Guilt that Restricts Healing

Sometimes we try to take advantage of God’s love, knowing God will forgive us in the end, ignoring the stern warning Hebrews 10:26-27 gives us: “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” This is one of the hardest verses for me to digest in the Bible, because I know I am deserving of this judgment.

Then there’s the Apostle Paul who asked, “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). In other words Paul is saying, “Yes, God is kind and patient towards us, but He isn’t that way so we can just sin all we want.” If anything, when we live that way Paul says, “You are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). 

Yeah, Chris Tomlin kind of left that part out of his song, Kindness. Of course, had he included it, we probably wouldn’t have sang it in church, seeing as how judgment isn’t a very popular worship theme. FiveThirtyEight, found that today’s mainstream Christian music is “unrelentingly cheerful.” After looking at the 5 years of Billboard’s top 50 Christian songs, they found grace was 2.5 times more common a theme than sin; life was 8 times more common than death; and love was 7 times more common than fear. When they compared these modern songs to the hymns of the 1800’s, they found that the hymns still referenced themes that were more positive in nature, but they referenced themes of judgment, sorrow, sin and darkness more often than we do now. (I learned this firsthand when our small group led worship for the elderly at a home for alzheimer’s patients. It seemed that every hymn we sang that night awkwardly ended with death.)

I don’t enjoy preaching or singing about themes like judgment, sorrow, sin and darkness, but I have pushed myself to do it from time to time so that I don’t water down the Scriptures. I want to do my best to recognize both sides of the conversation. Yes, God is patient, loving, kind and gentle—but He’s not ignorant.

But sometimes my recognition of judgment creates a deep guilt in me that restricts me from being able to heal. As Brennan Manning says, “Unhealthy guilt is self-centered; it stirs our emotions to churn in self-destructive ways, leads to depression and despair, closes us in upon ourselves, and preempts the presence of a compassionate God” (A Glimpse of Jesus: the Stranger to Self-Hatred, page 19).

I’ve been there many times. And one of those times came, ironically, after reading the whole Bible for the first time. Judgment is all across the Bible, especially in the prophets. Sure, the prophets have some great positive words, but for the most part it all feels like “doom and gloom.” And if you speed through reading those words in a few weeks like I did, you may come out the other side very messed up.

After I did this I felt so judged and guilty that I didn’t want to engage the presence of God anymore. I also felt confused, because if I went into God’s presence, He was always kind and loving towards me and I came away feeling refreshed. But the Bible is His Word too, right? So what was I supposed to feel?

When I finally decided to just embrace God’s presence, I felt God tell me that my reaction to the Bible was partially because I read it to get through it, rather than read it with His Spirit. That gave me some comfort, but it didn’t fix everything. In fact, the guilt was so strong that I wondered if I was really even good enough to be a pastor. This had always been a fear to some extent (as it is for many pastors), but now it was amplified.

My guilty depression went on for a good two months or so until someone in my church came up to me with a word they felt God wanted me to hear. She thought it was a bit generic of a word, but it was exactly what I needed to hear and was something along the lines of, “Keep going and don’t give up.” I walked out of church that day with a smile on my face, happy that God had responded to my many prayers through this congregant. I was too conflicted to enter into God’s presence to hear Him say it Himself, so He brought it to me through someone else.

It’s odd, but I can see unhealthy guilt clearly in others, I just can’t see it in myself for some reason. I noticed this one night while praying for a woman I hardly knew. I headed over to her house with a congregant for an emergency call and let her vent for a good 35 minutes before I ever spoke. She told me everything she felt guilty of and viciously ripped herself apart for not reading their Bible and for not doing other Christian-esque things. I was staring into a mirror of myself.

God is a loving God and therefore cares very much about our sin, because sin is unloving towards Him, ourselves, and others. But when we sin, we simply need to repent to God and others and receive the grace, mercy and love that God has for us and press forward. His kindness will help us break free of sin if we do not abuse or misunderstand it. We do not need to wallow in guilt forever, for forgiveness frees us to walk forward in freedom and growth.

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