Why it is Normal for Christians
To Feel Guilty and Ashamed
Compassionate help and powerful insights
for all of us suffering a guilty conscience
It is inevitable that Christians be plagued with guilt feelings and for people God is proud of to feel hopeless moral failures. Condemnation and shame are powerful, potentially lethal illusions afflicting us all and yet we will discover that these very feelings have propelled famous Christians to spiritual greatness. To understand why every child of God suffers these devastating feelings, we need to understand the nature of spiritual reality and the under-hand tactics of our spiritual enemies.
I am acutely aware that almost always there are natural psychological factors behind a nagging conscience. Understanding the non-spiritual component of our affliction is so vital that I dare not fail to address it. It could literally be a matter of life or death for some readers. Before getting there, however, I’d like us to peep over the fence and glimpse the other side.
Whether we admit it or not, we live in a war zone, with all the danger and horror that implies. In the deadly clash between the two spiritual superpowers, Planet Earth is perhaps the most strategic place in the universe. We fight not flesh and blood – not beings that show themselves and follow the Geneva Convention – but supernatural intelligences so determined to ruin us that there is no level of evil to which they will not stoop. Relative to us, these malicious, nonphysical life-forms have terrifying powers. Relative to the Almighty, however, they are pathetic. They are powerless to stop God from loving us, forgiving us and keeping all his glorious promises to believers. These enemies of truth cannot change reality. They can only look on in frustrated fury at all the blessings God has for us. There is only one thing these jealous ghouls can do. They can fight dirty by trying their utmost to trick us out of everything that is rightfully ours.
For insight into the supernatural power games each of us is thrust into, imagine yourself in the following natural situations. Suppose:
* You have a million dollar check in your hand, but you believe it is worthless.
* You are languishing in a dungeon, wrongly believing that the unlocked door is wired to blast you to pieces the moment you touch it.
* You could become the greatest pop star, but after years of being ridiculed by your family, you believe your voice is so pathetic that you feel too ashamed to use it.
* You are madly in love with someone who is equally over the moon about you, but you are too shy to make this discovery because you believe that person despises you.
* A sickly weakling seeks to humiliate you, threatening you with a harmless imitation of what you believe to be a deadly weapon.
Once our beliefs are affected, we can be robbed, stripped, cheated out of almost anything. You can be conned out of the spiritual equivalent of a billion dollar inheritance unless you believe the right thing.
Ultimately, our beliefs drive our actions. So even more important that what anyone does, is what a person believes.
Your belief system is both the engine room and the control center of your entire existence. Your destiny teeters on what you believe, and the spiritual lowlife who lust after your destruction, know it. So your beliefs about God and about what he has done for you is the key area of spiritual attack. The enemies of your soul know that you will inevitably act, not according to the astoundingly wonderful things God has done for you, but solely according to what you believe God has done for you. As important as reality is, reality will do you no good if you are tricked into not believing reality.
God’s spiritual enemies want to cheat us out of all the love, dignity, power, freedom, fulfillment, peace, and every other extravagant gift that Jesus shed his last drop of blood to lavish upon us. Demonic, hate-crazed con artists long to hoodwink us out of priceless things that are rightfully ours, and they succeed more often than we dare think.
Spurred to Spiritual Greatness by Satanic Condemnation?
Astounding things happen to everyone serving a God who promised to work all things together for good. With a God able to outsmart the devil at his every turn, the devil’s attack could even become God’s secret weapon. People have become outstanding men and women of God precisely because they were hounded by severe guilt feelings. Had assurance of salvation been an easy thing for them, I cannot imagine them becoming the great achievers for the kingdom that they are now famous for. Likewise, I believe your torment could be a sign that you are headed for spiritual greatness. That’s certainly what history suggests.
