Speaking of Religion | Amazing Guilt or Amazing Grace?

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Many of my friends grew up in a religious atmosphere primarily characterized by guilt. Perhaps this is your experience too. The story is so common that it has become something of a cliche. We feel guilty for the bad stuff that's gone on during the week, so we guiltily attend our religious services, so our guilt might be absolved, or so the theory goes. But the tone and tenor of our religious services, all too often, are saturated with guilt. We are hit with the you-shoulds and the you-betters and the try-harders. Upon our weary shoulders are laid the blame for what we've done, said, and even thought. We are scolded for requiring the Son of God Himself to come and die for our misdeeds. We are required to grovel enough to earn the pity we are told we so desperately need. We are told we must earn back the divine favor we have lost, which might be begrudgingly granted, if only we jumped through the right hoops in the right order. And that's not even mentioning how fiercely and expertly many of our mothers and grandmothers leverage guilt at home.

What a massive load of Amazing Guilt. It is no wonder so many of us flee as soon as possible, usually in adolescence. And yet the Amazing Guilt leaves its mark. For the rest of our journey, the tinge of guilt remains on any hint of religion. No one really likes to feel bad, so we avoid it altogether. Perhaps we engage our souls under the banner of Spirituality, but engagement with "organized religion" is out.

We can't forget that guilt does have a useful function. If I swerve off the side of the road and run down a bunch of kids, guilt should kick in and do its job. But how amazingly sad that our experience of Amazing Guilt so powerfully obscures, and even obliterates, the heart of good and true religion, which is the same heart of good and true spirituality: the heart of Amazing Grace.

Amazing Guilt says, "You're a failure."

Amazing Grace says, "You're beloved."

Amazing Guilt says, "You are a burden."

Amazing Grace says, "You are beautiful."

Amazing Guilt says, "Earn this."

Amazing Grace says, "Receive this."

Amazing Guilt says, "You are condemned."

Amazing Grace says, "You are set free."

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Amazing Guilt says, "Avoid God."

Amazing Grace says, "Enjoy God."

And yet Amazing Grace is realistic. There's no point denying the messed-up-ness of our world, and if we're honest, of ourselves. Only 10 words into the most famous of old hymns, and you're admitting you're a "wretch" who needs to be "saved." But Amazing Grace doesn't stay there. As it turns out, Amazing Grace is the only true solution to Amazing Guilt. Whether or not we have experienced something like the characterization above, we all carry guilt to some degree.

I have searched for other ways to solve the Amazing Guilt problem. Unfortunately, ignoring it (one of my best and not-so-brightest coping strategies) doesn't work for long. Numbing it with chocolate, craft beer, or more illicit substances only makes it worse in the long run. I haven't tried literally running from it (I only run when there's bears involved), but I know a lot of people who seem to be trying that, and it doesn't look to be working out. Spirituality and positive thinking help for a while, but never really get to the root of the problem.

I've met only one person who really could take care of Amazing Guilt, and believe it or not, his name is Jesus. The same man who, incongruously, is claimed by many foisting Amazing Guilt upon the masses. How could it be that so many of us get his story so wrong? Perhaps we are so concerned about protecting our own power and control that we, intentionally or not, twist the true story of Amazing Grace beyond recognition.

The true story of Jesus is, in one sense, quite simple: God loves humans so much that he decided to rescue us from guilt and death. God loves us so much that he came as one of us: a man named Jesus. God loves you so much that Jesus took all the guilt and death and messed-up-ness (which he calls sin) upon his own shoulders, so we could be set free. God loves all his beloved so much that he defeated death and gives new life, now and forever, anyone who will receive it. His Amazing Grace is now yours for the taking. Jesus said "Repent and believe," meaning turn from going your own way, weighed down by guilt, and trust in me, and be set free. It is time to trade in our Amazing Guilt for God's Amazing Grace.

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found;

Was blind, but now I see.

Bob Wiegers is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington. His favorite song happens to be Amazing Grace.


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