One pedagogue has been beckoning Christians to take his seminars with this promise:
- We want to liberate Christians from the burden of guilt-laden doctrines.
This promise is trendy. It caters to the spirit of our doctrine-despising age, especially those doctrines that cause discomfort. Consequently, our youth call themselves “spiritual” and carefully distinguish this from “religious.” In their thinking, the “religious” are encumbered by doctrines – thinking as opposed to experiencing and finding within a comforting “truth” that works. For them, “guilt-laden doctrines” represent the highest form of proof that someone has taken the wrong road. After all, “anything that makes me feel guilty and uncomfortable is not the type of spirituality that works for me!”
I must confess that the Bible is filled with such doctrines. Anytime that Scripture tells me that I must do something, and I fail to do it up-to-standard, I feel some twinge of guilt. However, does this prove that there is something wrong with these teachings or that there is something wrong with me – something to which I must pay attention?
If we believe that God designed us, then we have to conclude that He designed us to feel guilt and shame for a good reason. We derive indispensable feedback from our sense – our eyes, ears, and nose. Perhaps our feelings also convey important information. Pain tells us to take our hand off a hot stove. Anger can appropriately motivate us against injustice. It can also be an important tool in problem-solving. Although guilt and shame are very painful, even life-controlling, perhaps they too convey useful feedback, and perhaps there is a place for “guilt-laden doctrines.” Perhaps we should not be too hasty to dismiss them.
Indeed, “guilt-laden doctrines” play a profound role. They inform us that our guilty feelings are legitimate. They point to a reality that is just as real as a hot stove, and they tell us that we have to do something about this reality. It is not enough to go to a psychiatrist for meds to neutralize the guilt. From this perspective, it would be just as silly to drop an Advil instead of taking our hand off the stove. This is because the threat of the stove is real and transcends our pain.
Of course, the Bible need not provide teaching for us to pull our hand out from the fire. This is already obvious. However, we do require moral instruction. We have powerful impulses that would have us violate the laws of our conscience (Romans 2:14-15) to our ruin (Romans 1:18-32).
Revenge is a persuasive motivator, which can trump conscience. We therefore require clear and unequivocal teachings - “guilt-laden” teachings – to reinforce the truth-laden judgments of our conscience. And what a relief when we can resolve our guilt, not by taking a pill as if there were not moral truths, but by confessing our sin and humbling ourselves to ask for forgiveness!
However, I think that our “guilt-laden doctrines” perform an even greater service. Moses insisted that Israel had to follow these guilt-producing teachings – all of them – as a protection against pride. God would bless them incredibly, but there was a danger that it would go to their head. As a result, they would succumb to the temptation to take credit for their successes and think that they were better than others (Deut. 9:4-9), thereby, cutting themselves off from their God. However, by following the laws, they would be reminded that they were just the same as others – sinners who desperately need the Savior (Deut. 8:11-18; 27:26). In light of this threat, God gave them the law to humble them and to remind them that they constantly needed forgiveness – His mercy.
What happens when our “guilt-laden doctrines” are eliminated? We are no longer humbled. Yes, we still have our feelings of guilt and shame, but Western medicine has come up with many drugs to neutralize these feelings. Secular counseling, astutely serving marketplace demands, assures the client that there is really nothing intrinsically the matter with him – no objective guilt. Instead, he just has to learn how to love himself.
Paul exposed the superficiality of the world’s solutions, asserting that we can never be good enough:
- Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)
Our “guilt-laden doctrines” play an indispensable role in silencing our pride and arrogance. These teachings are designed to humble us to the point that we cry out to God for mercy and find the only true healing:
- But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:21-24)
Our implacable conscience and “guilt-laden doctrines” have been designed to lead us to Christ by convicting us of sin and showing us the hopelessness of our “goodness” before God. No wonder we can never be good enough to silence our conscience! No matter how good we are, it continues to rage against us as it was designed to do, in order to lead us to our Savior.
Ironically, it is our “guilt-laden doctrines” that have produced within me a love and gratitude for God. I even feel intimate with God because of these doctrines. Jesus had been invited to an up-scale dinner at Chez Pharisee. The host was disgusted to see a sinner-woman enter and, out of gratitude, wash Jesus’ feet and wipe them dry with her hair. Knowing the arrogant and condescending thoughts of the host, Jesus explained that because the woman knew that she had been forgiven much, she loved much (Luke 7:36-47).
Today’s feel-good religions – I should say instead, “spiritualities” - fail to produce a real love for God and an intimacy with Him. He will simply not honor such a faith – a denial-laden “faith.”