Does God use guilt to motivate people?

Fear is what gets people into religion, but it’s guilt that keeps them trapped – guilt that they aren’t coming up to the standards required to escape hell or “make it” to heaven or paradise. I know how it feels too, because that was the version of Christianity used on me. I was told that Jesus died for me, but AFTER that it was all up to me. God now expected ME to do all the work of obeying him and living up to the highest standards. And when I failed, I felt guilty.

But did guilt motivate me to do better? No. It created an endless cycle of fear and stress, that ripped the energy out of me. And then one day I asked myself WHY I was feeling so guilty when every sin and failing of mine had already been forgiven 2,000 years ago. But the answer was obvious: we’re bombarded with guilt at every turn. Guilt is everywhere. Religions use it to motivate people, so do advertisers, parents, children, husbands, wives, friends and fund-raisers. They all use guilt to manipulate, sell and bully us into doing what they want, because guilt works.

Witness the guilt-trips laid on us by people raising funds following a major disaster. They’re in your face wherever you turn, using guilt to make us contribute – like the TV telethon moderator who glared into the camera and said, “You can’t ignore or avoid us. You can change channels but we’ll be there too.” He was right because I did change channels and there he was, still glaring into the camera with his triumphant smirk, because how could any “decent person” NOT contribute to such a noble cause?

No wonder I feel so guilty, then, even as a Christian, when guilt has been used all my life to get me to act according to other people’s agendas, and make me feel like a heel if I don’t – like the lady who swore at me recently for not visiting her, even when I was ill. But that’s the way of the world, to exploit the power of a guilt-trip to bully people into submission.

I realize Jesus took all human guilt upon himself so I never have to be eaten up by guilt, or be motivated into action by guilt, ever again, but it’s still difficult to shake that awful feeling of “delinquency in my responsibilities” if I don’t give money following every major disaster, or I don’t come up to other people’s expectations.

I guess it takes a while in this culture to realize God never uses guilt to get people to act. He only uses love, 1 John 4:19.

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And the next trend in Christianity is….

As the next new trend sweeps through Christianity, with its gurus, books, conferences and marketing machine, I feel heartsick.

Heartsick for two reasons: first, it’s “here we go again,” another panacea, another great solution to church attendance going down, another exciting novelty that will only last until the next new exciting trend comes along. And, secondly, I think, “Oh no, is this going to be something else I’m going to have to deal with, requiring another long study trying to figure out if it’s good, bad or ugly, creating yet another situation where people get offended if I don’t go along with it?”

I remember all the excitement that swept the churches about the Purpose-driven Church book. Then it was Spiritual Formation. Then The Shack. Then Heaven is for Real, then – well, I’ve forgotten what came next because it’s the same old routine – more excitement, more conferences, more peer pressure to comply, more people making a name for themselves, more arguments for and against, and more enthusiasts lifting up their gurus like mini-gods.

I admit I’ve been just as susceptible. I got so excited after reading a Christian book that I immediately did a sermon on it, and wrote two articles. Someone then pointed out a problem, and he was right. Down I went in flames, flagellating myself for getting caught up so easily.

It brought me down to earth with a crunch, because I realized why I’d been taken in so easily. It was the title of the book and the blurb on the inside cover. It promised “new” knowledge and a “new” way of looking at familiar scriptures that other Christians had missed. This was new territory, new understanding no one else had discovered. It was heady stuff.

But it also made me think of Paul when he toured Athens in Acts 17. The Athenians were like that too, always on the lookout for anything new (verse 21). But they also had an altar “To an Unknown God.” All that new knowledge pouring in but God was still an unknown. Is that why they couldn’t stop grabbing onto anything that sounded new and intriguing, then? Was it some inner hope they had, that maybe, one day, they’d hear something that would make their unknown God suddenly come alive and real to them?

It made me wonder, “Is that why I’m still such a pushover for a new, exciting book, too? Is it because I really don’t know God yet, and I’m hoping some book, some trend, some new exciting program will suddenly make God real to me?” Horror of horrors: Do I still have an altar to an unknown God too?

The amazing parallel between cats and religion

I don’t know how cats do it. They are the most efficient killing machines on the planet for an animal their size. They are cunning, predatory and equipped to kill, with huge swivel ears, eyes that can see in the dark, retractable claws they can sharpen to a needle point, fangs that can rip a bird to shreds, and a body that can flatten, bend and twist into the most amazing contortions to enable it to catch and slaughter its prey. And what do humans do with this monstrous creature? Take it into their homes by the million and give it names like Fluffy!

But cats are so cute! Their fur is so soft. They look like they’re smiling. They cuddle without resisting, purr when stroked, close their eyes in pleasure, rub against our legs – and who can resist a cat’s miaow?! A cat’s no trouble, either; in only minutes it has us meekly meeting its every wish!

