my prayers for you, while saying either “no” or “wait” to my prayers that that cute boy at the gym will circumstantially fall into my life?
Since my efforts to set a solid philosophical stage for this post were falling flatter than Columbus’ concept of the world, I wanted to start by re-posting a treatise on guilt I wrote over a year ago.
“I don’t know how to cleverly introduce the topic of guilt, except to admit that I have a lot of it, and a lot of it is false. In fact, nearly all of it is false, because I prefer to be convicted by myself than by the Holy Spirit. His convictions force me to change. Mine allow me to wallow in a self-pity that feels righteous, yet negates God’s work of grace in my life.
Clinging to guilt is a work of self-flagellation for me—on some level I believe that as long as I’m feeling guilty for a particular act, I have something to justify me before God. I can thrust the shreds of my guilt to God as an offering, as though whining about my sin somehow makes it less heinous. “Look, God. . .at least I felt badly, right? At least you know I’m trying to make up for what I’ve done!”
When I cling to guilt, I attempt to achieve righteousness without grace. As long as I feel that my feelings of guilt are in some small way able to absolve my sin, I don’t have to accept the grace that doesn’t allow me to retain a scrap of pride or self-righteousness.
Real guilt pushes me to my knees. False guilt brings me before the throne in a fit of self-justification. Real guilt admits that my sin is so deep that only Christ can redeem me. False guilt allows me to believe that I can somehow make up for my sin, as if I have the power of righteousness of my own accord.
Real guilt leads me to the repentance that brings about freedom and a deeper focus upon God. False guilt allows me to be entirely focused on myself and my self-abasement while effectively serving as a spiritual cage.
We’re free from guilt through the work of Christ. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to fathom that.”
Shame and guilt seem to run rampant through our culture. Behind every person’s emphatic insistence that “I like myself the way I am,” there rings a subtext of “I speak with such certainty because otherwise you might challenge me–and I have no comeback.” While I don’t purport to be an expert on Christian culture, I do think that shame and guilt are also incredibly common within Christian circles; in fact, I think there’s almost an element of honor in our shame and guilt sometimes, as we frequently confuse them with humility.
Theology 101: After the Fall, humans were blindsided by a pervasive sense of shame; this shame was continually present in the Old Testament as God’s people, burdened under the Law, failed time and again to fulfill God’s commands. Christ’s death, however, changed all that by atoning for sin and rendering the Law inoperative. Now, as Christians, we are not only given the option to opt out of the shame inherent within our fallenness by taking on a new identity in Christ–we are, in fact, commanded to live in freedom from the Law that brings guilt (Galatians 3:1-3; 5: 1-5)! A lifestyle of patterned guilt and shame is essentially a slap in God’s face: “Lord, I appreciate you coming to give me abundant life, but I’d really prefer to just wallow in the kinds of emotions that make me at least feel holy. Thanks anyway! See ya in heaven!”
May it not be, my friends. While we will certainly continue to have times of legitimate conviction by the Holy Spirit, we are, by and large, called to live in a way that demonstrates Christ’s power to the world; our lives, fearless, shameless, and guiltless, should be alluring to those who have only the tools of shallow pop psychology to tackle their inherent sense of inadequacy.
It is so easy to be overcome by guilt, to be consumed by shame–it’s even easy to feel that those are somehow “right” responses, since we are born guilty before a holy God, and since we (let’s face it) tend to incline more toward unrighteousness than righteousness, even after salvation. God, however, has put in place everything we need to address that guilt and shame. We are to come before His throne, claim the power of Christ’s blood to eradicate our guilt, and trust that God is as unceasingly gracious toward His children as He promises. Then we are to head out to live shamelessly and fearlessly before men, rejoicing that we are given such a great gift.
May we strive to be good ‘stewards’ of our salvation! We have been called to it, we have been charged with it, and through it, we are given a powerful conduit to live Christ’s hope for the nations.
Note: I sent this to my dad to proof-read for theology accuracy, and he asked me if I thought that guilt and shame were really rampant. After a moment’s thought, I wrote “Yes, there is an element wherein we sometimes refuse to feel legitimate guilt and shame, but I think part of it stems from the fact that we subvert our shame under pop psychology and vague affirmations of self, because we are scared God isn’t enough to overcome it.” Therefore, even our refusal to feel shame may, in some instances, stem from shame. If, however, I am wrong in my assessment of the prevalence shame and guilt in the church, so much the better!