4-5-3 True And False Guilt
- Many feel guilty because of the ‘better’ [as they see it] behaviour
or achievements of others. Again, this is rooted in a works / achievment
centred view of life. The uniqueness of the Lord Jesus was that He as
the perfect man was the sinners friend, never arousing feelings of guilt
in a destructive sense in anyone. Rather His perfection was and is a
challenge, a challenge which is felt deeply, but in a way that provokes
realistic improvement rather than the downward spiral of hopeless guilt.
And the even more wonderful thing about the Lord is that that very same
personality which shows up our weaker areas and failures inspires at
one and the same time an assurance of His forgiveness and grace. And
such is the manner of this Man, this more than Man, that we know that
His forgiveness and acceptance are the only things worth having.
With them, all else is calmly and blissfully OK in the ultimate sense.
- Fear of the judgment of others is another and related source of false
guilt. It is this which militates against the true and free life of
which the Lord speaks so enthusiastically. We fear showing ourselves
for who we really are, because we fear others’ judgments. This fear
makes us uncreative, not bearing the unique spiritual fruits which the
Lord so eagerly seeks from us and in us. The Lord said this plainly,
when He characterized the man who did nothing with his talents as lamely
but truthfully saying: “I was afraid” (Mt. 25:25). Think about this:
What or whom was he afraid of? His fear was not so much of his Lord’s
judgment, but rather perhaps of the judgments of others, that he might
do something wrong, wrongly invest, look stupid, mess it all up... And
thus John writes that it is fear that leads to torment of soul now and
final condemnation. The Lord’s words in the parable are almost exactly
those of Adam. The rejected one talent man says ‘I was afraid, and so
I hid my talent’. Adam said: ‘I was afraid, and I hid myself’.
The talent God gave that man was therefore himself, his real self. To
not use our talent, to not blossom from the experience of God’s love
and grace, is to not use ourselves, is to not be ourselves, the real
self as God intended.
- Various forms of the prosperity Gospel lead to false guilt. People
feel guilty that they are sick or not prosperous; and they feel extra
guilty because it appears to them that their prayers for a better situation
- The justification by works mentality leads a believer to become
increasingly frustrated with him or herself over time. When we’re young,
we deceive ourselves that one day we will fulfil our dreams of works.
But as time goes by, we see that we’ll never succesfully end the balance-sheet
of works. We may blame our environment, our partner, background, origins,
the regime we live under. But in the end, the person has to blame themselves,
be disappointed in their achievment, even realizing that their dreams
and aims were misplaced in the first place, weighed down by the thought
of his own mediocrity, … and so all this builds up into an unbearable
weight of suppressed guilt, guilt at the unfinished or never begun or
badly done, finding vent in anger masked as ‘upholding the faith’, rigorous
casuistry on irrelevant issues, with all the associated separation between
a man and his gracious Father. I went through all this from a different
angle to many- for by 32 I had fulfilled the spiritual dreams I had
at 18, to discover that they were misplaced and irrelevant works-centred
fantasies. And yet the new birth in Christ ought to free us from all
this, releasing the creative power of the Father into our lives, to
serve Him in our own unique ways and callings, knowing the reality of
the peace and freedom of which the Gospel speaks. And we have to ask,
whatever form of deformed Christianity is it which has resulted in people
being crushed instead of freed like this…?
- Inferiority feelings are often taken by us to be guilt feelings,
especially in this increasingly competitive and hierarchical world.
There are Biblical examples of refusing to take guilt when others feel
that it should be taken. Recall how the Lord’s own parents blamed Him
for ‘making them anxious’ by ‘irresponsibly’ remaining behind in the temple.
The Lord refused to take any guilt, didn’t apologize, and even gently
rebuked them (Lk. 2:42-51). In similar vein, Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
“Even if I made you sorry with a letter, I do not regret it” (2 Cor. 7:8).
He would not take guilt for their being upset with him. Likewise Absalom
comforted his raped sister not to ‘take it to heart’, not to feel guilty
about it, as it seems she was feeling that way, taking false guilt upon
her (2 Sam. 13:20).
