Good Christian Guilt

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Following Jesus is, in theory, quite simple. Except for all the times that it’s not.

Growing up in a Christian environment has been both a deep gift and a multi layered complexity. When kids are taught about what it means to follow Jesus, it’s essentially boiled down to the good characteristics people who call themselves Christians should have. None of this is, at its core, a bad thing—nuance has to be introduced at some point, but most kids wouldn’t have the capacity for it at young ages. At some point though, all the “shoulds” of following Jesus start to get complicated.

Recently, a new group was starting up at my church. They were going to read and discuss a book I own and have been meaning to read for quite some time. As I thought about my fall though, I realized adding one more activity, even one as good as reading a book that would likely challenge and inspire me, would not be wise for me right now. And as I realized that, I had a twinge of guilt over not being able to participate.

Fortunately, I later came to my senses about how absurd it is to feel guilty about not being able to join another group at church.

But there are other areas of the Christian life where I have, and do, feel guilt, and it is these complicated spaces that I struggle with. For example, I believe there’s nothing humans can do to earn God’s grace in all its various forms—whether it’s the grace that saves us, the grace that loves us, the grace that holds us—all of it is, and must be, completely free. Otherwise it wouldn’t be grace at all.

However, I also believe that if I say I follow Jesus, that should manifest itself in my life in daily, tangible ways. The way I treat people, the way I do (or don’t) use my resources of time and money, the way I make decisions, and all the other pieces that make up a life—all of those should be absolutely saturated with and informed by my faith. All over the place in the Bible there are mentions of serving others, of gathering in community with fellow believers, of praying, and so many other good actions that demonstrate thankfulness for what God has done in our lives and our desire to share that with others. None of these actions, on their own, have the power to save. But we’re supposed to do them, as long as our intentions are right.

And therein lies the difficulty. It’s easy to say things about living in God’s love and letting our actions be an outflow of that, but it gets very messy in the conflicting motivations of life in the real world. Where do we find the balance between living from a place of knowing we can never earn God’s love, yet following his words about praying and serving and being generous and all the other wonderful actions the Bible tells us to take part in? Is signing up for a service project because my friends did still a good action? Is giving to a good cause still good if it’s out of guilt because you haven’t given to anything else that month? Is it even possible to be a "good Christian?"

A simple definition of guilt from Dictionary.com is, "a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong,etc., whether real or imagined." Even the definition gets complicated though—the feeling of guilt doesn't always correlate to an actual offense, but there are times when guilt is a legitimate, even necessary response. When I know I've done something wrong, I should feel a sense of remorse about it. That doesn't mean I have to forever dwell in that feeling of guilt, but allowing myself to feel it allows the severity of my actions to sink in, hopefully so that I'll learn from them. 

Yet I don't think we're supposed to live in a constant state of feeling guilty about all the things we could, or even should, be doing for God. That level of guilt would be crippling. It would be too far to say that doing things out of guilt negates the good of those actions, but it does forget the true purpose of those actions. None of it is supposed to be about us and how we feel, and all of it is supposed to to be a response to God.

Again though, "a response to God" is one of those Christian-y phrases that sounds really nice but is crazy difficult, arguably impossible, to truly implement. But I'm beginning to hope that God honors the process. Our motivations may always be a little off-kilter and with a few blemishes, but God already knows that. Since the beginning of time he's been using imperfect people and their mixed-up motivations to accomplish his work, and I have to trust he'll continue to do so—even through me.

p.s. How do you live in the tension between guilt and grace?

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Nice article Brianna.  It has a nice balance to a concern that many in the Reformed tradition seem to feel.  I think that concern has something to do with the legalistic perspective of the Reformed faith.  Reformed people have always placed a certain emphasis on law.  I’m recalling, in my mind, Calvin’s three uses of the law.  The using of the law as a rule of gratitude seems to easily backfire and result in guilt, whether warranted or not.

When Reformed Christians speak of the law as a rule of gratitude for Christian living, it easily disintegrates into a measuring stick for Christian living.  And when you don’t measure up, the result is guilt and guilty feelings.

The Pharisees, of course, were driven by law.  They would use the law as a measuring stick to guilt their fellow Jews and Jesus into obedience.  Jesus didn’t buy into such a mentality.  Jesus seemed to dismiss much of the Jewish cherished laws.  Instead Jesus’ emphasis was on compassion.  Have you ever noticed how often Jesus was characterized as having compassion on and for people, whether on the crowds, individuals, sinners, or even good people?  And much of Jesus’ teachings focused on compassion.  Have you ever noticed how often the Pharisees were characterized as having compassion?  Not once.  So as to Jesus’ teaching and example, law and compassion seem to be antithetical to each other. 
  
Paul, at times encouraged joyful giving, akin to having compassion.  As Reformed Christians we, instead, follow a measuring stick of grateful giving (legalistic), which gets spelled out as giving a measurable tithe, or an individual quota, a classical quota, and a denominational quota.  It all gets broken down into a legalistic amount that Reformed Christians should be giving, whether as churches or as individuals.  And when not meeting that measure, the result is guilty feelings and guilt.  The law, even as a rule (measuring stick) of gratitude (which the Pharisees would also advocate) becomes a measure of our failure more often than a measure of our success.

Law or legalism most often has a negative effect of bringing about guilt and feelings of doubt.  Even the use of the law as a rule of gratitude is not so different than what the Pharisees practiced.  I’m quite certain they would have seen law keeping as rule of gratitude for the deliverance they felt from God, too.  But they put a heavy emphasis on human responsibility to be law keepers, even as Reformed people have done.  And our failure always seems to bring about guilt.  That is another emphasis of the Reformed faith, human failure.

Christ wants our lives to be characterized by compassion, whether it is forgiving others or doing good for others, but not as legalistic law keepers.  Perhaps the secret to a joyous Christian experience is to get our eyes off the law and instead live compassionate lives of love for God and neighbor.

I have come to see and understand that, along with the truth that Jesus died in my place, he also lived in my place - lived that wholly faithful and sinless life that I cannot.  Still, to know Jesus and to listen to Him, to 'live in his neighborhood' as someone put it, I can't miss the push to imitate Him, to do what he says and what himself does.  I am coming to see that the closer I am to Jesus, realizing what it took for Him to deal with sin, the more I can come to see what sin is, especially in my own life.  Separating law and gospel has always led to problems, but seeing them united in Christ seems like the best way forward, at least to me.

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