The Problem with guilt (Guilt, Grace and forgiveness 5)

Guilt damages relationships, robs us of joy, distracts us from evangelism, inhibits our ability to use our gifts and leads to manipulative and abusive leadership. Let’s have a look in a bit more detail at how guilt affects us individually and in church life. We’ll then look at the big grace solution! The Guilt Driven Life

Let’s pick up first of all on two of those types of blindness which Lane and Tripp mentioned. What happens when someone becomes blind to the power of the Gospel and the reality of forgiveness in their life? What happens when they forget that they have all of the resources they need to live for Christ?

Here are some ways that guilt can affect them. What happens?  First of all, when we forget the power of the Gospel then we are likely to try and hide our guilt. We don’t want people to know the truth about who we are. This is because guilt and shame are closely aligned.  If others could know what we are really like, the bad thoughts which keep coming back, the habits we struggle to keep, the things we said and did at work away from the church then we will work hard to keep those things secret. You will realise that at this stage I could be talking about either subjective guilt or objective guilt and with real guilt, there will be usually be subjective guilt to follow.

Guilt is the enemy of integrity and intimacy. We put up barriers so that others see the person we want to portray. Others never get to see what you really are like and where you struggle.  So people keep on going, turning up to church, serving in ministry and no-one spots that there’s a problem until it all explodes.  Sometimes this can even breed resentment. Even as we put on the mask, we blame others for not spotting what is really going on.  Subjective guilt is very good at the blame game.  Think back to Genesis 3. When Adam and Eve eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, they realise that they are naked. There is shame, a felt guilt. However, this shame does not provoke confession and repentance. Instead, they first of all try to hide their shame with fig leaves and then they turn in on each other. Both blame the other one for their culpability in the act.

The problem is that the masks we put on are about as sustainable as that fig leaf garment. We can’t keep up the pretence for ever. So guilt is the enemy of faithfulness.  It is easier to keep others at arms-length and to move on when they get too close or the truth starts to leak out.  This will lead to transient lifestyles and temporary relationships.  It will be no surprise that many people struggle to stay in one church for a long time. We keep on moving on hoping that our real identity won’t catch up with us.

Guilt is the enemy of hope and service. If I feel guilty because I have failed in the past then it may discourage me from trying again. I fear that events will repeat themselves. I’ll fail again, I’ll let others down.

Subjective guilt is the enemy of constructive feedback. The person who carries subjective guilt around with them may well find it very difficult to hear criticism. Instead of hearing a mixture of positive and negative comments which could help them improve, they simply hear “You are a terrible failure).

Guilt is the enemy of a healthy prayer life. When I am aware of guilt –false or real- then it makes it harder to come and talk to God. I am aware of his holiness and justice. I fear judgement.

When we deal with guilt legalistically then we will try to make amends. We try to put things right. Often we risk making matters worse. For example, the parent who feels guilty for being absent makes amends by buying expensive gifts but these have to be paid for on the credit card and then the bill has to be paid off requiring longer overtime hours and more absence. You get into a vicious cycle.

When we try to deal with guilt through licence then we try to find ways to escape or to be excused. When we deal with it through “magic” then we hope that some kind of intervention will put things right or following a ritual will make atonement.  You can see then how at the extremes, guilt will feed into addictive and compulsive behaviour problems, escape through drug or alcohol addiction or retreat behind an emotional health condition that excuses me from accountability.[1]

Guilt Denial

But then you have those who are blind to the reality of sin in their life. This includes the non-Christian who is completely unaware of their lost-ness. Sadly as Christians we can forget that we live in the “now and not yet.” We lose sight of how temptation comes. We have blind-spots to our own failings. We don’t see the different ways in which we hurt others and fail to love God with our whole heart.

Just as talking about “guilt driven life” recognises a spectrum of feelings leading up the completely overburdened with guilt, so too there will be a spectrum with denial. At a pathological level, some people are completely oblivious to their sin. However, most people will be aware of their failings and shortcomings. However, we are not always aware of when we fail. Also, we sometimes end up downplaying guilt either by minimising the seriousness of the sin (it was just a white lie) or our culpability in it (I was just joining in, I was only following instructions, I lost control and couldn’t help myself, it was the booze talking, I’m rather tired and stressed at the moment).