False guilt is played upon by the ever greater fear of the spirit of
judgment which progressively fills our world. Novels, movies, soap operas…
all increasingly deal with this theme- judging who is guilty, to what
extent, in what way, what judgment is necessary or warranted. Everyone
feels under constant criticism, innocent words are increasingly misread,
litigation opened against truly unintentional slips of wording or action.
In one form or another, earth’s population is living in fear of judgment.
Recriminations and reproach fly around our own community. None of us are
indifferent to it all, all are hurt by the critical email, SMS, word,
look or unspoken opinion of others. It leads to the fear between parents
and children, wives and husbands, pastors and flock, which is breaking
down society and our own community. This fear of criticism / judgment
kills spontaneity, it precludes formulating independent thought and truly
original ideas and programmes of action; it is the fear of this, rather
than of God’s judgment, which lead people to leave their talent
buried in the earth. And in the end, it leads to an empty conformism to
what is perceived to be the ‘safe’ position, a bourgeois, spiritually
middle class formalism. And so we all tend to live in fear of others’
judgment, with all the taking of false guilt which this creates.
But we’re overlooking a fundamental of our faith- that there truly is
one judge. Hence Paul could say to his critics within the brotherhood
that it mattered so little to him how he was judged by
them, for he had only One who would judge him (1 Cor. 4:3). Indeed,
Paul’s thought here is building on what he had earlier reasoned in 1 Cor.
2:15, that the spiritual man “himself is judged of no man”. There was
only One judge, and the believer is now not condemned if he is in Christ
(Rom. 8:1). He that truly believes in Christ is not condemned, but has
passed from death to life (Jn. 3:18; 5:24). So however men may claim to
judge and condemn us, the ultimate truth is that no man can judge
/ condemn us, and we who are spiritual should live life like that, not
fearing the pathetic judgments of men, knowing that effectively we are
not being judged by them. How radically different is Paul’s attitude
to so many of us. The fear of criticism and human judgment leads us to
respond as animals do to fear- the instinct of self-defence and self-preservation
is aroused. We defend ourselves as we would against hunger or impending
death. Yet here the radical implications of grace burst through. We
are not our best defence. We have an advocate who is also the judge, the
almighty Lord Jesus; we have a preserver and saviour, the same omnipotent
Lord, so that we need not and must not trust in ourselves. By not trusting
in this grace of salvation, we end up desperately trusting ourselves for
justification and preservation and salvation, becoming ever more guilty
at our abysmal and pathetic failures to save and defend ourselves.
When a person is surrounded by true love and acceptance, they blossom.
The tongue-tied young woman suddenly blossoms into another person when
she realizes she’s loved to bits by a man. As we face the love of God
in the gift and death of His Son, we face a love that should radically
liberate us. As Romans 8 so powerfully reasons, if God loves us, if He
accepts us and justifies us, then nothing, nothing else matters. And we
can blossom, as Paul did. We step out of this world of stifled people,
people who always put the brakes on when true creativity and genuine feelings
arise within them. Unless we can remove the spirit of judgment and the
fear of judgment from our community, we will go the way of so many marriages,
relationships and churches. We will ossify into mere conformism, the dynamism
of the new life will dry up, our love will go cold, and we will lose the
faith of Christ.
Further, when a man is under accusation, his conscience usually dies.
He is so bent on self-defence and seeking his own innocence and liberation
from accusation. And we see this in so many around us. But for us, we
have been delivered from accusation, judged innocent, granted the all
powerful and all authoritative heavenly advocate. Rom. 8:33 states that
there is now nobody who can accuse us, because none less than
God Himself, the judge of all, is our justifier in Christ! And so whatever
is said about us, don’t let this register with us as if it is God accusing
us. Not for us the addiction of internet chat groups, wanting to know
what is said about us or feeling defensive under accusation. For all our
sins, truly or falsely accused of, God is our justifier, and
not ourselves. And thus our consciences can still blossom when under man’s
false accusation, genuinely aware of our failures for what they are, not
being made to feel more guilty than we should, or to take false guilt.
