It is never a good sign to start a post with “this may be heresy, but…” But now that I have your attention, here it goes. This may be heresy, but… why is it that far more Christians I know (including me) seem to struggle with guilt much more than non-Christians? Before jumping to the “pat answers” just let this sink in for a second – this seems kind of weird.
It seems weird that Christians struggle with guilt because this is the core of the Gospel message itself. The Gospel is about “grace” and “freedom” and “forgiveness” and a restored relationship with God given to us in Jesus. Romans 8:1 -- “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 5:1 -- “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” 1 John 1:8-9 -- “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” How can guilt possibly make sense in the midst of this?
The typical solution I hear is that we just need to believe the Gospel more, and if we did, we would not struggle with guilt. But this does not seem right, as it just adds to the guilt – now for not believing correctly or enough.
It seems equally weird that non-Christians do not struggle nearly as much with guilt – at least weird in view of our most-used presentations of the Gospel in our culture, which rely on the hook of a “freedom from guilt” message. We help people (non-Christians) find their guilty core, let that resonate, then present the Gospel that cures it. We lead with things like a journey through Romans (nobody is righteous (3:10), all have sinned (3:23), the wages of sin is death, (6:23) … etc.), so people can see their sin and need for a Savior, then come to Jesus. Yet if we are honest, the initial hook on which we are counting for the Gospel to take hold in others – a sense of guilt – often seems absent.
The typical answer is that non-Christians have buried their own guilt, and need to drill deeper to get to the necessary starting point. But how much are we forcing the situation because we need this hook for the story we are used to telling to flow in our (contrived?) order? Even though you don’t feel guilty, let me convince you how guilty you really are, and then I will offer you Jesus as a solution. And here the two issues collapse into each other, as the non-Christian has every right to ask why --if we are coming to them with the solution to guilt-- do we seem to struggle with guilt more than they ever did? We at least give the appearance that our proposed "cure" is ineffective.
Now, I think these two “weird” situations involving guilt are connected, and in particular connected to a presumed story line for how we must relate with the Gospel. The more we as Christians presume that to connect to the Gospel we must, of necessity, follow the path of (1) sinful actions, (2) awareness of guilt, (3) awareness of a need for a solution to this problem, (4) solution found in Jesus, the more we feel the need to tell our own story with these elements in this formula order (and fit these elements into the story lines of non-Christians). And on recognizing (for some of us) our lives do not historically fit this pattern or formula, we feel alienated and internally question the authenticity of our relationship with the Gospel message. We also feel frustration at non-Christians who we cannot seem to fit into the formula in order either.
But what if this is not the only access story, just our culture-bound formula? What if the order in which these elements are addressed is not the essential thing? Because in real life they often seem to be jumbled. Some people are aware of their needs and then are drawn to Jesus; others are just drawn to Jesus, and only later does any conversation about the need for repentance even begin to make sense. (An interesting exercise -- flip through Acts and see how the Gospel is presented to Jewish audiences (Jerusalem and in the synagogues) and contrast with its presentation to non-Jewish audiences (Cornelius, Athens)).
What does this have to do with guilt? For Christians, it may be we do not need to believe the Gospel harder, we need affirmed to us that the story of our connection with the Gospel is valid (it is) -- and therefore the Good News is for us, too. And our story may have been through relationships and “come and see” experiences, or never knowing a day we did not know Jesus, or something else. (Though I won’t delve into it, I find echoes of the need for one’s story to be validated in Galatians, where Paul affirms the Gentile “come to Jesus”/ “remember how you first came to know God” story and refuses to let the Jewish Christians impose another story on them and try to fit their story in a different mold).
It also may be we are free to acknowledge that, for whatever reason, guilt does not resonate for non-Christians of our culture and time and generation, and that’s okay. We do not need to go to guilt to get to Christ – that is not the only formula or plot line available. To say another way, we do not need to force non-Christians to feel something they do not now feel in order to fix something they never thought they had a problem with until we came along (especially if that is not the route we ourselves followed). Sometimes all we need to do is invite people to come and see, and then watch the story God writes as He moves to set things right. And with that, I open the conversation...