An Ode to Guilt and Fear

law-1063249_640The question on my mind today is this:

What’s so bad about guilt and fear? Why can’t we bring them out of moth balls for use in the twenty-first century? You know, for Jesus.

Fine. I know the answer. I live on this planet, too, but still, doesn’t anyone else miss them?

I grew up in the sixties and seventies so I KNOW that guilt and fear went out of style with poodle skirts and leather jackets.

I was probably ten when I read, “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” and signed onto the notion that it’s better to help people be internally motivated to change than to try to force change on them using the billy clubs of guilt and fear. I’m with the new-and-improved modern program.

But still,

I kind of miss guilt and fear and I’m thinking that just because they were overused in the decades that came before we tossed them to the curb, does that mean we should completely outlaw their use in the current age?

Maybe we can talk this through together. Here’s my thinking.

False guilt is never a good thing. In fact, false guilt is a weapon of the evil one. (You can tell this because it starts with the word “false” which designates it as a lie and therefore, as coming from the kingdom of evil.)

But what about actual guilt?

Actual guilt can be useful.

If a person is guilty of something and has no intention of seeking forgiveness for this something or of changing his or her ways and they FEEL guilty, isn’t that a sign of mental health?

I mean, if you are guilty shouldn’t you feel guilty?

Guilt can be a guide to alert me that I’ve ventured onto dangerous ground. Like feeling heat when I put my hand on a stove burner. While that’s painful, should I reject the pain or be thankful that it causes me to pull my hand away before there is permanent damage?

I work with many people who have done some very wrong things. Many of them don’t plan to change but they don’t feel guilty at all. In fact, they have very healthy self-images.

For them, I’m thinking a little guilt might actually be an improvement in their situations and I grow wistful for a time when guilt when was in fashion. For me, the thought of helping people feel comfortable with their sinful state is more frightening than causing them the discomfort of guilt.

Then, there’s fear. I used to be totally opposed to fear. I felt that fear was the enemy. Now, though, I’m working on the theory that fear is not the problem but misplaced fear.

There ARE some things of which we should be afraid. Displeasing God. Hurting other people. Growing hardened to sin. Hell.

I think a healthy fear of bad things can help us make good choices.

Once I had a friend who ran a coffee shop. We frequently had spiritual conversations but I never broached subjects that might incite him to feel guilt or fear.

One day, he said to me, “You know what I like about you, Lori? My sister’s a Christian like you but she tells me I’m going to hell. It makes me feel bad and I don’t like it. You’re a Christian, too, but you don’t bother me with stuff like that.”

I stopped with my coffee half-way to my lips and took a long look at myself in the mirror over the coffee bar before answering. “Wow, friend. I have to apologize for that – to you and to your sister – because, I do, in fact, believe you’re headed for hell.”

“What?” He exclaimed. “How can you say that?”

I ticked off the reasons on my fingers. “You don’t believe Jesus is God. You don’t believe you’re a sinner who needs forgiveness. You don’t believe you need to be saved so you won’t trust Jesus for your salvation. In my understanding, if you continue on that path, you’re headed directly to hell. Tell your sister I apologize for making her look bad by not mentioning this earlier in our relationship.”

“Hey, Lori, you’re really scaring me.” He said.

“Now, we’re getting somewhere.” I replied.

Fear. It does a body good – – – when it moves it in a direction away from danger.

So, I get it. I don’t think we should try to be the Holy Spirit for other people by attempting to make them feel guilty or by making them fearful

But I also think we should stop walking on eggshells around topics that may inspire appropriate guilt or fear of real danger.

When I was growing up, fear of negative consequences helped me make wise decisions in the face of numerous temptations. Likewise, guilt over sin has motivated me to turn around, repent, and get back onto the path of righteousness in line with God’s will for me.

I wouldn’t want a life ruled by either of these emotions but they have their place and it’s not on the walls of the museum of out-dated ideas.