This is all a wonderful and awesome outworking of God’s plan of salvation
Escaping False Guilt
Trying to escape this kind of guilt can become obsessive. Yet the Scriptures
signpost the way to a free conscience- simply through faith in God’s grace
as outworked in the death of His Son. Instead of this, people try to buy
a way out with their payments- money in collection boxes, yet more works…
and yet more guilt that not enough was given or done. Qualms of conscience
about ‘wasting time’ can so often be part of this guilty fear of not having
‘done’ enough. The Lord Jesus was not beset by guilt, and a sensitive
reading of the Gospels reflects the way that this ultimately zealous servant
of the Lord never appeared to be in hurry. He had ample time to speak
to the woman He met at the well (Jn. 4:1-26), to take time out with the
disciples (Mk. 8:27), He had the leisure time to admire wild flowers (Mt.
6:28), comment upon a sunset (Mt. 16:2), to go through the lengthy process
of washing the feet of His men (Jn. 13:5) and to be able to answer their
naieve questions without the slightest hint of impatience (Jn. 14:5-10)…
and of course to walk some distance to find a place conducive to prayer
Jacob is an example of the hurrying man beset with unvoiced inner conflicts
trying to buy off his guilt. Struggling with an awful conscience, he sent
huge gifts ahead of him to try to appease his offended brother Esau (Gen.
32:13-32). But he wasn’t thereby freed from his bad conscience. He had
to wrestle it out with God, with an Angel who at times appeared in the
form of both Jacob’s father and brother, and come to know his own desperation
and God’s utter grace and love towards him.
Another way of dealing with guilt is of course to repress it, by hardening
the heart, reducing spiritual life to a series of religious duties- perhaps
this is the most common path taken. “A wicked man puts on a bold face”
(Prov. 21:29); the adulteress “Wipes her mouth and says, I have done no
wrong’” (Prov. 30:20); “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes” (Prov.
Yet another method is to attempt to discharge our guilt, often our false
guilt, by projecting it onto someone else, making someone else the scapegoat
for our sins. Thus the sister guilty of a lifetime of adultery, the brother
guilty of paedophilia, may make [e.g.] a loving young couple who ‘go too
far’ before their marriage the objects of untold wratch and judgment,
as they seek to transfer their own feelings of guilt and judgment onto
someone else, vicariously punishing them as they feel they ought to be.
Indeed the psychological basis for gossip and slander would appear to
be a desire by guilty people to make themselves feel less isolated and
to emphasize the guilt of others to escape their own guilt feelings. And
it’s the basis for anti-Semitism too- loading the Jews with the guilt
of the Gentiles. The simple fact is that the Lord Jesus died as the antitype
of the guilt offering. He died to take away guilt… and he or she who truly
believes that has no need to transfer or discharge their guilt in these
ways. The guilt of our iniquity was laid upon the Lord Jesus upon the
cross, He there was the expiation of our sins (1 Jn. 2:2)… we don’t have
to vainly try to transfer it onto anyone else, or use any other way of
dealing with that guilt, e.g. through repressing it deep within ourselves.
The guilt which God seeks to engender in us in order to prepare us for
His grace is very different from the false guilt which we often take.
In many of the parables, there are elements of unreality- something within
the otherwise imaginable story which sticks out as unreal and unusual,
and which signposts the way to the point the Lord intends us to grasp.
In Mt. 25:31-46 we have a parable depicting the last judgment, where the
Lord sits as judge and we come before Him. Usually, a person comes before
a judge regarding things which they have committed wrongly. But our expectations,
which are set up by the story of a judge and people coming before him
in judgment, are shattered. The issues the people are judged about aren’t
acts of commission. It’s all about what they omitted to do. And
yet we’re all so freaked out about our committed sins, rather than realizing
the tremendous importance the Lord attaches to our omissions
of acts of kindness and thoughtful love, and perceiving the image of Christ
in our brethren. It’s rather like how Paul starts writing to the Corinthians.
