The Christian craving for guilt

Christians love feeling guilty. In fact, they positively crave it. In fact, to Christians, guilt feels like devotion. The popularity of books like Francis Chan’s Crazy Love and David Platt’s Radical testifies to this. Anyone who speaks or writes of all the ways the church is blowing it, falling short, and insufficient is almost destined to become a rock star.

It’s in our religious DNA. Read through the gospels and you will be hard pressed to identify anything Jesus said which could reasonably be interpreted as “shame on you,” yet if the Christian gospel as it has actually come to us throughout history could be summarized in three words, I could hardly think of three more appropriate ones. Shame on us for not reading our Bibles more. Shame on us for not praying more. Shame on us for having lustful thoughts. Shame on us for believing Calvin more than Arminius (or vice versa). Shame on us for leaning too much on God’s grace and love and not believing enough in punishment. Shame on us for liking rock and roll, dancing, and places where these things are happening. Shame on us for having marriages that crumble, just like everybody else. Shame on us for missing church. Shame on us for not caring more for the poor. Shame on us for wanting to live the way all God’s other creatures live — in the moment, not analyzing our performance every second of the day, not constantly feeling inferior (or superior) — just wanting to live in peace.

Shame on you is the message. It’s hard to hear it for what it is, because it always come disguised as well-meaning books by well-meaning preachers/teachers, telling us in well-meaning ways how we can be more of all the stuff those preachers obviously need us to be in order for them to sleep well at night: more passionate and compassionate, more fired up, more generous, more committed to God, the church, and our marriages, more, more, more. (Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Many of these are good things!) And the church laps this up. We buy these books and listen to these messages because we are so convinced of our insufficiency. After all, our marriages really are busting up. If we’re honest, we’re really not as committed to God and church as we think we should be. We really don’t give as much as we know we should. So Chan, Platt, and the gang are telling us what we already know is true. We, both individually and collectively, suck.

But the church has NEVER been sufficient, or full of the kind of people Chan cites as the right kinds of Christians. I thought that’s what Jesus was for. I thought the message of Jesus was that we are loved by God in full knowledge of our shortcomings and insufficiencies. Whose gospel is it that we can fix things if we just try harder? And when did anyone get the impression that we can ever try hard enough to assuage our own deep sense that we are not good enough and could always do more? Guilt is killing us, but we love it. We just can’t let it go.

We think guilt helps us perform better, be “better” Christians (or maybe just better human beings), so we refuse to let go of it. But guilt doesn’t help us perform better, it paralyzes us. It reminds us constantly of our insufficiency. As spiritual as guilt makes us feel, it’s what is trapping us. We simply have to let it go.

Guilt always makes everything, ultimately, about us. If I try to love you because I feel guilty for not loving you, I’m loving you not because you are human and deserve to be loved, but to assuage my own guilt. If I give to the poor not because generosity is good but because I feel like a scumbag for not giving enough, I’m not giving for the sake of the poor, I’m giving so that I can feel good again. If I go to church not because church is good and helps me connect to a community of people who love and care for me, but simply because I feel sinful and guilty for not going, then going to church is just about me not wanting to feel guilty anymore.

That’s why you’ll never get anywhere with guilt. Francis Chan, Platt, and so many other guilt-mongers are making the right diagnosis, but their solution is part of the problem. Try harder. Cling tighter to that banana. But the answer is to let go of the banana and plunge headlong into the gospel — the good news that we are fully loved, fully accepted by God at this very moment, insufficiencies and all. As Richard Rohr says, we don’t change so that God will love us, we come to know God loves us so that we can change.

As I learn today that I am loved, change occurs in me. As I learn tomorrow that I am loved, more change occurs. This is an eternal process. At no time do I get to say, “Okay, I now know that I am loved — what are all the projects and things I get to start running around and doing?” This misses Jesus’ crucial words about “abiding” (John 15). To abide is to remain rooted in that love, so that our actions for good are springing directly from God’s loving action for good that is at work in us. This means there is no room and no need for, “Yes, but you must balance being loved with taking action.” There is no separation between love and action. We can trust that being loved does and will lead to action — and to the very best kind: the non-guilty, non-forced, non-judgmental, non-clamoring, non-needy kind.

When we begin to move into this moment by moment experience of being loved, we find that our sense of guilt is beginning to be replaced by a sense of gratitude. We let go of the banana and, for the first time, we are free to become all the things we have always felt guilty for not being. Sounds like fruits of the Spirit. I am going to end this post with a passage from scripture. As you read, replace the word “God” with the word “love.”

Romans 8:10-11 (MSG)
10 …for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. 11 It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!  (emphasis mine)



A Primer for those Struggling with Faith


Image courtesy of Coralie Mercier, licensed under Creative Commons

One of my main goals as a teacher, counselor, pastor, and writer is to help people who are really feeling lost on the faith journey. At the bottom of this post you will find links to posts that I believe might be helpful to you if you have found yourself in that position of struggling to get, or hang on to, faith. And if that’s you, there are several other things I want you to know.

Struggling with Faith IS the Faith Journey

As a marriage counselor I tell premarital couples that they will not always feel about each other the way they feel now. Times of dryness and difficulty, and perhaps even great struggle, are part of the marriage journey. When couples don’t know this they get to those times and fear the relationship may be over. What we need for our faith life, in order to hang in there, is first and foremost the knowledge that the struggle itself is part of the journey and not a sign that we have wandered down some other path. In other words, you are okay.

You Can’t Go Back the Way You Came

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Truly transformational counseling, prt. 2

Today I want to give you the last five of ten questions and issues you may end up considering in counseling that is deeply transformational.

