Guilt — the Essence of Evangelical Christianity

guiltWhat would Evangelical Christianity be without guilt?

Guilt, despite what preachers say, is the engine that powers Evangelicalism.

Often preachers will try to hide guilt by giving it other names like conviction. But no matter how they try to hide it, guilt plays a prominent part in the day-to-day lives of those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ.

Think about it for a moment. The Bible presents God as a righteous, holy, judging, wrathful, deity. In the Old Testament this God was unapproachable except by a  few chosen people. People who got too close wound up dead.

Who can forget the story about the man who put out his hand to steady the ark of the covenant and God rewarded this man by killing him. Or the story about God killing the entire human race save eight people (and yet, Evangelicals say God is pro-life).

From Genesis to Revelation we see a God who gives no quarter to disobedience or sin. He demands worship and expects perfect obeisance. He is a God who not only hates sin but hates those who do it. (the-hate-the-sin-but-love-the-sinner line of thinking is not found in the Bible.) Evangelicals often remind people such as myself that someday every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Bow now or bow later, the thinking goes.

No matter how much the writers of the New Testament tried to cover this up with talk of love, grace, and mercy, the God of the Bible was not one to be trifled with. Those who trifled with him ended up dead. The Bible says, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

There are hundreds of commands in the Bible, commands that God expects every Christian to obey without question or hesitation. After all, according to the Bible, God himself lives inside every Christian. According to the Bible, the Christian has the mind of Christ. The Bible also says that Christians are to be perfect even as their father in heaven is perfect. Lest one doubt whether God is serious, the writer of First John reminds his fellow Christians that he who sins is of the devil.

The Bible message is clear, obey God lest you fall under his judgment, a judgment that could lead to your death. Put in words that any child can understand: do what God says or he is going to get you. Remember this is a God who killed two people in the book of Acts for lying. This is the same God who brutalized his son on the cross because of what other people did. This is also the same God that will someday savage the earth and its inhabitants and torture in hell for all eternity all those who are not Christians. The book of Revelation reads like Quentin Tarantino movie script. The vengeful God will pour out his wrath upon the earth, killing billions of people and destroying the earth in the process.

It should come as no surprise then that many Evangelicals live with a backbreaking load of guilt. They know what God expects and they fear him, but, in spite of all their hard work, they still can’t measure up to what God expects of them. What deepens their guilt is preachers who say they speak for God, adding more rules and regulations that God demands every Christian obey (also called church standards).

I spent most of my life in the Evangelical church. I desperately wanted to be a good Christian. I felt God had called me into the ministry and I wanted to be the best pastor possible. I was willing to sacrifice everything for God. And so that’s what I did. I sacrificed my family, my health, and my economic well-being for God. I held nothing back and I was willing to die for my God if necessary.

A while back someone made a comment on Facebook about my being an atheist. This person has known me for 37 years. He said that he was shocked that I was an atheist because if anyone was a committed, true blue believer, I was. Most people who knew me in my Christian days would give a similar account of my devotion to God.

As a pastor I gave 100% to the cause. I worked long hours without regard to whether I got paid. Most of the churches I pastored paid a poverty wage, but that didn’t matter to me. I would have gladly worked for free, and, in fact, I did work many weeks and months without receiving a paycheck. It was never about the money. It was all about faithfully serving God and fulfilling his calling on my life. It was all about being obedient to the commands and teachings found in the Bible.

One would think that someone as committed as I was wouldn’t have guilt, but guilt played a prominent part in my life. Striving for perfection quickly reveals how imperfect one is. Sometimes I envied Christians who could take a minimal, carefree approach to God and his commands. Why couldn’t I be nominal just like everyone else? I’m not sure I have an answer for that. All I know is this, I worked for the night is coming when no man can work and the more work I put into my Christian faith the more guilt I had.

I often pondered the work of Jesus on the cross. Jesus had given his all on the cross for me. Shouldn’t I give my all to him? I took seriously the command to walk in the steps of Jesus. I tried to pattern my life after the example of Jesus and the apostles. I wanted to be found busy working for the advancement of God’s kingdom with Jesus came back to earth.

The Bible teaches that this life of ours is but a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away (like a steam from a radiator on a cold winter day). Rather than spending time building a kingdom in this life that will soon pass away,  I sincerely believed my  time was better spent  laying up treasure in heaven. Why bother with the transitory, material world that will soon pass away? Better to spend every waking hour serving Jesus than to spend one moment chasing the baubles of this world. Yet the harder I worked the more guilt I had.

I prayed in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night, and numerous times throughout the day, yet I feared I was not praying enough. After all, the Bible commands us to pray without ceasing. No matter how many people I witnessed to, there were always more people I needed to evangelize. There never seemed to be an end of souls that needed saving. How dare I spend one moment taking care of my own personal needs while countless souls were hanging by a bare thread over the pit of hell. I had no time for talk of heaven or eternal reward. There was too much to do.

I know some readers of this blog will read this post and say, no wonder you were guilty all the time. Look at how motivated and driven you were. Yes, this is true, but I ask you, where do I find in the Bible the laid-back, nominal, easy-come-easy-go, Christian life? While certainly such a life would have lessened the amount of guilt I had, how could I live such a life knowing what I did about the teachings and commands of the Bible?

Look at the examples given for us in the Bible of people who were devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Show me the nominal Christian. In every instance nominal Christianity is roundly condemned. God expects — dare I say demands — 100% devotion and anything less than that is treason against  God.

So, for many years I lived with guilt almost every day. I felt guilty when I stopped to enjoy life. I felt guilty when I stopped to attend to my personal wants and desires. I felt guilty when I spent money that could have gone to the church or to missionaries. Why could I not be like the Apostle Paul? Or why could I not be like Jesus himself?

Of course the real problem was that I was a human being. A life of selfless devotion to God was an impossibility. Now that I’ve left the ministry and left the Christian faith, my problem with guilt still remains. I’m no longer guilty over my lack of devotion and I’m certainly not guilty over committing what the Bible calls sin, but I do lament the amount of time, money, and effort I gave in devotion to a God who does not exist. As the old gospel song goes, wasted years, oh how foolish.

I also regret leading people into the same kind of life. I regret causing parishioners to feel guilty over not measuring up to the commands found in the Bible. As I have often said, churches would be empty if it weren’t for guilt and guilt’s twin sister fear.

Perhaps my penance is this blog. I am sure there are many people who read this blog who know exactly what I’m talking about.  Atheism and a humanist worldview have allowed me, for the most part — aside from what I have mentioned above — to live a life free of guilt (and fear). I no longer have to fear or feel guilty over not keeping God’s commands. No longer are my actions checked against God’s sin list. My actions on any given day are good or bad and when I do bad things I need to make things right if I can and try not to do them again. There is no need for me to be threatened with hell or promised heaven. All I want to do is be a good human being and be at peace with others. If my actions fail this standard then I need to do better.

How about you? Do you still struggle with guilt post-Jesus? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

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18 Comments

  1. Marlowe

    It has taken me a long time to come to grips with this very thing myself. I felt I had to be perfect. I was an ambassador for Christ. Bishops (preachers) are to be blameless. I worried, felt guilty, and stressed over so much. How could I enjoy life when so many people were going to hell?

    I still struggle with my guilt complex. However, I am glad not to feel guilty about the above mentioned things.

    Reply
  2. Susannah

    I used to worry that I hadn’t confessed all, every single one of my sins. I “kept short accounts”, as they say, but some days I couldn’t think of anything that I had done wrong, nor even any rebellious thoughts, wanting my own way or wanting a bit of a rest. I knew, or thought I knew, that I had inevitably sinned that day, as I did every day, and because I couldn’t think how, I worried that somehow I had purposefully blinded myself to my own guilt.

    So then I felt guilty about not feeling guilty.

    As you say, what a waste!

    Reply
  3. Zoe

    I know exactly what you are talking about.

    Reply
  4. Stephanie

    I actually developed a type of ocd at one point. I would worry that I didn’t say prayers correctly and had to start over, had intrusive thoughts, intense anxiety over supposed sins and fear that I was actually possessed by the devil. Yes, all of that sounds so crazy, believe me, I see it too! I know a lot of that I can credit to my biological makeup but once I got away from conservative religion it lessened a lot. I still struggle a lot with making sure I did the morally correct thing and that I didn’t inadvertently do something wrong.
    I followed most of the rules and couldn’t sleep without saying prayers. I always wanted to be a good girl, good Christian, good daughter but always realized I fell short. I still battle people pleasing, perfectionism, and worrying about everything in advance. I do think that a conservative form of religion combined with my biology was a recipe for some mental health issues.

    Reply
    1. Melody

      Same here…

      I wonder about having (had) religious ocd myself. I’d think unChristian things, for instance: “what if Jesus is the son of the Devil instead?” , then thought I actually believed that although I know I didn’t, and prayed like crazy to get rid of the overwhelming guilt. For some reason it often seemed to happen on vacation, ruining the experience for me…. Perhaps I felt guilty about having vacation and fun in the first place!

      Reply
  5. Ahab

    I experienced this guilt as well under Catholicism. The message I received as a child was, “Follow all these rules and take part in all these boring rituals, and MAYBE you won’t go to Hell.” The endless rules about virtuous conduct were arbitrary, onerous, and impossible to follow, meaning that sin was unavoidable. This, in turn, mean that one’s tally of time in Purgatory was always increasing, and the danger of damnation was always imminent.

    I lived with crushing anxiety in my early teens because I couldn’t follow the Catholic rules perfectly and was always terrified of going to Hell. The guilt was unrelenting and toxic. Once I realized that the belief system was a lie, I left the faith and felt free for the first time in ages.

    Reply
  6. John Arthur

    Hi Bruce,

    The guilt that much of Fundamentalism heaps on people is extremely damaging to their metal and emotional health.

    The bible has a multiplicity of voices but some Fundamentalists seem to delight in quoting the repulsive passages.