He doesn’t start as we might have done with their gross immorality, false
doctrine, perversion of the Lord’s supper into a drunken orgy [although
he comes to those things]… rather, he begins with and spends most time
discussing their lack of love, their divisiveness etc. Or reflect on 1
Pet. 4:15- we shouldn’t suffer as murderers or thieves… nor as meddlers
in others’ matters. Meddling in others’ matters is put on the same level
as murder and theft! Time and again, we expect there to be a dichotomy
made by the Lord between the sinners and the righteous, the good guys
and the bad guys. But before Him, we are all sinners. Thus to the prostitute
kneeling before Him, He assures her that her sins are forgiven; but He
turns to the ‘righteous’ Simon and severely rebukes him for a lack of
love and for being too judgmental (Lk. 7:36-50).
Now of course the justification by works mentality leads to a paranaoia
about sins of ommission too, but in a different way. Believers feel guilty
that they vowed to do something and didn’t; that they enthusiastically
decided on some great project in an evening of dynamic discussion with
others, or made a promise in the mystical impetus of a short-lived moment…
and never did it. But the omissions the Lord focuses
on are omissions of simple acts and attitudes of love, and perceiving
ones brethren as truly part of the image and person of He Himself.
Lk. 17:10 is a challenge. When we have done all our works, we
are to say that we are unprofitable servants- and this connects with the
Lord’s teaching elsewhere that the ‘unprofitable servant’ is the one who
is to be condemned and cast into outer judgment (Mt. 25:30). The ‘guilt’
that the Lord seeks to inculcate here is that our works mean nothing,
and that we really deserve condemnation. And this is to prepare us for
the wonder of salvation by pure grace.
The face and presence of the Lord Jesus and the Father whom He represents
should convict us of our failure to live up to the image we are so evidently
intended to bear. We must be convicted of true guilt by this, rather than
of false guilt by the expectations of the societies in which we live.
Whenever we perceive that we have been moulded by this world rather than
transformed by the renewing of our minds, fashioned by our environment,
sterlized by conformity, petrified by routine… this is when we
should feel true guilt.
Realizing one aspect of true guilt leads us to realize other aspects.
David’s sin with Bathsheba led him, according to the Psalms of penitence,
to realize so many others too. Paul regrets that he couldn’t ‘do’ what
he wanted to, but it led him to exclaim: ‘O wretched man that I am!’.
His feeling of guilt for failure in specific actions led on to a wider
sense of guilt regarding his whole being (Rom. 7:24). Likewise Peter on
the shore doesn’t say to the Lord that he had ‘made a mistake’ or cast
the net on the wrong side etc.- he confesses that he is a “sinful man”
altogether (Lk. 5:11). No longer, in these cases, was sin seen as a list
of specific actions which must be avoided in order to have a good conscience
before God. The conviction of sin as God intends is far deeper than this.
As the Lord makes clear, it’s all about motives, what is inside the cup
rather than what appears on the outside (Lk. 11:39). No longer does the
Lord allow us to take shelter behind a literalistic, legalistic ‘doing’
of some right things on a Divine list. In fact, as Paul shows in Phil.
1:17, even ‘good’ things like preaching the Gospel can be done from bad
motives. True guilt as God intends is therefore not merely the transgression
of legal points concerning forbidden actions; it is the outcome of a recognition
that our motives are often not what they should be, that we are so often
Simon rather than the woman in the city who was a sinner…
If this true guilt is not faced up to, there will be anger, the anger
that comes from refusing to acknowledge subconscious guilt. Balaam’s angry
striking of his donkey is an obvious Biblical example, and we are surrounded
by so many others.
Another classic example would be Asa’s “rage” with Hanani the prophet when
he rebuked Asa for trusting in the Syrian army rather than in Yahweh. And
Asa’s anger was then taken out upon the people- for “Asa oppressed some of
the people at the same time” (2 Chron. 16:10).