“For I do not do the good I want to do … “ Romans 7:19
Religious guilt is like a nagging pain for which there is no cure. There are different types of guilt. Most guilt is good in the sense that it is motivated and empowered by the conviction of the Holy Spirit. It is resolvable. It leads us to repentance, change and ultimately spiritual life. Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and the cleansing from all unrighteousness through the confession of our sins is a hope-filled promise. (1 John 1:9)
What I have chosen to call religious guilt is not as easily resolved. It is a guilt that masquerades as a call to holiness and righteousness but in reality is a lure to religious bondage and the seeking of righteousness by works rather than by faith. This type of guilt is a hard task master. Rather than offering hope it enslaves people in frustration and discouragement.
Religious guilt is unique in that it typically stalks people who love God and want to please Him. It is a guilt that is best categorized as relating to sins of omission rather than sins of commission. Sins of omission are failing to do those things that one can and ought to do. Sins of commission are doing things that are clearly known to be wrong. Sins of omission can range from the failure to obey a clear Bible injunction to simply not living up to generally accepted expectations based on what a sincere Christ follower should be doing.
False religious guilt is more specifically derived from omissions or laxity in fulfilling self-imposed expectations. It is guilt associated with the feeling of not doing enough – not praying, not Bible reading, not giving, not faith sharing and/or not serving others enough. It can stem from regret over our own timidity or unbelief in not being more responsive to what we feel are the Holy Spirit’s promptings. It can also be a nebulous guilt by association because of who we are, where we live or how we have been blessed.
One of the triggers for religious guilt is falling prey to comparing ourselves with others. Comparison traps us into measuring our religious piety and relationship with God based on outward performance rather than the heart attitude of faith. When we hear stories or see others doing amazing things for God we think that we should be doing the same thing. We fail to recognize that they are living and acting out of the grace God has given them; while He is neither expecting that of us nor giving us the strength to do the same.
If you recognize that you are carrying or battling religious guilt, which I did this morning as I sought to spend some time with the Lord, here are three things you can do.
1. Make a list of things you are feeling guilty about. Guilt at times can be like a dull ache. If you don’t pause long enough to identify what the source of the irritation is you cannot deal properly with it. When I made my list I realized that most of the things nagging at me were religious guilt items and not true convictions of sin by the Holy Spirit.
2. Confess it all to God as sin, the omission sins as well as the commission sins. Verbally, out loud if possible, accept God’s forgiveness and declare that you are righteous by faith and not by works. (Titus 3:5) Confessing even issues causing religious guilt has a way of breaking the power of their lies.
3. Ask God that if He has been trying to say something to you through your omissions, to give you just one practical step or thing He would have you do. Limit it to just one because that way if He is saying something, you can easily focus on it and do that one thing in obedience of faith. That will keep you from being overwhelmed again by a laundry list of self-imposed religious activity and free you from further false condemnation. Most importantly it will enable you to do at least one thing that is motivated by your desire to please God and not to please your own or someone else’s religious expectations.
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