Every Protestant denomination on the planet owes its existence to Martin Luther’s tender conscience. Had, in his earlier years, he not suffered from what to him seemed an endless list of sins, he would not have made the exciting rediscovery of justification by faith. And had his struggle with his conscience not earlier caused him such agony he would have lacked his tremendous motivation to see the lives of multitudes of people spared the agony he has suffered.
John Bunyan’s spiritual torment was horrific. With a severity that few of us could even conceive, year after year he was repeatedly overwhelmed by a consciousness of sin, hopelessness and the seemingly certain prospect of an eternity in Hell. No wonder Pilgrim’s Progress is such an outstandingly powerful book. Much of it was virtually autobiographical.
Great men like George Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley suffered enormously in their struggle to find peace with God. Whitefield’s spiritual need was so all-consuming that his fastings almost killed him. The Wesley brothers were inconsolable until at long last they found how to receive Jesus’ forgiveness by faith. Spurgeon – the revered preacher of the past who is even today read by millions – suffered so greatly with his conscience that he wrote, “I had rather pass through seven years of the most languishing sickness, than I would ever again pass the terrible discovery of the evil of sin.” Not surprisingly, their subsequent ministries eclipsed that of almost all Christians who have been spared such anguish of soul.
Permit me to paraphrase two of Jesus’ teachings: The most important thing in life is to be in love with God, and the person who loves God most is the one most overwhelmed by the magnitude of his sin and yet realizes that God has erased every trace of it from heaven’s databanks (Scriptures).
Since salvation is by faith, not works, our eternal destiny is determined by what we believe, not by the good or bad we have done. Keep reading these webpages and you will find multitudes of Scriptures affirming this truth. For the moment, I’ll simply remind you of a Scripture you are sure to know:
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
“Whoever” is so all-inclusive that, no matter what you have done, it has to include you, or God is a liar. God’s promise is that if you believe in Jesus as your Savior, entrusting your life and destiny into his care, you will have eternal life. Neither your past nor present struggles can negate God’s promises to “whoever believes.” What to you seems more believable: that “whoever” includes you, or that God is a liar?
People are excluded themselves from eternal life not because of what they do but only because their faith is not in Jesus’ salvation. In the previous webpage, Feeling Rejected by God, we gained insight into the struggles this faith involves. We saw that feeling rejected by God can be our invitation to spiritual greatness.
Perhaps the most twisted thinking that we Christians commonly fall for is the ridiculous notion that to be strongly tempted to sin suggests a person is ungodly. To be tempted is to be attacked by anti-God forces, just as Jesus was attacked. The more one refuses to be defeated, the more furious the fight becomes. Someone who always quickly gives in to the slightest sinful whim will never experience sinful urges with a fraction of the intensity that a more godly person suffers.
Picture Jim, a heroin addict reeling in the pangs of withdrawal. Whenever he let himself, he could steal a chemical fix. His flesh craves relief so intensely that the torment could not be greater if he were being flayed alive for his faith and at anytime could end his agony by denying Jesus. Nevertheless, moved by his newfound passion for Jesus, he clenches his teeth and endures the horrors. Now see Darren, lounging in idle ease, blissfully unable even to imagine what a torturous craving for a chemical high would feel like. Never in his life has he even been offered an illicit drug. Who is the hero in this story? The one who has never had a drug battle in his life; who thinks his world is coming to an end if he so much as gets a pimple? If, later on, both were actually being tortured for their faith, which of them is more likely to honor his Lord?
To be tempted is to be afflicted with ungodly yearnings. It is only when temptation rages – only when sin seems the most desirable thing in the universe – that you have the chance to prove that you are committed to doing God’s will, rather than selfishly following your own desires. If to you a sin seems undesirable, there is nothing heroic in avoiding it. Anyone – even the most self-serving, anti-God person on the planet – would avoid a sin that repulses him. The proof of righteousness is when a person denies himself something his flesh cries out for.
Of course, to deliberately stir up a desire for sin is itself sin. I’m not for a moment suggesting you do that. My point, however, is that lack of temptation does not make a person holy, anymore than lack of opposition makes one a champion. Lack of desire for sin is no more proof of spiritual life than lack of desire is proof of physical life. Christlikeness means acting like Jesus in Gethsemane sweating as it were drops of blood. Everything within him screamed to flee from God’s will, and yet he forced himself to submit. That, not lack of temptation, is true holiness.
It’s About the Size of God, Not the Size of the Sin
I am about to very forcefully state my case because the jolt will empower some readers to see through the lie they have been fed. For them, reading this section could be the most liberating experience they have ever known. I am most concerned, however, that you could be one of those readers for whom this heavy-handed approach is inappropriate. The dilemma I agonize over is that very different people will read the same webpage. I lament not having the privilege of knowing you thoroughly as an individual and receiving divine insight to tailor my writing specifically to your situation. So although life-changing and uplifting for some readers, this section is one of several parts of my writings that might not be what you need in order to receive the comfort and relief you deserve. If so, please bear with me. Before long, we’ll get to other parts better targeted to your situation.
Everyone is forgivable, not because what they have done is minor but because what Jesus has done is enormous. You have indeed done awful things. None of us deserves forgiveness. So to regard yourself as unforgivable is not to insult yourself but to insult the magnitude of God’s forgiveness and to label a liar the God who has promised forgiveness to every single person who comes to Jesus seeking it. To regard yourself as an exception to God’s universal promises is to say you have managed to turn the Holy One into a liar and hence rendered him unfit to save anyone.
If God cannot forgive the world’s most depraved repeat offender or backslider who sincerely seeks forgiveness through Jesus, then God can forgive no one. It is never about whether anyone is lovable or forgivable, but solely about whether God is loving and forgiving. And since God is always loving and forgiving, that is all that matters.
To imagine that God could accept you only if you had sinned less, is not only an insult to God’s love and what Christ’s suffering achieved, it is an insult to God’s perfection. Only if God himself were less than absolute perfection would his standards degenerate into relativism. Relative to you, someone might be less sinful, but from the stance of God’s perfection, all of us are utter moral failures, equally worthy of eternal damnation.
The moral difference between any of us is miniscule relative to the infinite gap between anyone’s sinfulness and God’s perfection. Do you suppose you have gone too far to be forgiven, but that you – or someone else – could have been forgiven had the sinning or abuse of God’s grace been very much less? That is as ridiculous as thinking, “I could be forgiven if I had stopped when I had only murdered fifteen people, stolen half a million dollars and blown up two buildings, but now that I’ve also lied about my age I’ve finally gone beyond forgiveness.”
Even if we wrongly supposed that the moral difference between some of us is enormous, it would make no difference. The most distant star might be billions of times further away than the closest star, but it is impossible to jump up and touch either of them. Likewise, it matters not whether we are the most saintly or the most wicked people on earth, God’s standards are still infinitely beyond our reach.
We glibly say no one is perfect, but since perfection is the Holy Judge’s minimum standard, we’ve all missed our chance. If people miss the only flight to safety, it makes no difference whether some missed by far less than others. If none make it, the result is the same for the one who tried hard, as for the one who didn’t bother. When the wages of sin is death, there can be no consolation prizes. Nor can there be no greater penalty for a million sins. It takes no bigger miracle to resurrect one rotting corpse than another. For God to be able to save anyone, he has to be able to save you.
The tiniest sin is so horrendous in God’s eyes that if he can forgive anyone of the smallest sin, he can forgive you if your sins number in the trillions. And what is required is exactly the same – repentance and faith in the cleansing power of Jesus dying in your place.
People are accepted by God, not because of the smallness of their sin, but solely because of the greatness of God’s love. There are no exceptions.
Don’t suppose you have failed too many times. Your Judge is the Person who said if someone sins against us and asks forgiveness we must forgive not seven times but seventy times seven. If there is no limit to how many times we should forgive, there is no limit to how many times God will forgive anyone who keeps seeking forgiveness. To think anything else is to accuse the holy Lord of hypocrisy.
