I draw inspiration for many of these posts from conversations that take place in our Bible study groups. Last week we ended up discussing “guilt” and suddenly I discovered I wasn’t the only one who is plagued with this feeling. We can feel guilty for all types of things but amongst Christians we seem to suffer from the “I could be doing more” syndrome or “I shouldn’t be wasting my time relaxing” concept. We are geared to believe that we must be doing more or being more productive every waking moment of our lives.
For us, who claim to be Christians, the feeling is even sharper because we believe that if we are idle or scrunched in front of the television with a bag of popcorn for an evening we are somehow letting Jesus down. It’s one thing to feel guilt for watching football when you should be raking the leaves but it’s quite another when you think it is God that you are letting down.
H.L. Mencken’s great caricature of the Puritan philosophy was that they were a people who had, “a haunting fear that someone, somewhere is happy.” And poor old Martin Luther use to harass his confessors with up to six hours of confession “daily” trying to rid himself from guilt and despair.
But, is all guilt bad? No; guilt can lead us to repentance over sin. But that is the kicker – we confuse sin with guilt. The problem that many of us encounter in our spiritual journey is formed around unrealistic expectations.
The Christian who grows up in a home where the prevailing view of God is one of a stern “father” waiting to pounce on you for the slightest failure will see sin very differently from someone who understands God in terms of absolute love. Our sense of guilt is shaped, in a spiritual sense, by the expectations that we place upon ourselves and others place upon us regarding what is acceptable behaviour, lifestyle, and pleasure for a person who claims to be a follower of Jesus.
When we look at the many texts in the Bible that talk about forgiveness and repentance we have absolute assurance that we are forgiven for sin so that is not the issue. The issue is our feeling that we let “the side down” by not being committed to enlarging the Kingdom of God every moment of our life. We ask questions, “should I go to Florida on vacation or go on a mission trip?” Should I watch Netflix’s or read my Bible this evening?” These are not easily answered by someone who truly wishes to serve God but they are also not matters of salvation.
If I was to ever pastor a church again I would ask every member of the congregation to spend time with their family and not huddle around the church. We don’t really need bi-weekly board meetings, elder’s meetings, deacon’s meetings, and a host of other time consuming activities. Stay home with the family and enjoy.
Being busy is engrained into us because the church engrains it into us. For most of you reading this blog you live active lives and the last thing in the world you need is “guilt” and “shame” for not living up to someone else’s expectations of what constitutes a good Christian.
I was talking to my friends Bill and Dave a few days ago about ministry and outreach and service and we were contemplating all the aspects of what that looks like and how we go about it. Dave brought up a good point, “how do we know all this activity isn’t just of our own making and that the Holy Spirit is leading.” That started me thinking about “business” and then the Bible study discussion confirmed, to me, that we allow guilt to dictate much of what we do.
Here is the bottom line as far as I can see—guilt for sin is good, guilt for not living up to my expectations for myself not always so good. Listening to Satan’s guilt trip is always bad. So is sitting in front of the television watching hockey bad or good? It is simply what you make it. If you turn it into an idol that dictates the parameters of your life, then it is probably not the best. But there are times in all our lives when we need to allow ourselves the joy of relaxation and freedom and we shouldn’t feel guilty for putting our feet up and savouring those times.
God expects us to love life and embrace it. Being Christian is living in the joy and wonder of being the people who God made us to be. Remember Brennon Manning’s great saying, “God loves us for who we are, not what we should be, because we will never be what we should be.”
You and I are not perfect and we won’t be this side of heaven. We are people who have frailties, are prone to sin, and a tendency to love ourselves. But God loves us in spite of ourselves and that is expressed in His compassion, love, and mercy. When you kick back, get out the old crossword puzzle book and spend time enjoying yourself without a care in the world – relish it.
We didn’t come up with any earth shattering conclusions at the Bible study, but we did come to the realization that guilt often comes from not what we are feeling but what we think we should be feeling. And that is often tainted by expectations and learned behaviour that may not have anything to do with reality at all.
There is a place and a time for worship, prayer, and connection with God—that is the framework of our life. There is also a time to be human and live in the freedom of the wonder of life that God has given us.
Finally, guilt for “real” sin is imperative for a Christian because it leads to repentance and forgiveness. Guilt for guilt’s sake needs to take a long hike out of our life.