By Paul Coughlin
I know a man who brought his children to church every week even when they were ill. He would wake them from their deep slumber, the very medicine they needed to receive healing, and bring them to church with a fever, runny nose and tears. That man was me.
My spiritual training then consisted of a graceless and temperamental God who demanded tremendous obedience to many rules, unwavering church attendance being one. If I failed to keep the growing list of rules, His heavy hand would be taken from my life and His untold blessings would be replaced by judgment and condemnation. To this day, I cannot remember receiving knowledge that was useful for my soul during the sermons of those fretful years (fear has a way of doing that), but I still felt I had to be there regardless. I submitted to this treatment because I was an approval junkie.
I, like many other earnest people of faith, spent the first half of my church life trying to avoid displeasing my pastor instead of pleasing God. Those wacky years are past me now, but they help to explain where false guilt comes from: a faulty understanding of one's relationship to others, God and himself.
Spiritually, this faulty understanding stems from the belief that Christians are charged with making others happy, and if they don't they have failed somehow. Many Christians are trained to over-yes and under-no to other people's demands. This error is astonishing in light of Jesus' actual behavior and teaching. For example, Jesus rarely answered a question directly, especially if it were entrapping. And in his warning about casting pearls before swine, he told us to not give to others our precious resources when others are known to squander them and then attack us later.
'Over-Yes' and 'Under-No'
For example, I had a pastor tell me to write a letter of apology to someone for harming our relationship. This person had repeatedly lied and stolen from me, and so I quietly pulled away from the relationship. My pastor convinced me that I was wrong to do so, that my behavior was "un-Christ like." So I wrote the letter in which I pleaded guilty to behavior I didn't commit and worked double-time to drown myself with feelings of remorse. He convinced me that God wanted me to. I over-yes to guilt and under-no to healthy and wise boundaries.
What is so ironic about such spiritual training is that hyper guilty people are among the weakest Christians. They rarely do anything very helpful or meaningful and instead make mountains out of moral and theological molehills. Their idol is approval, which comes via conformity. They read their Bibles, not because they want to conform to the real character of Christ, but because that's what the rules state and so they do it. They rank among the least passionate and courageous. Their hearts are far away from God.
Most Powerful People in Your Life
Hypercritical upbringings create a hyperactive conscience as well. When you grow up believing that your most every move is not good enough, and you are forced to constantly confess your unworthiness to a parent or parents, the most powerful people in your life then, you will eventually feel guilty for most everything you do—even for behavior that is morally neutral. You feel that you are wrong and must apologize for your very existence. False guilt becomes your constant companion, your most dangerous childhood playmate.
I had a hypercritical mother, and eventually I felt guilty not because I was a sinner but because I felt I was somehow defective, as if I were born with a kind of soul-stain that others did not. I felt like a child of a lesser god. She was abusive, temperamental and at times very hard on me, and so I learned to be hard on myself. Her love was highly conditional and I was told in numerous ways that I was unworthy of her love because I "was such an evil child." She was unforgiving and so I learned how to be unforgiving to myself as well. I had no right or path toward innocence or forgiveness. I wasn't allowed to be guiltless.
False guilt comes from a guilt-ridden conscience, which means that a person is incapable of self-acceptance and does not really believe that they are accepted by God either. Their efforts are never really good enough in their own eyes and so for them the goal is just always out of reach: They follow the rules for the rules will lead to acceptance. But there is always another rule to follow, another manner to master. There is no finish line, just one sweaty plateau after another to climb. Eventually, beginning in their 30s and early 40s, people just give up, exhausted and usually resentful. Religion is a guilt-ridden burden to them, not a blessing.
You can see how my upbringing made my legalistic spiritual training so damaging. I thought I was running into the arms of a God whose love, grace and acceptance could not be separated from me. But the acceptance I did experience was momentary. Soon I sank into that familiar malaise of false guilt from the pulpits of earnest but misguided men. It was a frying-pan-into-the-fire experience.
This is why the question of ownership of your life is so essential. If we give ownership of our lives to our pastor or our parents as adults, then we inevitably will live for their approval. But if God is the one who owns our lives, and who then gives this ownership back to us along with his loving guidance, then we will live to please him and in doing so save ourselves from false guilt in its various forms.
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Copyright 2008 Paul Coughlin. Used with permission. All rights reserved.