What an amazing parallel there is between cats and religion. Religion, with all its rules, rituals, expectations and threats, is the most ruthless, predatory killer of human joy on the planet. And it too weasels its way into our affections while enslaving us into fulfilling its every wish and command.

But religion’s so cute, too! It has all these intriguing rituals that make a person feel spiritual. It has structure and a set system of worship that removes the need to think. You can give yourself credit for good works done, and earn your way into the afterlife on your own strength. And it’s so easy; just follow the rules, do the rituals, and a place in the afterlife is guaranteed.

It’s rubbish, of course, as Paul pointed out in Colossians 2:8 – “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of the world rather than on Christ.” Steer clear of all that man-made tripe pretending to be spiritual, Paul warns, because it totally removes the need for Christ. But it takes people captive with ease anyway – just like cats do!

There is an antidote, however, and cats have that too, because cats are the freest creatures alive. They can live with humans and not be influenced by us one tiny bit. They ignore all human rules, all human attempts to train them and all our ridiculous human customs. They are cats and stay as cats, no matter what human environment is pressed on them. Thanks to cats, then, we also have the antidote to joy-killing religion – ignore it with total disdain.

Are Christians supposed to be perfect?

“Civilization,” someone wrote, ” is but a thin veneer covering a savage, inner self.” And how true that is, I discovered, just a while ago.

The occasion was rather embarrassing. I was in a public washroom, and the cubicle, as usual, had the coat hook ripped off. What people do with all those toilet cubicle coat hooks they’ve been collecting, I do not know. Anyway, there was no hook, so I threw my jacket and calendar, full of all kinds of important notes tucked inside, over the wall between my cubicle and the cubicle next door. The obvious happened, of course; someone decided to use that cubicle and when he slammed the door closed it knocked my calendar off the top of the wall, scattering my notes all over his cubicle floor.

I dived down to pick up what I could reach, yelling “thanks a lot!” – but not a word of apology from next door. Not a word at all, in fact, he was absolutely silent. A hand then appeared under the cubicle wall with the notes I couldn’t reach. Still not a word spoken. I was fuming and still a bit flushed (pardon the pun) for some time afterwards.

I thought later how funny the situation was. It wasn’t something to get angry about, but how angry I’d become, and so quickly, too. What a shock: my Christianity was but “a thin veneer covering a savage, inner self” too!

But surely a good Christian has perfect control of his emotions at all times, doesn’t he? Not so, 1 John 1:8, because “If we claim we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” A Christian isn’t Mr. Perfection. In fact, the “truth isn’t in us”  if we think we are. What “truth” are we talking about, though? The truth of verse 7, that “the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from every sin.” The truth is, I can’t purify myself or make myself perfect. To think I can is to cancel out the Christian message, that it’s Christ who makes us perfect, not us. And while he’s still growing us up toward that perfection we also have the marvellous assurance in verse 9, that if we do fail, and even fail miserably (as I did in that toilet cubicle) “if we admit our sins, he’s faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing.”

So this is me: I’m not perfect, I get angry still, and I can’t help it.

And this is Christ: He knows I’m not perfect, he forgives, and he’ll keep on doing my perfecting for me, 2 Corinthians 3:18.

Paralyzed by Christianity

I wonder how many upstanding, well-intentioned, extremely dedicated Christians have been paralyzed by what they think Christianity is.

What made me wonder was a young lady who works as an Assistant Manager in a retail clothing store. She got the job because she sounded keen, interested and confident. She had that fresh, open face of an enthusiastic Christian who can’t wait to show everybody how hard-working, splendid people Christians are.

But after several days on the job, paralysis set in. She was so petrified of making mistakes that she either messed up terribly or she didn’t do her job at all, and on several occasions a day’s earnings at the store were severely affected by her actions, or lack of action. “But,” she said when confronted, “I’m a perfectionist” – meaning, perfection was the only standard her mind could accept, and her brain simply stopped working if she thought she couldn’t do her job perfectly. She couldn’t even think straight. She was paralyzed by fear.

Everything else in her Christian life had to be perfect too. Her relationship with her boyfriend was carefully monitored by her church and her parents to make sure it was done perfectly at every stage of the way, according to the dictates of the church. She had better make sure she prayed enough each day too, and got in the required amount of Bible Study. She lived in fear of letting anyone down, not just God but her boss at work too, but rather than her fear motivating her to do her job well, it took her in the opposite direction. She couldn’t move for fear of making a mistake.

Her boss tried to tell her that there wasn’t a mistake they couldn’t solve and work through together. But it made no difference. Her mind was stuck in one gear: When you’re a Christian you daren’t make mistakes. Perfection is the only acceptable standard.

