Shame-Based Families, Grace-Based Families

Rick Smith family - Banner

The messages of a shame-based family:
“Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.”
“Everybody has to put their needs aside so we can tiptoe around _____ and not make them mad.”
“Why did you do that, you dumb b*tt?”
“If you disappoint me this much, how much more are you disappointing God?”
“Oh please, you’re not wearing that, are you?”
“Loser . . . stupid . . . such an embarrassment . . . I hope nobody knows you’re my daughter . . . You’ll never amount to anything . . . I wish I’d never had you . . . You’re so fat. And ugly.”

Every message of a shame-based family is an arrow into someone’s heart. Left there unacknowledged and not pulled out with truth, it starts generating lies and pain that can last a lifetime.

Lots of people grew up in this kind of family, but we are not sentenced to repeating it into the next generation. We can put on the brakes and steer our families in another direction altogether-the direction of grace.

Rick Smith FamilyGrace-based families also have messages:
“You are loved and valued, no matter what you do.”
“When we disagree, you never have to worry that I will stop loving you.”
“I was wrong and I am sorry. Will you forgive me?”
“Did you do your best? You’re the only one who can know.”
“Let’s talk about why you did that. What other choices did you have? What can you learn from this?”
“Can you help me understand what happened, what you were thinking or saying when you ____?”

The underlying message of a shame-based family is, “You are not acceptable and you risk being rejected and abandoned.” The underlying message of a grace-based family is, “You are an important and cherished part of this family and you will always be loved and accepted, even if we need to discipline you for wrong choices.”

Shame-based families shame out loud through name-calling, deadly comparisons (“Why can’t you be like ____?”), and anything that indicates the person is not good enough. Grace-based families affirm out loud with uplifting expressions of belief in each other, appreciation for each other, and affectionate use of each other’s names. Each person feels that their name is safe in everyone else’s mouths—but most especially mom and dad’s.

The focus of shame-based families is on performance, looking good and being good on the outside. It’s all external. Not embarrassing the family is huge. The focus of grace-based families is on the heart, remembering that character is shaped and developed in the family. The child’s value—which never changes—is separated from his or her behavior, which is eminently changeable. These families remember that God is not real pleased with our choices sometimes, but He never stops loving us.

Shame-based families specialize in unspoken rules and expectations. They are discovered when one gets broken. Often, one of the unspoken rules is that no one is supposed to notice or mention problems; if you bring a problem into the light by asking, “Hey, what about this?”—YOU become the problem. When one of my friends told her parents that her brother had been molesting her, her father threatened, “Don’t you ever talk about this again. It is over.” When the abuse continued and she told her youth pastor, her father responded that his daughter was mentally ill, a pathological liar, and not to believe her.

There is often a “can’t-win” rule in effect: children are taught never to lie, but they are also not allowed to tell Grandma her cooking tastes awful. Or children are taught that smoking is bad, but if they point out that mom or dad smoke, they are shamed and shut down.

In grace-based families, rules and expectations are clearly spelled out. If an unspoken rule comes to light because someone broke it, it gets talked about without shaming the one who broke a rule they didn’t know was in place. If someone notices or mentions a problem, the problem is addressed instead of attacking the one who brought it up. In grace-based families, the problem is the problem, rather than the person who identified it.

Shame-based families often use coded messages to communicate, saying one thing while intending that their audience read their minds and respond to the actual message they wanted to give without coming right out and speaking it. Someone might say, “I have such a headache” and the second person replies, “That’s too bad” or “Sorry”—and then continues to do whatever they were doing. The first gets upset that the other person didn’t offer to get them a pain reliever. The one with the headache used to be me, until a wise mentor responded with, “Would you like an Advil? Healthy people ask for what they need and want. Just ask me if I have one.” Whoa. That was a game-changer for me!

The communication in grace-based families tends to be clear and straight. It’s about saying what is true and what is actually meant. Scripture calls that “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). And healthy communication does not involve an unnecessary third person, a term called “triangulating.” If someone complains about another person, or gives a message for another family member, a wise person redirects them to the one they actually need to communicate with, refusing to be the third person in a two-person communication. Another wise person has said, “If you don’t have a dog in that fight, stay out of it.” That works!

Shame-based families are preoccupied with fault or blame. They are always looking for where to place—or shift—the blame when something goes wrong. Then the culprit can be shamed, humiliated, and made to feel so bad they don’t do it again.

