Thursday, April 04, 2013

On Guiltification

This post is a first for me. For the first time, I am porting a Facebook status from there to here as a blog post.

A little background: This morning, a thought popped into my head that I wanted to talk with other believers about, so I posted it on Facebook with a question:

It just struck me that in the religious environment of my childhood, the key to pleasing God was neither faith nor works, but emotion - i.e., feeling guilty. The idea, pervasive without ever being fully articulated, was that the worse I could feel about myself, the more likely I was to find favor with the Almighty.

Has anybody else been there?

To my surprise, my first, almost immediate response came from a non-Christian friend, Khrys Myrddin:

Khrys Myrddin That is a profoundly sad realization, isn't it? If God is love, then should He not rejoice in your goodness? Should He not support you in your weakness, ever calling you to be the best person you can be? I hope that you have moved beyond this in your spiritual life now because, aside from just the crappiness of feeling crappy about yourself all the time, guilt is not a useful emotion. Intelligent regret is another thing--this helps us learn and improve our commitment to acting better and changing our minds and hearts.

I said that for me, it wasn't sad at all, but that it would take me some time to explain why. That was this morning. This evening I wrote this:

Okay, here goes... The phrase "God is love," like "to be or not to be," is so much a part of our culture that many people who use it don't know where it comes from. So, a little background:

It comes from the first of three letters written by the apostle John that are part of the Christian Bible, referred to as 1 John. John also wrote the Gospel of John, one of four accounts of Jesus' life found in the Bible. The letter is short, but is jam-packed with themes like the holiness of God, the divinity of Christ, the centrality of love and the reality of sin.

Also, the letter draws upon the Gospel so much that it's practically an extension of it, so to fully appreciate what he means when he says, "God is love," one would need to read the Gospel, then the letter. The following is just a tip of the iceberg, to provide a taste of context (he said, awkwardly mixing metaphors).

John's letter says twice that "God is love." The first time is here (1 John 4:7-10):

"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins."

Note what happens here. John says "God is love," then talks in almost the next breath about God sending His Son to satisfy His anger against our sins by dying (that's "propitiation"). That's a big chunk of stuff that many people do not associate with God being love, but that's what John meant when he wrote it.

You ask, "If God is love, should He not rejoice in your goodness?" I can't say what God should do. But I can restate John to say what He HAS done and IS doing: BECAUSE God is love, He HAS forgiven my badness - at the cost of His Son's life. BECAUSE God is love, He IS giving me His own goodness from the inside out. Which is a better deal than simply celebrating my goodness, because my goodness is not nearly as sturdy as His.

My original post oversimplified things; my religious teaching was not ALL about guilt. It would indeed be sad if it were "only the feeling of guilt that bears one closer to the source of all love and goodness." But in fact I was taught that because God is love, He has removed my objective guilt through His Son's death; thus I was drawn to God by gratitude.

The problem was that somehow, that teaching was overlaid with the idea that I still needed to cultivate guilty feelings. Somehow, while believing that God's Son paid the price for all of my sins, I believed that I still needed to pay for them in some fashion myself. Thus, guiltification - using guilt as a qualification for God's approval (yep, I made that up).

This morning's realization was not sad precisely because I did receive the above teaching from John (and the rest of Scripture) deeply enough so that it went deeper than guiltification. If it hadn't, I might have developed a level of resentment that would have led me to turn away from God altogether. As it was, I merely suffered some neurosis for a while. Given that every child of human parents gets screwed up somehow, I got off much easier than many others, and on the whole I am deeply grateful.

Are you a Christian for whom justification has sometimes been obscured by guiltification? For that matter, have you seen guiltification at work in purely human relationships ("I'll like you more when you act more guilty.")? Share your story in the comments!

1 comment:

Nancy said...

First, I should say that I was raised Catholic (16 years of Catholic education, too), and that a Jewish Mother has NOTHING on a Catholic Mom. I, too, was guiltified from a very young age.
However, I think the guilt induced by my mother, and by yours, may have been a "useful" type of guilt, if such a thing exists: The kind that promotes the value of respecting that which has been done for you enough that it results in your feeling badly about having taken advantage of the Gift.
I frequently joke with my own children that the bad behavior of their friends is a result of the Church's reduction of Hell from an eternal firey pit to "a breach in one's relationship with God." (I should say that I also object to this, believing that God still loves those who are paying for their sins.)
They have no conception of what that means in their youth.
But now we come to the meat of what I feel: That guilt, which made you feel bad, also kept you from picking up a weapon to get what you felt you deserved; it kept you in school; it provided a right-then-and-there notice of the injustice you were committing against your mom, your friends, and most importantly your Lord and Savior.
You don't even have to have faith to understand when you are hurting someone, and the feeling that results within you, or should result, is guilt, the reinforcing force promoting moral and equitable behavior.
God is indeed love. And your mom loves you. But we have the most trouble when it comes to "love one another," and sometimes we should feel a lot more guilty about that.