Unshackling the Church from Guilt
Reprinted from Special to Christian Week
Spiritual liberty is under threat wherever sincere Christians are made to feel guilty for choices that do not contradict the commandments of God. A busy Christian might leave a church service feeling guilty for not volunteering for more ministries in the church; a speaker could leave a his audience feeling guilty for eating well and not giving more to help orphans in Africa; a deacon might rebuke a new Christian for choosing to play pool with his friends rather than attending prayer meeting.
Are the guilt feelings illustrated in these examples legitimate—that is, due to the internal, convicting work of the Holy Spirit? Or can they be traced to subtle external pressures that have little to do with biblical motivation?
It is estimated that guilt consumes 85 per cent of our emotional energy. Guilt poisons the fountain of our creativity and stifles our ability to love. Creating a people free to love and serve Him from the heart has been God’s purpose from the beginning. A bare, external obedience that does not flow from a heart of love is defective. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5).
Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker writes: “To be God’s child means to be offered freedom—the Christian freedom Christ himself and Paul in his letters say much about. This freedom is most important for anybody who wants to do artistic work. Without freedom there is no creativity, without freedom no originality, without freedom no art, without freedom even no Christianity.” Not all preachers or teachers intentionally use guilt to motivate their hearers. Often we lay guilt upon ourselves that neither God nor His servants intend. But I do wonder whether Christian leaders understand how susceptible committed Christians are to suggestions of fault, or how fragile is the flower of Christian freedom.
So why do so many sincere Christians feel uneasy when they should be rejoicing in God? Perhaps we fail to understand God’s true purposes.
God’s Goal: Loving Freedom
The tragic history of the Old Testament reflects Israel’s failure to love God freely. The prophets lamented this failure but foresaw the gospel-era when God would re-create a people whose actions would arise from heart-felt devotion. “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart” (Jer. 24:7).
Jesus further clarifies God’s goal. “Love the Lord your God… love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:37-40). Of course Jesus knew that living lives of loving freedom was not possible until people received the new heart foretold by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. For this reason Jesus told Nicodemus, a law abiding and religious Jew, “you must be born again” (John 3:3).
All those born again by faith in Christ receive new hearts capable of genuine love. The purpose of this transformation is clear. “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 2:5). Guilt keeps us from reaching this goal. “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (Heb. 10:23).
Freedom from Genuine Guilt
In bearing our sins upon the cross Christ has delivered us from the genuine guilt brought on by our sinful rebellion against God’s law. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ [they have been]… set free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1,2). Condemnation gone, we are forgiven—justified. Freedom from divine condemnation is such a liberating truth that every Christian needs to celebrate it daily. This truth, called justification, sparked the Protestant Reformation and continues to transform Christians who grasp its reality.
Our emotions, however, often fail to reflect our position in Christ. We may feel guilty when we shouldn’t. Freedom from condemnation is a gift from God that lasts forever, but we must cultivate the feeling of being justified by clothing ourselves in the protective armour of Christ’s righteousness.
And when we do stumble back into sin God invites us to “confess our sins” knowing that “He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Taking Him at His word liberates us from false guilt. Wallowing in guilt for sins that are forgiven dishonours God.
Unfortunately, counterfeit guilt disguised as the real thing quite easily defiles our consciences. If we would grow in Christ we must ensure that we hear God’s voice in the Scriptures—preeminent over other voices that might distract us from our God-given mission.
Freedom from the Expectations of Others
Whether people’s expectations are expressed or not, we may feel guilty for not attending every church service, not volunteering at every opportunity or not fulfilling our perceived family responsibilities.
We are doomed to fail spiritually if we allow our lives to be directed exclusively by others. “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe,” (Prov. 29:25). The fear of disappointing one’s pastor, family, friends or neighbours destroys soul freedom. The uneasy (biblically misinformed) conscience that results often moves us to act out of a desire to assuage counterfeit feelings of guilt rather than out of a desire to please God.
Our desire to please God may coincide with the leading of our Christian community as long as that community is sensitive to the Holy Spirit—applying Scripture to its unique circumstances. Rigidity and a legalistic adherence to tradition, however, stifle the voice of God.
The Christian faith calls us to go much deeper than mere externals. “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience… and over all these virtues put on love which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:12,14). True godliness, as reflected in these virtues, can only be birthed in a guilt-free, transformed temperament. Instead of creating rules in our churches let’s encourage Christians to walk in loving freedom as constrained by Christ.
Freedom from Self-Imposed Rules
Sometimes the rules we impose on ourselves are harsher than those of others. Some of these “shoulds” can be innocent—even helpful—attempts to regulate our lives in productive ways: “I should get up by 7 a.m. I shouldn’t use so much salt.” Some arise from a feeling of compassion: “I should call Mary every week. I should regularly help the local food bank.” A few can even be attributed to the inner workings of the Holy Spirit: “I should forgive Marty. I shouldn’t watch so much questionable TV.” Many “shoulds” are unconsciously engrained into our psyches by the words of parents, our community, teachers, the media, a pastor or a Christian friend.
Whenever we feel that we should do something we need to ask ourselves if it reflects the choice of a biblically informed and free conscience. Obviously, the choices free Christians make will not please every other Christian. What matters is, do they please God?
Freedom from Autocratic Shepherding
Biblical churches encourage sincerity and flee hypocrisy. Whenever we influence people to conform externally to group standards we run the risk of promoting insincerity. Rewarding conformity and stifling discussion also encourages hypocrisy. Sincerity and freedom flourish in a climate of openness, discussion and mutual acceptance.
Autocratic leaders who manipulate, create guilt or imply that failure to follow their suggestions displays a lack of loyalty to the local church are usurping the role of Christ and creating a subculture ruled by peer pressure.
A New Mantra for the 21st Century
Christian freedom is a precious, but perishable, gift of God. How ironic that the freedom of the gospel that inspired the very democracies in which we live should be widely subverted.
Since Christian freedom is so attractive and so crucial in projecting the good news of the gospel to non-Christians, let’s encourage Christians to love God in ways that reflect their own personalities and spiritual gifts. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:4).
Let’s reject all forms of manipulation and pressure. Instead let’s trust God to do what he promises to do. “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
Wherever subtle pressures usurp our freedom to serve Christ from the heart, wherever ministry produces unbiblical guilt, we should demand a new reformation. We should nail up a new set of 21st century theses on our church doors under the heading; “Enter here and be free!”