Tired of Feeling Guilty All the Time?
MAY 5, 2021
I answered an email this morning from a woman whose husband recently committed suicide.
I was so sorry for her loss and pain, and, of course, I prayed for her and the family. I also wrote to her (as I’ve said to so many in this situation) that guilt and regret weren’t appropriate. While there are different circumstances to each suicide, nobody is responsible for someone else’s decision to take his or her life. In fact, I have taught a whole lot of seminary students to respond to suicidal calls with, “I’m so sorry you’ve made that decision. If you go ahead, I’ll do a nice funeral for you, say some positive things about you, and probably shed some tears, but I won’t feel guilty for the stupid decision you made.” That may not sound compassionate or pastoral, but it is necessary. (Just so you know, I also tell students to pray that the caller doesn’t hang up before more needed things are said. But even if the caller does hang up, they will have separated themselves from responsibility for someone else’s sin.)
We live in what someone has said is a culture of victimization. That’s true, and the victimization has created a mother lode of guilt and shame. Everything bad that happens is someone else’s fault. Lawyers have made a pile of money on that proposition (sometime read John Grisham’s book, The King of Torts). And almost all of us have been affected by critical race theory, intersectionality, wokeness, charges of white privilege (if you’re white), and the debates surrounding those issues. Political conservatives, with the same passion of the left, charge the left with hatred of America, destroying the Constitution, and ignoring equal treatment under the law. When someone has experienced bullying, abuse, the burning of a business in a riot, or an attack on the Capitol, it’s not the fault of the bully, the abuser, the arsonist, or the extremist who attacked the Capitol . . . it’s your fault. There is a whole lot of guilt to go around.
On top of that, we also live in a culture that cuts very little slack for anybody. If you say the wrong thing (even if you said it years ago), you can lose your job and your reputation. And even if you’re dead, you can be still be cancelled. They’ll take a name off a building, tear down a statue, or burn a book. Pretty soon they will go after Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. Wait, they already have.
Steve, where are you going with this?
Not where you think. While I have some strong political views about what I wrote, that isn’t so much my concern. My concern is with Christians who often mimic the culture, spread the guilt and shame, and parrot the nonsense.
Fundamentalism was an early twentieth century movement referring to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity (e.g. biblical authority, the virgin birth, the resurrection, the atoning death of Christ, etc.). However, over the years, the word “Fundamentalism” morphed. It now refers to a mindset of very narrow, condemning, arrogant, self-righteous, and mean-spirited advocates of a particular (mostly) religious attitude who are intolerant of anybody who dares to disagree or offers an opposing viewpoint. I would suggest that there is not only religious fundamentalism, but political fundamentalism as well. Because we are essentially a religious country that has long since lost our belief in God, sin, forgiveness, and redemption, a good many people have made their political and social views a new kind of religion pursued with a religious and fundamentalist passion. R.R. Reno wrote in First Things (April 2021) that politics have been divinized where there is “a preoccupation with the affairs of state [which] eclipses the old, passing-away consensus that matters of the soul are what matter most . . . and invariably politicizes everything.”
Guilt and shame are the result. You can see it in the public confessions of people who brought offense with their comments, in the way church people discipline those who have fallen, and in the way that some Christians start every sentence with “I’m sorry.” I know, I know, confession is good for the soul, we should be civil and kind in what we say, discipline is one of the marks of the true church, and sometimes being sorry is appropriate. Still, sometimes I find the whole shame and guilt syndrome insufferable. I wish that someone who broke the rules would say, “Okay, I confess. It was wrong, but I’m not going to eat dirt because of it.” Or maybe after causing offense, “Yeah, I said it because it is true, so deal with it.” Or maybe be brave enough to say, “This isn’t discipline . . . It’s revenge and arrogance designed to shame and kill.” I just wish that only one person would be honest enough to say, “I did it and, frankly, if I had to do it again, I would.”
Actually, I just read what I wrote above and I suspect that it is offensive to some. Frankly, I wouldn’t change a word.
If you’re tired of feeling guilty all the time, I’m here to help. I want to remind you about the law of God. The law of God was given not to create more shame, but to banish it. The Psalmist says in Psalm 19:7-10:
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. (:
So, how does the law help?
First, God’s law defines right and wrong, good and evil, love and hate, and truth and lies. God—and only God—has the job description of definition . . . not a preacher, a neurotic uptight Christian, a woke professor, a guilt-ridden friend, a politician, or a television talking head. God is God and he decides what legitimate sin is. Someone has said that one should never confess a sickness or attempt to cure a sin. That’s true. The law of God is the only place the Christian should go to know when to feel guilty and when not to feel guilty.
Second, healthy guilt is magnified by the law of God. That’s not a curse; it’s a blessing. Repentance (i.e. knowing who you are, who God is, and what you’ve done, and going to God with it) is power. Repentance is the road to God. The Holy Spirit reveals those areas where we have sinned and failed, and then points us to Jesus and the cross. And at the cross, we are amazed that we aren’t beaten over the head with our sin; but instead, hugged, loved, and forgiven. Jesus always says, “I’m glad you came. I won’t bring it up again.”
Third, the law makes us bold and free. Any Christian who lives with Romans 8:1 in their heart can’t be manipulated with guilt. If you don’t know that verse, memorize it: “There is therefore now no condemnation—zippo, not even a little bit—for those who are in Christ Jesus.” That reality makes Christians dangerous. We can’t be manipulated by guilt (don’t let anybody do that to you) and we have no desire to manipulate anybody else (sinners, even forgiven sinners, set others free). Sin is universal and the Bible teaches that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and “none is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:23, 11).
Self-righteousness is dangerous and destructive.
Self-righteousness for a Christian is an oxymoron.
And guilt isn’t where you live.
He asked me to remind you.
For Steve’s mini-book on Guilt, be sure to check out the Grace for Sinners and Sufferers Combo: