Discarding Guilt and American Christianity to Follow Jesus

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Guilt is a powerful drug. Once it has its hooks in you, once it enters your bloodstream, it can impossible to get yourself free.

For twenty years I’ve been a pastor in the local church, and I know how insidious and pervasive guilt-addiction is in American Christianity. I’ve seen the way the Church has gladly been the dirty dealer. There is a seductive power that comes when you can wield shame over another human being, especially when you can do it as a surrogate of God—when eternity and damnation hang in the balance. It can be crippling.

Guilt makes people suppress questions.
It makes them conceal doubts.
It softens their passionate objections.
It slowly quiets their voices of dissension.
It causes them to make peace with compromises.
It makes them stay long after they have realized they should leave.

Fear of rejection and the desire to belong don’t magically leave us in Middle School, and the Church understands this. Pastors and celebrity preachers will paint faith as some clearly marked out, all-or-nothing proposition:

You either consent fully to their party line or you willingly rebel against your Maker.
You either sign-off on their specific version of Christianity or you become the defiant, wasteful prodigal.
Guilt says that there is either faithfulness or apostasy, truth or heresy—there is no middle ground on which to stand. This stark, binary picture of religion allows them to define what devotion to Jesus looks like even if it looks nothing at all like Jesus—and they get you to buy in.
Worst of all, this guilt gradually numbs people to the voice of God within them.

So many times, when a person of faith has genuine, honest, Spirit-led unrest that somehow places in them in opposition to those running the show, instead of being encouraged to yield to these holy prompts they are shamed into silence and threatened with separation from God and the community. They are spiritual bullied into both complying and staying; strung along with the easy high of conditional belonging and superficial love.

Right now millions of good, faithful people are sobering-up and realizing that they have been lied to. The scales are coming off of their eyes, and they are beginning to see that what they believed was Christ’s church, has morphed into something quite terrible. In fact, they have come to the conclusion that they can no longer participate in this twisted mutation of Jesus, marked not by the stigmata of sacrifice but the stigma of shame. They are being pulled toward Christlikeness—and right out of the building.

This year’s Presidential campaign has illustrated more succinctly and clearly than ever that Jesus is of little concern or use to a loud and influential percentage of those who claim faith. In fact, his self-sacrifice, care for others, and his burden for the marginalized are now a liability. In today’s Trumped-up American Christianity, compassion is somehow seen as a character flaw. Benevolence is a moral failure. Kindness is a weakness. Peacemaking is sinful.

This is why good people are feeling called to leave it to find Jesus—and they shouldn’t feel the slightest bit of guilt about it.

The very early Christian Church was itself a resistance movement, a shunning of stale religiosity that had lost sight of its beautiful reason for being. Christianity as birthed in the life and ministry of Jesus was a conscientious objection to what the people of God had become. The sacrificial, redemptive community they built was only possible, because they said no to the power and privilege representing the faithful—and they walked away from it to save their souls and to follow Jesus.

We are in such times.

Our Christian faith tradition is now so fully entwined with American Nationalism, Conservative political power, and white privilege that it really bears no resemblance to Jesus of Nazareth or to the movement described in the New Testament. The best, most spiritual, most God-honoring thing we can do now may be to leave, not because Jesus is no longer a concern, but because he is the only concern.

There is an authentic community of people organically assembling in these days; that quiet, pervasive yeast in the dough Jesus speaks of in the parables. They are disciples who are fully horrified at the Church they once felt at home in, and they are certain that there is something more life-affirming outside of it. I agree with them.

For the past two decades I’ve lived with the conviction that you stay and fight; that you work within the Church and you alter it from the inside. But I’m starting to think that this was just the drug talking. This was guilt still in my system, making me feel shame for what my eyes had seen and my heart had come to know and what God had shown me. 