    I don’t know whether God exists or not, but I do not believe he is the angry and violent god presented by these Evangelicals.

    God probably doesn’t exist, but if God does exist I choose to believe that he/she is compassion, healing-mercy and loving kindness. This is far better for my mental and emotional health.

    I don’t seem to be able to think outside some Christian framework. Others can find peace and compassion outside any form of Christianity and I applaud their ability to do so.

    Shalom,

    John Arthur

    Reply
    1. Dale

      John, I have most certainly missed reading your comments! You are always spot-on and you do so poetically. I’d love to have your ability.

      The guilt that kept me coming back to church week after week, tithing money I needed for bills, confessing sins I probably didn’t commit (I drew the line at assassinating President Lincoln, but just barely), praying forgiveness that I wasn’t alienating myself as the religious kook at work for not sharing Jesus with EVERYBODY…I think had I continued on that path, I would have done myself in by now.

      This guilt has left its mark on me. At some point, I will seek counseling (when I can afford it). For now, I’m thankful for Bruce’s blog and the friends I’ve made here showing me that I’m not alone.

      Reply
  7. Anthony Beard

    I believe this is 100% the truth. I’ve had Christians in my old church try to tell me that guilt and fear weren’t the driving forces of Christianity–to which I claim bulls***! They’ve tried to remind me of their god’s love, mercy, and compassion, but that cannot make me forget about the fear and judgment of not following the many explicit commands in the bible.

    They love to say that God’s not about hate and judgment and that’s it’s really about his grace and lovingkindness. What they seem to forget is that I’ve read, and been preached at with, all the fine print. After services three times a week with countless sermons in between, no one can even attempt to pull the wool over my eyes again. I know what’s in the fine print. The leadership at the church and christian school made a point of making sure we were all aware of it.

    If anyone claims otherwise, they are either ignorant of the bible or have been gaslighted so many times, they actually believe it.

    Reply
  8. Melody

    A relative of my mother (who were/are all on fire for God) said it like this: “We can take a vacation when we get to heaven…” Everything for the Lord 24/7, driving themselves into the ground, basically, sometimes with results such as burn-outs or mental break-downs. It just isn’t a safe way to live, this inmense guilt.

    We were on the less vibrant side of the family which comes with its own type of guilt. Of not doing enough when looking at more diligent relatives and of sometimes being called out for that. I was happy we weren’t as zealous but also felt guilty about it, because really, we should be! The thing is, we already stood out so much in the village, as the little local cult, compared to the other people, that I was glad my parents didn’t take it to the next level. (For instance, of having large billboards on the top of cars with Bible texts on them which every one in the village laughed or scoffed at.)

    Reply
    1. Brian

      “I was glad my parents didn’t take it to the next level.”
      Boy oh boy, does this line ever ring my bell! I was always terrified that my preacher father would start to hit the streets and force us kids to do a Marjoe Gortner thing. It literally made me sick to even harbor the thought but thankfully my dad was content to keep it at the pulpit and doing home visits. He was not out-going, the billboard type. I don’t think I would have survived had he marched us to spiritual war in our town like the hateful Jerry Falwell.
      When I consider (from afar) how invasive the God of evangelical Christianity is, I shudder that children must be exposed to this stuff and that the government won’t even dare tax the massive money-grab!

      Reply
      1. Melody

        The invasiveness is the worst. Having to hide books if someone comes to visit, just in case they disapprove. Watching what you say and to whom you say it. And so many people live like this, in a constant sort of anxiety when it comes to the strict rules.

        Yes, it was more that I was constantly explaining why I wasn’t allowed to join things because my (parents’) God dissaproved, even though my friends had the same God, of course. But I am grateful that I didn’t have to join my father in bringing round tracts of doing anything public or visible. When we’d get Jehova Witnesses to our door at Saturday mornings I always felt sorry for the kids that had to come along.

        Reply
  9. Kristine

    I no longer suffer from guilt, but I do still have a lot of fear. What if I’m wrong? What if I’m responsible for my kids going to hell? These things haunt me and I’ve been out for 9 years!

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      You raise an important issue that I would like to write a post on. Give me a couple of days…

      Reply
    2. J.D. Matthews

      If I’m wrong, and God is like they say he is, then I still don’t want anything to do with him.

      Reply
  10. Theo Winn

    Man, it’s not just guilty but shame too. Shame reminds Christians not just that they’re sinners but that they are the sinful behaviors they commit. Nothing they do will ever be good enough. It’s lunacy!

    Reply
  11. Ludovic

    Hi,
    This article is very true !
    I grew up with à bipolar whose problem was not bipolarity but Christian guilt. It drove him to madness multiple times. He once bit his pastor and thought he was Elijah. What à waste

    Reply
    1. Brian

      Ludovic, you might think that the bipolar aspect was not the problem but you are reaching… Christianity is just a tool.Mental illness is a human situation that is used by religion. I love that he once bit the pastor! In fact, that sounds rather like a healthy response to the church-paid pastor!
      that being said, I am sorry someone you grew up with was sick like that… And that religion harmed further rather than helped.

      Reply

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