In grace-based families, the emphasis is on responsibility and accountability. People are responsible for their choices and held accountable for their behavior. Grace-based parents try to remember that all of life is training for a child, and it takes many, many times to learn wise and healthy behavior. So while a child may be disciplined, they are not punished for not getting something right. Instead of being shamed for slamming the door, they may be instructed, “OK, I guess you need practice in closing the door without slamming it. So you’ll be practicing 25 times in a row, starting right now.” Another way that grace-based families can build responsibility and accountability is by using natural consequences without anger: “Since you left your bicycle in the driveway again, you will lose the privilege of enjoying it for a week.” And sometimes, discipline without punishment means talking about what happened without shaming, by asking good questions: “So what can you learn from this?” “What can you do differently next time?”

Family is meant to be God’s safety net underneath is, the safe place to fall when we make mistakes and learn painful life lessons. By His grace and through being intentional, shame-based families can become grace-based families as we reflect on how God, the perfect Parent, loves us perfectly and unconditionally-yet teaches us to be responsible as we grow up to maturity.

Note: the grace-based family in the picture are my friends Rick and Abbie Smith with their sons Noah and Jaxten. If you want a blessing, check out their story of grace at noahsdad.com/story.

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/shame-based_families_grace-based_families on March 8, 2016.


Expectations in Dating: Part One

Mar. 20, 2009

Today we’re going to talk about boundaries and expectations. Both of which cause us to be selective.

I have to thank Brad Paisley for a song of his which has provided me with this metaphor: dating is a lot like shopping for new clothes. The line from the song goes like this:

When you go out shopping, you try on brand new clothes.
To see if something fits or not, there’s just one way to know.
Why’s it any different when someone asks you out?
You might as well just try me on before you turn me down.

I appreciate this metaphor. I walk into a store — even ones I frequent — and sometimes I don’t know how something is going to fit until I try it on. Other times I can tell simply by looking at a piece that it isn’t my style or is too big or too small. There are some stores I don’t even have to go into because those clothes aren’t for me: they might be too trashy or too preppy or whatever. Also, having friends with me whom I trust is helpful. They’re honest with me and will encourage me to try things I might not otherwise; items they know will look good on me when I may be unsure — and they’re almost always right! I also depend on them to tell me, “No, Renea. That dress doesn’t do you right; that color is not for you. Renea, seriously; put that one back.” :)

You see where this is going don’t you? Okay, so dating, well, living really, is about risk, but it’s calculated risk — more or less. To say that it’s important to take risks… in any relationship, dating or otherwise, is not to say we should be uncritical or haphazard. Not being selective about who you’ll date is like letting a perfect stranger pick out all your clothes for you; whatever that person brings you, that’s what you have to buy, take home, and wear. You wouldn’t do that. Why would you be unbiased about who you date?

Okay. So let’s talk about dating non-Christians. How many of you think it’s probably okay to date unbelievers? You can be honest. Come on. Forget for a minute that you know what the right answers are supposed to be, or that you think you know what I want you to say. ‘Cuz let’s be real, if you’re unconvinced about what the church has to say about dating unbelievers, chances are we’re dropping the ball in some way. And hey, we aren’t right about everything; that’s impossible; maybe we’re wrong about this. So if you think we are, let’s talk about it.

Worldview. Whole persons. Intimacy. (Sorry, I did this part extemporaneously.)

The author of our book* puts it this way: “If you aim for nothing, you’ll hit it. Is that how you want to aim for your husband – with an open, blank slate? Or do you want to dream of someone who is just right for you, who complements your weaknesses, and who fulfills your hopes and desires” (63)?

And the point she’s making is the same one Brad and I were making with the shopping illustration. If we don’t have certain standards, goals, ideas and expectations for our lives, including our love-lives, we’ll be directionless. We’ll zig and zag here and there following any story about sex and romance that’s compelling in the moment. And that makes us incredibly vulnerable to believing the lies and distorted views the world has about who we are and how we should live, distorted views about who we are sexually and how we should live our romantic lives.

I’d like to take this thought a bit further, if you’ll let me. I’d like to suggest a bigger target. That instead of aiming for a husband who will fulfill the hopes you’ve pinned upon him, we aim for the Bridegroom of the Church, Jesus, and put our hope in him. As you release your arrow in the direction of the Kingdom, if you happen to snag a husband by the shirt collar, FAN-TASTIC! More to the point, if your arrow becomes intertwined with another going in the same direction, WONDERFUL!

