I have some sizeable frustrations with Christian subculture. I find purity rings offensive to the gospel, I’m discouraged by Extreme Sabbatarians, dismayed by big spotlights shining on worship bands and I wish Christians used the word “love” with more care. Maybe someday I’ll take time to write publicly about my concerns with these things… not yet though; I haven’t developed the grace to be entirely kind in my criticisms.
However, there is an aspect of Christian subculture that I feel free to combat with more abandoned savagery. The past year has shown me just how deeply guilt is embedded in my own Christian subculture, and especially how it has wound its way about my heart and disabled me from doing anything, good or bad.
There is a song I was taught at a young age that embodies the spirit of “Christian guilt” to me:
“Oh be careful little eyes what you see
Oh be careful little eyes what you see
For the Father up above is looking down in love
So be careful little eyes what you see.”
The song goes on, inserting different body parts such as ears and hands and urging children to use them with care, because Somebody is watching. In essence: “God loves you right now because you’re so cute and little and perfect, so don’t goof up. And if you do, he will see it.”
I had forgotten entirely about this song until one day when I was leaving the house of an older relative, about to hop on a plane to travel SE Asia with Jim, who was my fiancé at the time. The woman made sure her last words to me were: “Be careful what you do.” Her words reminded me of the song and it all came together: instilling the fear of messing up (in this case, fooling around before marriage, which is, in some circles, the Ultimate Sin) is an effective tool for creating well-behaved cookie cutter Christians. Guilt is the inevitable byproduct of this fear of messing up, because we all fail (James 3:2).
The childhood song includes God’s love for righteousness, but without including the part about his righteousness being the cloak he uses to clothe his loved ones in goodness (rather than our own good behavior), it misses his character all together. Without believing and telling each other this part of the story, Christians strip the gospel of—well, the gospel, and essentially subscribe to the same set of beliefs that propel devout Buddhists and Muslims. If the Father of the Prodigal Son had penned the lines of this song to his wayward offspring, do you think the boy would’ve felt safe to come home?
Guilt is concerned with your appearance, with fear of man. “How will others see me if I make this choice?” It’s a prison that makes us inward focused. Instead of desiring to see people as God sees them, guilt stacks other people against our own performance record. It encourages us to sit in smug satisfaction when we see someone else trip up.
Guilt appeals to your feelings, past and present, it does not stay in the realm of the concrete, because concrete accusations only have “yes” or “no” answers.
Guilt is only interested in a relationship with you when you’re stumbling, or on the brink of stumbling. Its morbid fascination with shortcomings means that it isn’t around to talk to you when you’re doing well and/or feeling proud. It is a pride-based mechanism for good behavior; it only comes to haunt you when you’re weak.
Guilt prompts more work, sometimes even frantic work. Grace prompts rest from man-prescribed behavior so that we might be strengthened (Hebrews 13:9).
A classic symptom of guilt is that it makes you want to shrink away from God. If you’re feeling like hiding, as did some of our forbears (Gen. 3:8), be assured, this is not the Holy Spirit talking to you.
Guilt is a weapon, a blunt instrument. I’d call it a sledgehammer. Grace, on the other hand, is a crowbar. It frees us from prison. Yes, grace convicts, but it doesn’t want to spend time in court. Grace will tell you you’ve made a mistake, and in the same breath will remind you that you’re acquitted, and that it’s sunny outside and there’s a celebration picnic waiting.
Guilt is a withering agent. It strips confidence—it works like RoundUp on a yard. God doesn’t use spiritual RoundUp on us. His grace is the ultimate gift; he is a God who loves well. And when we’re well loved, we open, like little blossoms craving more light, like thirsty plants being watered. The ultimate sign of someone who is loved by the God of Grace is that they have tasted that water; their craving for more is insatiable and they cannot help but lead others to that same deep, cool well.