or Freedom in Guilt . . . I’m not sure which fits better . . .
I recently watched a TV show called Elementary (S2e2) in which the lead character said, “There is nothing on this planet quite so toxic as guilt.” It’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes we let guilt over something in our pasts infest our hearts until we are powerless to live as God directs us. This is not what God wants for any of us. He also doesn’t want us to live in fear of present-day guilt, which is what I’ve been thinking about recently.
This guilt thing is not just a 20th/21st-century problem. In Luke 11, Jesus criticized the Pharisees and so-called law experts for how they made faith . . . actually all of life . . . more difficult rather than easier. They obscured Truth. They blocked the “regular folk” from understanding, and they focused on the minutia of the law without seeing the spirit of it, which is justice and love. He said, You give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God (Luke 11:42). In other words, they laid the guilt on like hot tar: thick and sticky.
Religion—any religion—makes life difficult, complicated, even onerous. The Law declares us guilty, and justifiably so. Religion places the burden of that guilt directly on our shoulders. But Jesus makes men free (Jn 8:36, Gal 5:1).* Eric Metaxas (in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, 424-5) observes, “God wanted his beloved children to operate out of freedom and joy to do what was right and good, not out of fear of making a mistake. . . . To act freely could mean inadvertently doing wrong and incurring guilt. . . . But if one wished to live responsibly and fully, one would be willing to do so.”** When we fully trust the Holy Spirit, we find incredible freedom as we come out from under the toxic burden of religion, but we risk two types of guilt being applied to us.
First, we may misinterpret His direction and thus fall outside His will. This is what Metaxas was talking about. It’s ‘guilt’ in the legal sense, as opposed to innocence. When we, as believers, think of emotion or our relationship to the Holy Spirit, the better term is probably conviction, rather than guilt because these days, ‘guilt’ carries the connotation of condemnation. Nevertheless, a right motive doesn’t actually excuse a wrong action. Everything outside His will is sin, for which we would be judged if we hadn’t already been forgiven.*** But wouldn’t you rather over-respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit? I would. This is a ‘guilt’ I’m willing to risk, expecting it to come less and less frequently as I mature in Christ.
Second, we may be misunderstood (that’s a nice way to say “judged”) by those who cling to religious rules.**** We all know that we shouldn’t let other’s opinions deter us, but we’re not-yet-fully-sanctified. Sometimes we still worry about what our mothers or our pastors or our Believing friends will think of our behavior when it falls outside the church culture norms. Stop for a second and consider a part of the story that’s missing from that favorite Sunday School song: Zacchaeus. When Jesus went to Zacchaeus’ house, all the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner” (Luke 19:7). Did you catch that? They judged Jesus—JESUS!—for breaking social mores . . . for doing something that the other religious leaders would never dream of doing . . . for heeding God rather than man. Kyle Idleman, author of not a fan, said, “If you follow Jesus, expect to find yourself being criticized by some of the religious people in your life.” Yep. There are worse things than being labeled a rebel.
I feel like this lifestyle leaves me plowing through ten-foot-high snow drifts with a Tonka truck. Perhaps this is because I’m only beginning to understand it. I’m so bound by culture and social opinion that freedom from guilt doesn’t feel so freeing just yet. But I know this: the reward resulting from this life of freedom is eternal life in the fullest sense of the term. It’s eternal life now. It’s the Kingdom lived out on earth. And it’s worth it.
So let’s throw our arms open wide and embrace obedience, heedless of what others may think!
I had rather be among them who, in the actings of their love and affection unto Christ, do fall into some irregularities and excesses in the manner of expressing it…than among those who, professing themselves to be Christians, do almost disavow their having any thoughts of or affection unto the person of Christ. -John Owen, quoted in Timothy Keller’s Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God
Digressions I left out for clarity’s sake:
*This is not a contradiction with the Slavery post I wrote earlier. Our enslavement releases us to fully become what He has designed us to be . . . and you can’t get that any other way.
** This principle affects our parenting. A child who thinks and really tries to do the right thing but misses it should not be punished like the child who acts carelessly. Metaxas’ book is GREAT, by the way!
***THIS is the answer to those who say they have the “freedom to sin”. Ready-forgiveness releases us from inadvertent sins that may arise because we’re not-yet-fully-sanctified. So for this reason, motive is important.
****Part of the beauty of this freedom is that we don’t have to remember a bunch of laws . . . and details of the laws . . . and exceptions to the laws . . . and interpretations of the laws . . . Need I go on? Instead, the Holy Spirit leads us in a way that is always in sync with the Law—the spirit of the law, that is—and never outside the Law. The Beatitudes are a good example of how this began. Bonhoeffer (quoted in Metaxas’ book, pg. 83) said, “The Christian message is basically amoral and irreligious, paradoxical as that may sound.” If Bonhoeffer’s statement intrigues you, I recommend Sacrilege, by Hugh Halter.