Not to God it isn’t. God agrees with her boss. There isn’t a mistake we humans make that God can’t solve. And there isn’t any mistake we make that he holds against us either, 2 Corinthians 5:19. So if he doesn’t black mark us for our mistakes, and he doesn’t throw up his hands in despair when we mess up, what are we afraid of?

God’s perfect love is supposed to drive out fear, not create it, 1 John 4:18. He loved us while we were yet sinners, while we were his enemies, and “even when we were dead in transgressions.” So what’s a mistake compared to that?! It’s nothing. Grace swallowed it whole and spat out the bones. To free us, not paralyze us.

“You don’t need Christ, you just need Scripture”

The Pharisees were the first to think, “You don’t need Christ, you just need Scripture.” They didn’t think they needed Christ at all, because they knew Scripture, and that’s what counted. They had their beloved Old Testament, and in their minds that’s what gave them the edge. Scripture made them feel secure. It made them feel good. It also made them feel superior, which also felt good!

When Christ turned up, however, he focused their attention on himself. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew ME, you would know my Father as well,” John 14:6-7.

There was only one way to know God, find God and experience the life, the comfort and the security of God. It wasn’t through knowledge of Scripture, it was through knowing Christ. So Jesus switched their thinking to, “Don’t depend on Scripture for all your needs, depend on me,” which he made abundantly clear to the Pharisees when he told them, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that BY THEM you possess eternal life,” John 5:39 – but what they really needed to understand was, “These are Scriptures that testify about ME, yet,” verse 40, “you refuse to COME TO ME to have life.”

I made the same mistake. I thought the way to knowing God, finding God and experiencing the life of God was through knowing the Scriptures. Study enough and “the way” to God, “the truth” about God, and the door to eternal life itself would all open up to me. So I studied and studied and studied. I did hundreds of sermons, involving thousands of hours poring over Scripture. I discovered amazing things as I studied, and I could whistle round Scripture in the most impressive way in public.

But at no point did I realize my need for Christ. What did I need him for anyway? I knew Scripture, and that’s what made me “come alive.” How, then, did I come “alive WITH CHRIST,” Colossians 2:13? And what did Paul mean when he said, “Christ is your life,” Colossians 3:4?

But then, one day, it hit me. I was in a black mood at the time, frustrated and in despair at how little my life actually reflected all that I’d been studying. But it helped me realize that life isn’t about what I know, it’s about Jesus sending me the Holy Spirit to live everything that HE is in me. It’s about time, therefore, I let the Holy Spirit lead me to Jesus Christ as the source of my life and love. And study Scripture to keep that in focus instead.

Living up to expectations – it’s a killer

I’ve had to ask myself, “Have I understood Christianity correctly?” because the stress of it was killing me.

But how could Christianity be so stressful? Because it’s tough living up to a perfect standard – perfect prayers every day, perfect amount of Bible Study every day, perfect outgoing, serving, happy attitude all day, perfect thoughts every second, perfect work ethic, perfect Dad, perfect husband, perfect example in the community, perfect sermons, perfect health, perfect everything, because wasn’t that what Christianity was about, being a perfectionist and living up to the highest standards?

But what else could it be when Scripture tells us we’re “rewarded according to our works”? Doesn’t our eternal future – hell or heaven – depend on living up to the highest standards? If we do an outstanding job of meeting all the demands put on us now, the better our reward later, right? Isn’t that how Christianity works? I’d be a fool then, not to drive myself on relentlessly, being the best I can be.

But – I discovered to my dismay – it was killing me.

I was steaming full bore to an early death and making life miserable for people along the way as I deteriorated. But how do you ease up after 40 years of believing Christianity at its heart and core is living up to God’s demands as perfectly as possible – and doing whatever people expect of you, as well? Especially when people expect you to continue keeping up the pace you’ve been at, and expect the same level of service. You feel so guilty letting them down, or having to say No.

So I didn’t say No. I pushed on, meeting every demand put on me by God and people, never easing up, despite the obvious and rapidly frightening signs of stress on mind and body. But Christians don’t ease up, they “plough on regardless,” they go beyond the call of duty, they stand tall and indispensable, chin up, chest out, and give their lives endlessly in service to others, right?

Wrong, Galatians 2:20. “The life I live in the body,” Paul wrote, “I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Christianity is about living in the love of Christ, and trusting in his faithfulness. His faithfulness in what? That he will live HIS life in me, because, like Paul, “I’ve been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but CHRIST lives in me.”

Every day I expect Christ to do that, then. And that’s where my expectations now rest, not on myself but on him, that he will faithfully live his life in me – because his life is perfect.