A World Waiting To Be Won Duncan Heaster email the author


4. Humility And Preaching

4-1 Humility And Preaching || 4-2 Bent Knees, Wet Eyes, Broken Hearts: Emotion In Preaching || 4-3 The More Real, The More Credible || 4-4 Preaching In The Workplace: Sample Dialogues || 4-5 Guilt And Grace || 4-5-1The Extent Of Grace || 4-5-2 Grace And Guilt || 4-5-3 True And False Guilt || 4-5-4 Barriers Against Grace


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 aren’t heard.

- 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 by grace.

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 (Lk. 5:16).

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. 21:2).

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.

True Guilt

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).