So guilt denial will also lead to blaming others. “It was their fault, not mine.” In other words, there may well be a strong connection between the ability of some to ignore their responsibility and the tendency of others to carry an unduly heavy burden.

Guilt denial means that I don’t hear the corrective challenge of others. This is so dangerous. It means I risk failing to hear wisdom’s call (Proverbs 1:20ff) and so also the convicting voice of the Holy Spirit. It means that I may fail to learn and go on repeating mistakes and causing harm and hurt to others.

The Guilt Driven Church

A few years back, Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church wrote his best seller book “The Purpose Drive Church.” Sadly, too often people attending church can feel as though someone has published an alternative book “The Guilt Driven Church.”

How does a Guilt Driven Church work? Well at its extreme we are likely to see control, harsh legalism and even cult-like characteristics. A guilt driven church will often rely on fear to motivate people. Church members serve to earn the approval of others or to avoid disappointing them. Guilt plays on fear by subtle means. It is only in cults that you are likely to see the threat of physical punishment, shaming or shunning.

However, the following subtle messages can be sent out.

“You need to attend this meeting or carry out this task because this is your way of paying back others in the church for what they have done for you (especially where there is a strong focus on practical help).”

“If you don’t do this then it will upset and disappoint people.”

“If you don’t help with this ministry then we may no longer be able to run it.”

“If you don’t give/serve/attend then it will affect your life negatively. God will not bless and provide for you.”

Now Guilt Driven Churches are not just caused by how the formal leaders behave. There are two reasons for this. First of all, there are other people who exert unofficial leadership in a church. These can include people who hold social status due to the length of time they have been a member, their social position in the community, their charisma, the emotional power of their personal testimony or the crucial role they play in the life of the church (e.g. if they are the only person seen as being able to carry out a particular role).

Also, in any organisation and churches are not immune to this, official leaders will quickly find that there are people around them who start to presume to speak for them. This may include friends and relatives. The problem is that a leader may express their own frustrations to friends and relatives in private. This may be part of their own process of working through an issue. They may be aware that acting on their frustrations will play on guilt. However, those around them may only pick up on he frustration and then seek to act and speak on their behalf.

Then there’s another reason why a church can feel like it is guilt driven. If you have individuals within the church whose own lives are guilt driven then they may be likely to hear everything that the leaders say to them through that perspective. I know that I can say something that sounds incredibly prescriptive to one person and they will not take it as controlling or burdensome. They’ll hear what I am saying and they’ll be able to respond by making up their own mind about what I’m saying to them. I also know that with others, the gentlest request will be heard by them as an authoritarian command.

Now the problem is compounded because when we go back to the list above, although all of those statements can be used to play on or create felt guilt, sometimes they are also true. For example, there are things we would like to do as a church and if we don’t have the volunteers to do them then they will stop. These are activities that are having a positive impact and we would be sad to lose them.  There are times when we need to challenge and advise people for their own good. There are times when the refusal to lift a finger to help in any way is a mark of either laziness and selfishness or even outright awkwardness and defiance. I think the important thing here is that those leading need to lead from the right motive. Their aim is not to induce a false feeling of guilt. Sometimes it may be necessary to make people aware of real guilt as we seek to challenge or correct but when we do that, then the aim is not to see a person struggling on with a heavy burden of guilt or atoning themselves. Our aim should be to see them confronted again with the wonder and beauty of the Gospel. We want them to find grace.

[1] Please note here that I am not saying that guilt is the sole cause of these issues. There may be other independent causes. As we mentioned above, guilt may exacerbate a health problem with another cause. Sometimes it is the other way round and an underlying health problem causes a distorted view of the world leading to feelings of false guilt. I recognise as well that sometimes the cycle has been in motion for so long that it is difficult to untangle cause from symptom.