I’m no longer sure that staying in this thing is the answer anymore, because I don’t know if it’s healthy to do so. There may be too much that is toxic to overcome. These days I’m beginning to believe that Jesus has been discarded from the American Church, and that if I really want to find the abundant life he promised, I’m going to have to step outside of it to find it and to find him.

And yeah maybe it’s apostasy and maybe it’s heresy—but it might just be recovery. It might be clarity. It might be Divinity. 

It might the guiltless truth that sets people free.

 

 

 

21 thoughts on “Discarding Guilt and American Christianity to Follow Jesus

  1. John Pavlovitz- just follow your heart. You do not need to call your heart- jesus. Jesus does not need you to call your heart jesus. The directions from your gut/feelings and your mind/thoughts- when flowing through your heart/inspiration- bring balanced action.

    Of course- it appears this is exactly what you are doing…

    • You hold and understanding of words many have lost.

      Although *I* know I can just call it my heart, but maybe another person reading the article doesn’t. To better reach other’s, within the church, one must learn to speak as they hear.

  2. I trust the Holy Spirit to convict me when necessary. It then presents itself in my heart as feelings of guilt.

    For all have sinned & fall short of the glory of God.

    If we confess our guilt of sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

    There is therefore now –no condemnation in Christ Jesus.

    • Sorry. No one is buying your notion that all guilt is a direct function of sin. People feel guilt for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with that. Just ask any psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. They see it all the time in their offices. “For her birthday, my sister Margie gave our momma an all-expenses-paid vacation to Italy. I felt so guilty because I could not afford to give her an equally expensive gift.”

      • Guilt is not good; it is necessary when there is sin and unnecessary when there is grace available. Jesus says keep going, keep trying and offers hope.

        However a church that floods the minds and hearts of its member with the knowledge of sin does a disservice to them because they are working against redemption and life through raising up fear and condemnation on a constant basis. It shackles them again to the letter of the law.

        This is why there is a prevalence of church goers who lack assurance of salvation because they are being taught they are still under the law.

        I am interested how grace works in your life, Catholic Joe.

  3. No “might” about it! To leave the dying man-made construct that we now call church is the only way to recover Jesus. Most churches these days, at least in my area of the Bible Belt, have nothing in common with Jesus or his teachings. I’m gone!!

    • Amen to that. You can learn how the Earth is only 5,000 years old, and you would think the age of the Earth and teaching evolution in science class is the end of the world to these idiots. “Jesus? Who is that? He’s some kind of insurance policy ain’t he? Insurance against fire and arson—or something like that there.”

  4. I don’t see any reasons to follow the all-or-nothing, believe-or-be-damned teachings of the American Evangelical Christians Many such preachers are more demanding than Jesus Himself, who healed the child of the man who cried out to Him, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” Certainty is not a Christian virtue, especially when it is used against those who question what they believe about God. It is an enemy of Grace.

  5. Attitudes and bullying I observed and experienced this year in evangelicalism pushed me out for good. My parents were sent to tell others about Jesus overseas. Now I look over to the country I grew up in and see a far more gracious culture than the American evangelical church represents. It makes me wonder what the point of their years of service were. Were those sending them any better than the humble servants who already existed over there? And then to come to find out I am simply not welcome in the very church culture that sent and elevated my parents as missionaries. My opinions and experiences are invalid because they do not fit a GOP narrative.

    I have friendships and historical knowledge that when I share gets shut down and even ridiculed by evangelicals as if it were ignorance-this from people who are monocultural thinkers, mixing their Christianity with their quasi- fascist political preferences. I would be considered-and consider myself- a conservative over there. But here I’m just someone to be told “we don’t want you; go back to the U.K.” THIS is what evangelicals who willfully blindly supported the preferred candidate of the KKK did. They rejected global nomads (because the neutral concept globalism is apparently bad), my Muslim friends, and those of us with some real personal understanding of the complexities of immigration for a little bit of power, and accused those of us who have actually been where the Holocaust took place, of being the fear mongers for pointing out disturbing rhetoric being normalized.

    These people made victims, missionary kids, and even refugees the scapegoats while praising Jesus on a Sunday.

    They call me bitter. In fact I am shocked I’m not. It’s heartless, callous, cruelty, and I fear for them for how they will answer to God for aligning themselves with the most selfish and entitled of our nation. So I’m out. Evangelicalism as a system has become intolerably cruel and uncaring and many evangelicals do not know how to lament nor mourn with those who mourn.

    I can’t leave the church because I belong to Christ whether I attend services or not. We did in fact find a little Lutheran local and feel at peace. But evangelical doesn’t mean to American evangelicals what it always meant to me. I thought it was good news and a place to rest. This year it was just cult bullying hatred, and it is spiritual abuse upon a pattern of unrepentant abuses.

    It’s not me. It’s all them.

    • Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals are against economic globalization, at least in part, because they believe in a fundie conspiracy theory that says any sort of unifying theme or actions (like everyone holding hands in a long line around the equator—were that possible) is a red carpet for the Anti-Christ and his “one world government,” as they call it. Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals are prone to believe anything a fat-bellied, moronic fundie preacher throws at them and any conspiracy theory that contains the word “Jesus.” All you have to do is dream up some sort of coherent-sounding nonsense and sprinkle it with a dash of Jesus—and these idiots will line up like lemmings to lap it up.

    • I totally agree with you. My husband and I are on our way out as well and are going to seek a church (not evangelical) who are doing what Jesus said to do: help the poor, seek out the marginalized, comfort the refugee and immigrant.

    • True. The Roman Catholic Church, Christian fundamentalist churches, and Conservative evangelical churches most especially deal in guilt and shame. One can understand that guilt and shame in the context of a personal salvation experience—but it never stops there. If the congregation contains 300 saved people, the guilt and shame (in one form or another) is a full court press that pervades the church and dims the lives of the people caught up in it. The principle of spiritual liberty in the New Testament is dead as a doornail in these churches because they are scared to death some person is going to equate “Spiritual Liberty” with “Libertine.”

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  7. The church is deeply flawed as we are deeply flawed. I came to the church after years as an angry atheist and can say that in many ways the church saved my life. I agree that the church needs to rediscover its prophetic voice and that there are voices trying to appropriate the church for their own destructive ends. That said, I’ve been blessed by the church and been given the chance to do so much good through it, that I can’t just walk away. I understand those who choose to do so. The church is not restricted to a building or a denomination, and we can follow Jesus without those things. Still, I think it has value and can be reformed through passionate voices like yours and others speaking up and calling it back to its purpose.

  8. Hmm. I think most of what John wrote can be more properly attributed to shame, not guilt. Shame is external, controlling. Guilt is internal, and motivating (in the hands of the Spirit). With this distinction, we can see that so many religious, cultural, and societal institutions control and manipulate via shame (not guilt). We are all guilty. But because of Christ we none of us need be ashamed.

  9. I sometimes wonder if the problem with evangelicalism isn’t their lack of guilt. They have perhaps come to treat grace as an alcoholic treats his chief enabler. Being saved by grace without works means all guilt can be denied from here on out, no matter how evil they and their political and nationalist idolatry is. For these apostate churches, the real issue may be that salvation means all disobedience to Jesus can happen guilt-free.

  10. I call it american religiosity as it does not bear any resemblance to the christianity in the bible. It seems a lot of religists would be unable to separate their faith in the constitution from the bible or be able to even know that there is a difference. But the evidence of a lack of grace, or understanding what grace even is, provides an inkling of the problem.

    The american church seems to have more in common with the 5 foolish virgins, as it short-sightedly seeks power and glorifies the law and its interpretation of righteousness, over grace. And it justifies itself with religious-sounding words – but the spirit is not in those words.

    There is an increasing number of spiritually unhomed people who are looking for the body of Christ or, if they have given up looking, still need it.

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