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The Believer's Struggle with Guilt Part 1 - Introduction
One of the common criticisms of Christianity centers on the concept of guilt. Critics claim the faith puts unnecessary pressure on humanity to follow unrealistic standards. Then, when we fail to meet the standards, we are overwhelmed with guilt. This guilt leads to lower self-esteem and a less fulfilling life. While this line of criticism is logical and can be supported by references to believers who are trapped by their own guilt, it is based upon a misinterpretation of Christian faith – one that believers and unbelievers alike sometimes hold.
Instead, the Christian faith offers more than accountability for human behavior. Freedom, forgiveness, and grace are offered in abundance. It is just hard sometimes for believers to embrace it and instead we become overwhelmed with guilt. In this article we will examine some key reasons why believers needlessly get caught up with guilt.
Guilt can become an inescapable burden if not properly addressed.
It is appropriate for us to feel guilty when we think about the ways we have violated God’s Law. If a person has not become a believer by accepting the grace available through Jesus’ death on the cross, that person appropriately experiences guilt. Their mistakes (sins) have not been forgiven by God. Becoming a believer means accepting that Jesus’ death paid for all past, present, and future sins. If one has indeed been forgiven, but continues to feel guilt one of two phenomena are a work. Either, the person is struggling with their faith and doubts that Jesus’ sacrifice was truly enough or the person is continuing in sin and the guilt is stemming from the Spirit of God drawing one back to a holy lifestyle.
Devastating guilt can begin at an early age.
Much of our personality and world view is established in our early childhood. Please note, we are not about to blame our parents for everything, but it is important to acknowledge that our upbringing can contribute to ongoing feelings of guilt. Living in a household where blame is placed on the children when things go wrong can foster an ongoing sense of guilt. Children by their nature are self-centered and will often add to the slightest suggestion of blame their own exaggerated blame narrative. For example, if the youngest child is always blamed for the things that get broken in the house, they may begin to say to themselves, “Everything is my fault.” That statement, repeated to oneself year after year will certainly impact feelings of guilt as an adult. Other sources of guilt in childhood could include overly strict teachers, childhood bullies, legalistic churches, and child abuse.
The connection between child abuse and guilt is strong, but it can be overcome.
All forms of child abuse have a tendency to produce inappropriate guilt in the child, although child sexual abuse tends to create the longest lasting and most difficult feelings of guilt and shame. Again since children are naturally self-centered they tend to see the problem in the relationship with the abuser as their own fault. (See chart below.) It is also common for abusers to tell children the child caused the abuse. Since abusers are often well-trusted adults, this lie is believed and carried into adulthood.
God is more concerned about our hearts than our ability to follow man made rules.
One of the joys of Christian living is the freedom of not having to follow the Mosaic Law in order to be in right standing with God. This does not mean believers and do whatever they want, but it does mean we do not have to follow strict rules for the sake of following strict rules. Many churches in a heart-felt attempt to embrace holiness have instead taken on a legalistic view which can foster unhealthy guilt. For example, I was recently told a church in my area welcomed a man wearing a Polo shirt and a pair of slacks. After thanking him for coming, they asked him to where a shirt and tie the next time he attends. Fortunately, the visitor was strong in his on faith and this incident only made for a good story. What if instead he had been an unbeliever who could not afford a shirt and tie? What if he never returned to any church under the mistaken impression that he needed to dress a certain way to be accepted by God?
Legalism comes in many forms. Perhaps this is most clearly seen in dress codes. Although the New Testament advises “modest” dress (i.e. 1 Timothy 2:9-10), there are no rules stating a certain attire is required. Those requirements are man-made rules. Other man-made rules say we should not go to the movies, watch television, or participate in board and card games. While any of these things could lead to unholy practices, they are not of themselves evil. Another form of legalism says you must attend church services a certain number of times a week as if a God who is everywhere can only see your heart if you are in a designated place at a designated time.
Is Guilt a Problem?
Do you believe inappropriate guilt is a major problem impacting the church?
Have you ever been to Pinterst? If you have never been to the website, take a moment to explore it a bit. There you will find pictures from all over the world of perfectly decorated and organized homes, over the top weddings, expertly manicured landscapes, and elaborate birthday parties for children. Pinterst is just one example of how our technological society has increased the pressure to be perfect on all of us.
I can recall in my late teenage years envisioning what my first apartment would look like based television shows featuring young adults. Once I was in my first apartment, I remember looking around at the comfortable, but mixed matched furnishings and thinking, “Wow. This is bad.” Reality was, my apartment was as nicely furnished as many people my age and I was pretty blessed not to have to have a roommate. Instead I was feeling guilty when company visited and the slipcover on the couch shifted.
Satan sneaks in and disturbs us in many ways -- one of them is inappropriate guilt.
The Reality of Evil
Prior to the fall of Adam and Eve, there was no guilt – appropriate or inappropriate. Once the fall occurred, the appropriate and necessary guilt that calls us to repentance entered the world along with the inappropriate and unnecessary guilt that keeps us trapped and stagnant. Satan is aware of how false guilt can keep us from accomplishing all God would have us to do.
In this brief article, I attempted to address the most common sources of guilt impacting believers. The next article in this series will address what believers can do if they struggle with guilt.