What do you do with your guilt?

Lots of people have been raised on guilt like it was their bread and butter. If they didn’t measure up in any way, guilt! If they transgressed in any way (whether the Bible defined it or the parents defined it didn’t always matter), guilt! Guilt was made to seem like the way of the Christian. If you weren’t feeling guilt, then you wouldn’t stay in line. Guilt was the fence to keep people from going crazy.

This guilt came from fear, because Christian homes were afraid of the world out there, and the hedonism it advocated. They felt that they needed to erect barriers against the world’s influence. Guilt is a powerful weapon in the hands of scared parents. Of course, since many parents never told their children what to do with the guilt (since, if they did, they would lose their best weapon, and the children would go berserk!), the children learned to find ways to cope. Unfortunately, these ways of coping did not take away the feeling of guilt.

The various ineffective ways of dealing with guilt include distraction (food, entertainment, fun events, idealistic crusades, feverish workaholism), self-atonement (making oneself feel really bad, and even guiltier than before, even wallowing in it, so that one can atone a bit and feel a bit less guilty afterward), projection (if I make everyone around me feel guilty, then I will feel less guilty: one suspects this the real origin of the “Jewish mother” caricature), and ignoring it (this never works very well even temporarily).

Feelings of guilt can come from two sources, and these two sources must be handled quite differently. 1. Feelings of guilt can come from actual sin. There is only one way to deal with this kind of guilty feeling: take it all to the cross, to Jesus. Burdens are lifted at Calvary, as the hymn says. However, some people have a proud streak in them, and they won’t let go of their guilt feelings even if their actual guilt before God is gone. Here is it vitally important to make a distinction between actual guilt and feelings of guilt. After all, it is possible to feel guilty even when one has done nothing wrong. It is also possible, through a seared conscience, not to feel guilty even if one has actually sinned. If a person is not letting go of their guilt even after taking it all to Jesus and repenting, then the theological point must be made: this is pride speaking. The person is saying that Jesus’ blood isn’t really good enough to cover all my sins. I need to “double atone” by feeling guilty, even after I read that Jesus has forgiven me. This is a deep theological problem, which can only be answered by stressing the divinity of Christ, and hence the infinite value of Christ’s sacrifice.

2. The second source of feelings of guilt arise out of things that are not sins, but which the person has been duped into thinking are sins. These would be man-made additions to God’s law. The answer is different: education must take place about what God actually requires and what He doesn’t. Here we can think easily of the questions of alcohol, smoking, and other things that fall within the realm of Christian liberty. Of course, Christian liberty is always bounded in these matters by the weaker brother: we never want to make someone else stumble. However, and teetotallers seem to be especially prone to instigating this, we can easily be made to feel guilty by someone who believes in “not a drop.”

The million dollar question that remains is this: if we were to shed all this extra, unneeded guilt, how in the world will we stay in line? Several things need to be said here. Firstly, guilt does not keep people in line! If a person feels guilty, they are most likely to think, “Well, since I’ve already done this, what’s a little more sin?” They are not likely to think that they do not want to become more guilty. Secondly, the cross of Christ has resources not just for forgiveness and the removal of guilt, but also the removal of sin’s power in our lives. we have the Holy Spirit! Remember our theology: justification never happens without sanctification coming along for the ride! Actually, what we need to know is that the beautiful feeling of a clean slate is much more motivating to holiness than guilt is. For then we can plug into the gratitude that we know when we are forgiven. We then have a good thing: we wouldn’t want to damage it. This is a far more effective way of dealing with guilt than the ineffective ones listed above.

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