There is a particularly tender place in my heart for people riddled with false guilt over the fact that a sexual predator molested them as a child. It is perfectly valid to insist that these victims of crime are suffering false guilt, because what happened was not their fault. I worry, however, when some Christians are content to only take this approach in comforting these dear people. It suggests there is no greater solution to guilt feelings than what a non-Christian could offer. The danger is that it implies that Christian survivors of abuse might not have been able to find the same peace had what they suffered been their own fault. It implies that Jesus is powerless to offer innocence in God’s eyes to some particularly wicked people who truly regret their past. Such a thought is a slur on the One who died for us all, and a failure to grasp how equally sinful we all are. Not only can little children find innocence in God’s eyes, but so can the world’s most sadistic serial killer who sees the error of his ways and wants Jesus to take all sin from him.
A Christian is someone who goes through life not thinking “look at what I’ve done” (whether good or bad) but “look at what my Jesus has done.” With God, the issue is not what we can do for Jesus but what he has done for us. God is in the salvation business for what he can give, not for what he can get.
Some people mistakenly suppose God must be selfish to want his glory. What they forget is that God’s greatest glory is not his raw power or ability to force submission. God’s greatest glory is in displaying the extravagance of his love and flabbergasting his enemies by transforming into his princes and princesses earth’s most depraved, seemingly unredeemable human wrecks. As an antique restorer wins the greatest acclaim by transforming seemingly worthless pieces of junk into objects of beauty proudly displayed in mansions, so the more hopeless you seem, the more God yearns to win for both you and him the eternal acclaim that comes from beautifying you.
Our Lord keeps emphatically stating in his Word that gaining God’s approval flows not from good living but solely from trusting what Jesus achieved by dying for our sins. To make this point, the apostle Paul lists all his spiritual achievements. Not only was he born to the right family, he was renowned as a highly qualified and respected theologian and Bible scholar. He followed God’s Word to the letter from childhood; his whole life devoted to serving God. And yet if challenged as to why he should go to heaven, he regarded all his clean living and sacrificial devotion and prayer and tithing and training and reputation and position among the cream of the religious elite of God’s chosen people, as being so much trash. When he stood before the x-ray eyes of the fearsome Judge of all humanity, he would sooner display his own bodily filth as hold up any of these as reason why Almighty God should accept him. He was resolute in this determination to put all his eggs in one basket and, on that fateful day when his eternal destiny hangs in the balance, ditch all his qualifications and declare, “Lord God, my one and only hope of your acceptance is that the holy Son of God died for me, the chief of sinners.” (Scriptures)
“ . . . I consider them rubbish,” wrote Paul about his every moral achievement, “that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own . . . but that which is through faith in Christ . . .” (Philippians 3: 8-9). Paul did not want any righteousness that could be called his own.
With more reason than almost anyone on the planet, Paul used to pride himself on his moral achievements. Then he encountered the terrifying holiness of Jesus and the unattainable beauty of his goodness. Suddenly, in the brilliance of Jesus’ purity, his own attempts at righteousness looked repulsive. Then he discovered that he could be credited with everything that Jesus has done, simply by asking for it in faith. No wonder Paul wanted credited to his account not the slightest good that he had ever done. To try to be credited with both Jesus’ righteousness and one’s own would be like being given sparklingly pure water and mixing it with one’s own filth.
What separates people spiritually is not how much they have sinned but how much they abandon faith in themselves and cling to Jesus as their Savior. We dare not dissipate our faith by trying to hedge our bets. All our faith must be in Jesus alone. We must avoid putting even a microscopic speck of faith in our own devotion or in the presumption that there are others even more sinful. Our certain but sole hope of gaining God’s approval is that on the cross Jesus swapped places with us.
