Guilt and Imposed Morality

shameStart Here: The Dilemma of Imposed Morality

(Note:  I’m not entirely pleased with my ability to communicate what I am trying to say in this post.  Please don’t read more into it than what I am saying plainly.  Also, please ask if you have questions.  My intention is to be clear, but clarity seems elusive today.)

Yesterday I started talking about imposed morality, more specifically the problems of trying to use guilt to manipulate someone into following our moral code.  The bottom line I suggested is that when someone simply conforms to our suggestions for morality they are no more righteous than when they were before they conformed.  And that our use of manipulation through guilt and shame over how the person’s actions make us feel are far less likely to cause genuine change and more likely to cause simple conformity.  Only God can change a heart and it is only God who can effect a genuine transformation as opposed to conformity alone.

God has set up laws that impose morality upon us.  I think the first thing that must be said about this, though, is that when we confront God’s laws, the guilt that we feel should be based on violation of those laws and not shame cast upon us by someone else.  The Apostle Paul talks about this guilt and our proper response to it in II Corinthians 7.

The Apostle had written previously (see I Corinthians) to remind the church of God’s laws.  Much of what Paul writes in I Corinthians is about rules of order and behavior within the church body.  Notice, though, that Paul doesn’t express his personal disappointment with the Corinthian church, but appeals to them based on Jesus’ (I Corinthians 1:4-10).  Then in II Corinthians 7, Paul says he is not upset that his previous letter (that pointed to God’s standards) caused them to feel guilt (godly sorrow) because that leads to repentance.  Worldly sorrow (guilt and shame from others) leads to death.

Notice that Paul never directly references their actions in this discussion.  Repentance is a change of mind, specifically conforming our thoughts to agree with God’s.  That is what Paul says the godly sorrow (guilt) has caused, repentance.  And that is what the guilt (godly sorrow) in us when we confront the law of God is supposed to produce.  Notice also, though, that the guilt, the godly sorrow, did not remain.  Once repentance took hold, the guilt was gone.

So where was the obedience?  Where was the conformity to God’s laws?  It wasn’t the guilt that produced obedience.  Paul discusses this before he does the guilt.  In II Corinthians 5:14-15 Paul explains that it isn’t guilt that motivates us to follow God’s law, but love.  Love that we reciprocate to Christ who first loved us, demonstrated through His death and resurrection.  It is that love that motivates us to obey God, not guilt or shame.  We who had been slaves to sin, now obey, not out of fear or guilt or requirement, but of a free will.

So with all of that, we can jump into people’s lives and confront them with the Word of God to “set them straight” and give them a good dose of godly guilt, right?  Well, not so fast.  But what about those occasions where someone’s actions are in violation of the clear commands of God?  Isn’t it important for us to point that out?  Don’t we have a responsibility at the very least when the relationship is personal to help and instruct that person?  Doesn’t the Bible say we should go to those who sin (Matthew 18:15) and that we should restore those who sin (Galatians 6:1)?

Well, yes, but if we look more carefully at exactly what is being said, we find that Matthew 18 is not talking about when we think someone is sinning or when we are offended by what someone does.  Matthew 18 is talking about times when someone sins specifically against us.  And Galatians 6 is talking about someone trapped or ensnared by a sin, as in, something they cannot shake.  The implication is someone who is seeking freedom but struggling to obtain it.  For those people, we come along side and aid them in their walk as best we can, with the purpose of restoration.

John 8 gives us an example of both the typical response to those who sin and how Christ deals with the sinner.  The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman before Christ and accused her of adultery.  In fact, she was caught in the very act.  Christ didn’t answer them at first.  But the scribes and Pharisees are clear illustrations of how we most often deal with people we consider to be sinners.  They had accused and shamed this woman and were ready to violently kill her.  They were concerned less for her well being than how they could use her to test Jesus.  Christ finally speaks.  To the angry, abusive crowd, He simply says, “Whomever is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”  And then when the crowd disappears, He says to the woman, “Go and sin no more.”

I’m not saying that it is never appropriate to address sin in the life of a loved one.  However, I would strongly suggest that the overwhelmingly vast majority of the time we do directly address someone, we probably shouldn’t have.   There are genuine situations where it is necessary, but we can excuse ourselves so well we tend to overestimate that necessity.  Also my experience has been, that when we confront someone else, we generally are not humble enough to accept the same type of confrontation when it is directed towards us.  The fact is that the Holy Spirit, who is given as a Companion and Comforter to every believer is the One ordained to convict of sin.  We need to trust in God to bring about repentance in the life of His children.

~CC

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One Response to “Guilt and Imposed Morality”

  1. Hannah Proctor Says:

    Well said. This bit in particular: “The bottom line I suggested is that when someone simply conforms to our suggestions for morality they are no more righteous than when they were before they conformed. And that our use of manipulation through guilt and shame over how the person’s actions make us feel are far less likely to cause genuine change and more likely to cause simple conformity.”

    Exactly.


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