My views on guilt have evolved over the years. Like many people, I beat myself up and thought that guilt was the Christian thing to do. I figured guilt motivated me to do better so I heaped it on myself. My first and early realization was that I lived in false guilt or shame. It wasn’t just that I’d done something wrong, but I was wrong. So I worked on breaking free from false guilt.
But I still thought true guilt was useful because so many people don’t admit when they’re wrong. Then I started listening to my friend Dallas Willard, who made blanket statements such as, “Guilt never helps.” I was puzzled though because he wasn’t from my psychobabble generation; he was of that generation that seemed to love guilt. Why did he say that?
But over the years, I’ve seen how even true guilt doesn’t help me. It just makes me hopeless. Even worse, it fixes my eyes on me (what I’ve done wrong!) rather than on God and what God has done right. My view of guilt actually made my spirituality about me and my performance (and lack of it), not about God. So I became suspicious that Dallas might be on to something. I’ve experimented with dumping guilt and I’ve discovered some important things.
First, repentance is much better than guilt. Repentance isn’t feeling bad, bad, bad about sin. It’s metanoia, thinking about my thinking—examining how I think. It’s making changes in how I think, which then makes changes in how I act. A short cut version of this is that I began focusing much more on, “What is my next step?” instead of “Wow, my last step was really dumb!”
Next, I realized that we need better training in how to confess sin. Glossing over things doesn’t work; we’re as sick as our secrets. It’s healing to say to God exactly what I did and why I think I did it. Then we allow space to hear this truth of God: “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” We bask in this: Lord Jesus Christ, how merciful you are to me, a sinner! And, very importantly, we allow space for asking God about what our next step might be.
Lately, I’ve noticed something else. In general, the devotional masters and saints throughout the ages weren’t depressed by their sins. The closer they were to God, the more they felt their sin, but the more they focused on God’s greatness. They saw God as a Helper (Psalm 54:4) not as Condemner, picking out their sins. In monasteries, abbots didn’t allow monks to think obsessively about their sin. God’s purpose in revealing sins to us is to help us change, to give us power to change. God is like a craftsman, saying, “Here, let’s do this better.”
As a spiritual director, I have many conversations with people who are motivated by guilt. They are steeped in sadness and feel defeated. It destroys them and forces them to look at themselves and make their spirituality about their own (miserable) performance. I don’t think this is a work of God but a work of the enemy of our soul. This enemy paralyzes us with guilt; but the holy God of heaven invites us to repent, to change, to live in the deep gladness of being loved. This is the voice we listen to.
(For more about how confession can help us move forward and the goodness of God within it, see Reflection and Confession: Spiritual Disciplines Bible Studies.)
Grace and peace,
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