Why Your Guilt Attack Might Be Purely Psychological
It would be irresponsible of me to think I could be of any help merely by explaining that as a Christian you have no rational reason for feeling guilty. My efforts could be as pathetic as finding someone shaking in fear of a mouse and thinking myself a hero for informing her that the mouse cannot hurt her. I would merely have insulted her intelligence by telling her what she already regards as obvious. I would leave her not only be still trembling, but justifiably angry at me.
If a person is petrified of what she knows is a harmless creature, it would be cruel and ignorant to say, “Where’s your faith? Why can’t you trust God to protect you?” She knows she is safe. It’s not a question of faith. It’s not a spiritual issue at all. It’s a psychological condition.
For most of us, there is a psychological component to our guilt feelings and for quite a few of us, our guilt feelings are an overwhelmingly intense psychological phenomenon that has almost nothing to do with our faith or spiritual understanding.
If a person is distressed because he is trapped in a burning building, he needs not preaching, but the practical help of a fireman. Likewise, if a person is distressed by psychologically-induced guilt feelings, he needs not Bible-bashing, but the practical help that a counselor or therapist might offer. And if someone trapped in a fire should feel no shame in calling for help, neither should anyone feel shame in calling for professional help for psychologically-induced guilt feelings. Such a person is by no means a nutcase. We humans are such complex beings that I doubt there is a person on the planet who for psychological reasons has not at some time suffered feelings that do not line up with reality. Who of us, for example, has never experienced at least one minor phobia – feeling fear or anxiety about something that deep down we know is really no need for concern?
Some people (hypochondriacs) are convinced they are sick when they are not. Anorexics are sure they are fat when they are not. Many people feel unloved when they are not. Some wrongly feel lazy or are so convinced that they can only succeed by overwork that they become workaholics. Still others feel stupid or inadequate or poor or insecure or the object of ridicule or doomed to failure when there is no rational basis for the awful feelings that harass them.
We could fill a library with accounts of irrational feelings that dog us all. In my case, I feel so ugly I’m sometimes ashamed to show my face in public. Whether my distress is rationally justified, I’ll let you decide, but I’m in no doubt about the extent to which some people have multiplied my inner pain by claiming that as a Christian I shouldn’t be attacked by such feelings. We’ve all met Christians endowed with a special gift for finding people suffering in ways they have been graciously spared and, instead of being thankful for their blissful ignorance, they beat up their unfortunate victims by accusing them of lacking faith. If people discover you are hounded by guilt over things Christ has forgiven, there will be those who blast you for your “lack of faith,” when the mere fact that you are still clinging on could mean that you have a hundred times more faith than them.
It’s not lack of faith that causes a person to fear heights. It’s a psychological condition akin to ones that afflict us all, and it needs to be treated as such. The same could well be true of your guilt feelings; in which case, the intelligent response would be to seek out someone skilled in providing psychological help.
It is also true that psychological afflictions can be exploited by our spiritual opponents. Their involvement could become so intense that direct spiritual counter-attack is required. Perhaps someone experienced in this ministry could help by specifically addressing the demons harassing you. One of the links below explains more about the demonic, but you also need to keep reading these pages.
The Vital Step
What you want is not talk but practical help in enjoying freedom from guilt. This is what makes the next page vital. Both the spiritual and psychological components of your guilt will benefit from reading it.
Warning: These Pages Won’t Help Everyone
Some people terrified about being unforgivable just need Bible-based reassurance or an explanation of a disturbing Scripture. If vast amounts of rational support and biblical exposition are the answer, keep following the links. Many Christians, however, presume this is what they need but it turns out that no amount of biblical proof or sound, theological argument or even spectacular spiritual experience can put their minds to rest. If you have already sought much help but worries keep resurfacing, you most likely need a totally different approach. You should skip these pages (you can return later if you wish) and go straight to Scrupulosity.
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Vital HelpScripture quotations are from the New International Version © Copyright, 1978 by New York International Bible Society
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