6. Where is God in the darkest, nastiest places in your life? We know God is with us, so wherever you are, God is there too. But what is God speaking to you in those places? Certainly those are the places that are rich with opportunity for growth, and for opening up to love and joy. “The people living in darkness have seen a great light!”

7. Where are you standing in your own way? Despite your sincere desire to grow and change, how are you actually preventing yourself from doing so? I promise you this is happening.

8. Hardest of all of these is looking deeply into what got you to where you are today. Usually there is immense grief and a lot of self-loathing associated with those things in people’s lives, and a lot of grieving may need to be done, under the guidance of someone who can keep reminding you that this is deeply spiritual work. Don’t freak it out by demanding that it be couched in a lot of scripture, and don’t be paranoid about it if it doesn’t seem “Christian” enough. Just keep asking yourself if it is leading you toward truth. Jesus, the Christian God, claimed to not only know truth, but to be the truth! Anything that is leading you towards truth is getting you closer to God. Relax and let it happen.

9. How is your relationship with God mirrored in your relationship with your spouse and children? This is useful because it helps to move God from abstract to concrete. We cannot love people differently than we love God, or vice versa.

10. Be assured that the promised land DOES exist, and it HAS been already given to you! But there are chains you will need to have removed if you are ever going to get there. That’s your work. God’s work is providing the land for you, and taking you there if you are willing to fight the battles, learn to listen carefully, and endure the dark days in the desert where you may often feel like going back to the way it was would be easier.

Question: Any stories about counseling that ended up transforming you in some ways that ended up hurting you or people you love? (We can’t assume all therapists are coming from a place that is helpful.)

Magical or Mystical

It seems to me the fundamental divide in the Christian church right now comes down to whether we see God as working magically or mystically in our lives and in the world.  In a magical religious understanding, I say some prayer of repentance, “accept” Christ as my Savior, and God stamps my ticket into heaven, cancels my ticket to hell, and gives me — at that moment — the gift of wholeness and holiness.  Of course theologians who believe this must go to great lengths to explain why most people who have this experience are in fact not significantly transformed and not able to live according to God’s standards of holiness.  And, of course, they in fact do go to these lengths.

In a mystical understanding, God shows me what holiness looks like and why it is good, and then produces that holiness in me as I learn to increasingly cooperate with him.  Both magical and mystical thinkers believe that human effort in transformation is necessary.  Magical thinkers will tell you that transformation is something that God is producing, but will spend hours talking about defeating sin or making other efforts to stop this or start that.  Mystical thinkers do not deny our cooperation with God, but the efforts mystics make are not usually efforts to combat any specific sin.  My efforts are aimed at clearing my mind and heart and life of clutter so that God can spring to life in me, producing the life God desires for me.  Magical thinkers think mystical thinkers aren’t aggressive enough in defeating sin and tend to wonder if Christ is even really in them at all.  Mystical thinkers tend to wonder if magical thinkers know where transformation actually comes from, since we see real transformation in our lives and believe all transformation into love is from Christ.

Jesus said, “A tree is known by its fruit.”  If we can trust and believe this, we can easily identify God at work in and around us.  If we cannot believe it, we must build elaborate theological systems to justify why so often the apple tree isn’t producing apples.  I do not doubt that God changes lives in many ways, I just happen to believe that it will happen more often through mysticism than through magic.

Sores on my knees

I am beginning to get sores on my knees from praying for people I love who are messing up their lives. Small groups meet. Sermons get preached. Pleas get made. Prayers get prayed. Still, lives implode. It never ends.

Lives do not implode because they have to. No one makes anyone give up on a marriage. No one forces anyone to live in constant denial of their financial condition. No one requires that anyone refuse to examine their relationship with their children. In the final analysis, lives implode because people are not willing to do the hard work of living in truth. No wonder so many will not face the truth about their lives. If one is not willing to conform his/her life to the truth, one is probably best off not knowing what it is.

More and more my life is about picking up the pieces of the broken lives of people I love. Today I prayed, “God, I’m tired of praying for my friends who don’t care enough about their lives to learn to live them well.” I know those are strong words, but I’m feeling emotional right now.

I don’t know who reads this blog. Not as many as I’d like. But if you are reading this right now, and you are about to step off a cliff (and that number is always greater than I know at any given time), I beg you to reconsider. I beg you to get help. I beg you to swallow your pride, to repent of your refusal to open your eyes, to fall on your face before God and commit yourself to doing what is right no matter the cost.

God loves you. God cares for you. In fact, God cares for nothing greater than your happiness, but it is not to be found on the path you have carved for yourself. It is not to be found in the arms of someone else. It is not to be found in the next dollar you spend or the next drink or roll of the dice. If you want to live in peace and be happy, you must conform your life to the nature God gave you. God created you to crave fulfillment and you will only find that fulfillment in him. God created you to need him, and if you are not seeking happiness in him, then, my friend, you do not know what you need.

My heart aches to see you be healed. And as much as it burns to see those who are not Christians come to know Christ, it burns even hotter to see those who claim to be Christians actually living their lives under God’s blessing. It is not God’s will that your marriage be in shambles. It is not God’s will that you be at odds with your children. It is not God’s will that you continue to reap the consequences that always come from living in darkness.

Pastors live in the pain of other people. The deepest pain is the pain we feel when our people (actually, God’s people) choose to stumble around in darkness and don’t realize how they are reeking havoc in their lives and the lives of those around them. We see the train coming. We sound the warning. We plead. We pray. Sometimes we even get angry. Usually in response we get only denial. Denial. Denial. Denial. Then WHAM!!!

I’ve said enough. God has told us clearly how we are to live. We will never find rest until we rest in him. So there. I’ve put it out there. One more plea to the wind. I return now to prayer and mourning for those who refuse to listen.