How about you? Ever want to dust off the guilt and fear in your toolbox and pull them out for use in kingdom building in your sector? Think I’m way off base? Don’t be afraid to tell me – even if it might make me feel guilty.

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    The Conversation

  1. OWWWW! that hurt. I was taught that my job as a preacher was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Sounds close to what you are saying.

  2. As usual, I appreciate you flipping a topic on its head to point out some Truth we often skirt.

    While I am adamant in my opposition/resistance to the spirit of fear (which seeks to inspire that misplaced fear you mentioned), Jesus Himself said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:28)

    On a physical level, there is wisdom in recognizing things that have the power to harm you. Don’t play with fire, don’t walk on the edge of the cliff, etc.

    As for making people feel guilty or afraid by what we say… Ha ha! Your example was fantastic. We should tell the truth, as God leads and prompts us. Sometimes His timing is not ours, but there is certainly a time for speaking a truth that might immediately result in conviction or fear. We didn’t “make” them feel that way — it’s a natural result of their actions plus the movement of the Spirit on their soul, their conscience.

    Our society (both in and out of the church) definitely tends to avoid conflict and pain and making others uncomfortable. I consider it my job to listen for whatever the Spirit may want me to say and not think too hard about how the other person will take it. That’s (in a way) none of my business.

    It is amazing, though, what a mess is so easily made when we aren’t in tune with what He is saying at that moment to that person. So many vulnerable hearts are broken and pushed away from Him by people who think they’re just telling the truth. So many hardened hearts are left untouched by people who think they mustn’t offend.

    The timing of your comment to that coffee shop friend was significant. He had been around you long enough to feel your love and respect and friendship. So when you spoke those words, they were coming from a foundation of trust and hit home without the baggage that comes from hearing it from family.

  3. I agree…Guilt and fear helps us to discern right from wrong. If we practice and teach: “You do your thing, I’ll do mine”…”everything is fine”…”I’m okay, you’re okay”….etc., then fear of the consequences will not make us think, assess, become better, maker wiser choices. Good thoughts!

  4. I like that, Don. I also feel called to be a disturber of hobbits, to make comfortable Christians continually late for dinner

  5. Joanne Sher says:

    Guilt is SO important for repentance. How can you ask for forgiveness if you don’t feel like you did anything wrong?

    Super post.

  6. I agree, Teddi, that the “spirit of fear” should be rejected but “fearing actual danger” should be practiced. Thanks for the support around my illustration but I know the truth is that without the goad provided by that man’s sister, I would never have gotten down to the stone-cold truth with him. It was solid teamwork but all orchestrated by the Holy Spirit and despite me rather than to my credit.

  7. Thank you Deb and Joanne!

  8. Excellent post. I think this is something that is missing in the American church as a whole. Pendulums swing, and in the effort to get away from the “hellfire and brimstone” preaching of 50-plus years ago, we’re all about making God attractive and drawing people in based totally on the fact that God loves them because they are wonderful just the way they are. (God loves us just as we are, but not because we are wonderful; because He is!) Repentance is not mentioned much today, because that involves addressing sin. Nathan had no qualms about pointing out David’s sin with Bathsheba, David felt tremendous conviction and appropriate guilt, and Psalm 51 is the beautiful result. And fortunately, Christ’s blood covers our guilt!

  9. Thought provoking. I am no good at pressuring people where faith is concerned because I hate conflict. I am bold with my beliefs. People who know me, Christian or Non-Christian, know where I stand and that I will say so. But to “accuse” somebody in person – I can’t do it. I think it goes back to my childhood (doesn’t everything) where I’d see my mother ask people where they’d been and why they’d miss church. They always turned away and never spoke to her afterward. But your post makes me think, and that’s probably a good thing. Blessings.

  10. Megan says:

    I agree with you Lori. We have to behold both the kindness and the severity of the Lord. We should be afraid of displeasing Him. He’s not our chummy old pal, He is God Almighty. I have been hearing a lot of sermons on how we are the Laodecian church lately, so I am leaning more towards the fear of God right now.
    (Though I fall seven times a day!)