Sunday, October 31, 2010

Your Guilty Conscience: a Blessing or a Curse?

When is it good to feel guilty?

Of course, the Spirit of the Age says "Never!  Guilt is a negative feeling ... a psychological weight to be lifted by channeling positive energy and living in the now."  Even in Christian circles, there are libraries full of victorious-living strategies for the believer to "find healing from guilt" (interestingly, a phrase unknown in Scripture).  Is guilt merely a psychosis, a disease upon self-esteem, or perhaps a symptom of demonic oppression?

Well, certainly there is "bad" guilt, if we define it as the refusal to accept and believe that, "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death."  (Romans 8:1-2)  To the extent that Christians--we who have had our sin fully paid for by Christ's blood--continue to carry the stench of condemnation, we suffer needlessly and hold Christ's glorious sacrifice in contempt. It is for us that the Scripture promises confidence, hope, and a clear conscience!
"Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful." (Hebrews 10:19-23)
On the other hand, there are at least two kinds of guilt which are entirely appropriate.  First, the guilt of the unbeliever who has not been delivered from his sin is entirely valid and necessary.  For him to feel no guilt is self-deception of the deadliest sort, since there is then nothing to chase him into the arms of Jesus.  "... to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted." (Titus 1:15) Guilt for the lost sinner is the smell of gangrene in the wound, warning the patient that his infection will claim his life if he does not seek aggressive treatment.  To provide him superficial "healing" in the form of soothing words and psychological comfort is not ultimately to love him, but to watch him die of negligence.

For the Redeemed of the Lord, there is yet another kind of guilt--that of unrepentant sin.  It is the guilt of David when confronted by the prophet Nathan ("You are the man!") or when he penned Psalm 32:
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, "I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD"
and you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
This guilt also is necessary, for it alerts the Christian to his fault.  It says to him, "confess, repent, and be forgiven your guilt!"  It is not the guilt of condemnation--for indeed Christ's blood has fully and irrevocably paid for every sin--but rather of rebuke and correction.

On the other hand, when I am guilty of sin and fail to respond in repentance, it is not God's benign approval I am experiencing, but rather the numbness of a seared conscience.  Because He loves me, God will chip away at that numbness until I return to him in humility.  Back to the medical metaphor:  like pain in a wound, I need my guilt to alert me to the problem.

So how can I tell whether my guilt is a blessing or a curse?  Well, perhaps a better question is, "Does my guilt draw me nearer my Savior, or does it merely drive me into depression or denial?"  For truly, it is my response rather than the emotion itself which bears the most consequence.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Confessions of a Church Discipline Wimp

I have a confession to make:  I'm a church discipline wimp.  Oh, I know the right answers, and I can talk the talk.  But when it comes down to action, I can be found philosophizing in the corner, making recommendations about what others should do or just hoping it will all blow over.

Why?  (Hint:  it rhymes with "elfishness").

Of course it's no secret that the church at large has had trouble with this since Paul penned his rebuke to the church in Corinth, which is worth quoting in full:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father's wife. And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.
Your boasting is not good. Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—-as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.
I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—-not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. "Expel the wicked man from among you."
From the perspective of our domesticated, polite, man-pleasing Christian society, there's really nothing here to like. In fact, I imagine 1 Corinthians 5 is excluded from your copy of "The Positive Bible" (no, I didn't make that up).  There is the passing of judgment, the handing over to Satan, the shunning and expulsion.  Ugh.  Let's talk about something more happy and genteel.  C'mon, sing along with me!  "I'm so glaaaaad I'm a paaaaart of the family of God ..."

So why do I always find excuses for myself when matters of discipline come up?  Since I know the clear teaching of Scripture, I'm unable to argue in good conscience that this is not commanded, and I clearly understand that the biblical course is to confront the wayward brother--first individually, then with one or two witnesses, and then before the church.  Only by being both firm and loving may I serve the good of my brother and the integrity of the church.  Serious infections need to be treated aggressively or the patient dies.  But still I hesitate.  Why?

Ultimately, the reason is simple.  In the final analysis, I love my own ease more than I love either my brother or the church.  I fear the consequences of confrontation for my own life:  from the time and energy confrontation will require; to the fractured relationships I will likely suffer; to the high potential for broader conflict within the church.  I believe the Bible's instruction in this matter in the abstract, but fail in the particular when it involves action by me personally.  Instead, I allow myself to rationalize away my own responsibility, hoping someone will pick up the ball and run with it. 

I don't have the relationship.  It's not my place or my gift.  Wake me up when the dirty work is over.  I'll be in the corner philosophizing. 

Such is the posture of a church discipline wimp.