______________

* Gresh, Dannah. And the Bride Wore White. Chicago: Moody, 2004.

Stay tuned for part two, and see where we go from here.

This blog post originally appeared at reneamac.com/2009/03/20/expectations-in-dating-part-one/


Expectations in Dating: Part Two

Mar. 20, 2009

(If you haven’t already, see Part One.)

I want to really drive this idea home, so I’d like to read a story from — yep, you guessed it — Lauren Winner’s Real Sex.*

I recently attended a women’s retreat where one of the workshops was about singleness. The speaker, whom I’ll call Myrtle, encouraged the single women in the audience to think carefully about what type of guy they’re looking for. “You want a Prince Charming,” Myrtle said, “and Prince Charmings are attracted to modest women. You might attract certain men by sporting skimpy skirts, but you won’t attract the kind of man you really want to be with.”

It’s encouraging to think that mature Christians are more interested in character than cleavage; yet there is something unsettling about this assurance that chastity will be the erotic mystery that will lead Mr. Right (or Miss Right) to our door. Prince Charming can begin to rival God as the object of our attentions. Myrtle ended her talk on this note: “What we single women have to do is no more and no less than faithfully pray that our perfect guy is out there. We don’t need to hunt him down, we just need to wait for the Lord to deliver him to us. [Is he a pizza?] We don’t need to worry about him. Instead we need to focus on ourselves, becoming the pure, modest woman that our Prince Charming will be on the lookout for. We need to devote ourselves to prayer, humility, and grace. We need to continue becoming godly women, so that when the time is right, we will have those godly characteristics that the godly man we dream about will love.”

[And that sounds right doesn’t it? I mean, that does sound like what we ought to be doing: focusing on prayer, humility, and grace. But this is the point:] I’m not disputing the desirability of the chaste woman or man. It may well be that one of the benefits of practicing chastity is that you attract friends and admirers that admire chastity. But attracting others is not the goal of chastity. Indeed, if Myrtle is focused on catching the eye of the guy who likes chaste women, she may not be inhabiting chastity at all.

Myrtle seems to be working toward becoming, principally, the kind of woman Prince Charming wants, which incidentally may be the kind of woman God wants. Her priorities, I would suggest, need to flip-flop. We are to become the persons of God, and this may bear the incidental fruit of attracting a great partner. The point of chastity is not that you turn your attention away from other people to make you more attractive to them, but that you turn your attention away from sexual and romantic entanglements with other people, and orient yourself toward God. (129-131, bracketed parentheticals mine)

What does it mean to orient our lives toward God?

Right. It means we align ourselves with God’s ways. Why would we do that?

[Silence.]

It’s a tough question, I know, but an important one. Why does it matter? Why should we bother? Let me help you put words to what I suspect some of you know in that deep, unspeakable way. God’s way is the way it’s supposed to be. We talked last week about the physical reality of sex being evidence that God’s creational intention for sex is good and right and true; how sexually transmitted diseases evidence the fact that when we misdirect our sex-lives, something isn’t right. Look around you. Look around you and you’ll see things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. There’s so much hurting in the world. There’s so much hurting sexually; things are no longer true — or straight — they’re bent. Jesus came and he began the process of righting all the wrong and healing all the hurt. Those of us who believe are called to continue the work Christ began until he returns, when everything will be made right at long last! We do this by orienting our lives toward God.

Here’s where I get back to why it’s important to have standards concerning who you will and will not date. Because purity, sexual purity, is bigger than sets of dos and don’ts, rights and wrongs, standards and judgments; it’s about shaping our lives to the themes of the Gospel, themes such as love, mercy, justice, healing, forgiveness; themes such as defending the oppressed and supporting the weak; themes that express God’s way. Learning how to do this is a life-long process. Jesus promises in Matthew 6 that if we will orient our lives toward God’s Kingdom, everything else will work out. In light of this promise, let me challenge you to commit the rest of your lives invested in communities dedicated to learning what it means to pray and live out, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Marry the man who has oriented his life toward God and journey toward the Kingdom together… for as long as you both shall live.

______________

* Winner, Lauren. Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005.

This blog post originally appeared at http://reneamac.com/2009/03/20/expectations-in-dating-part-two/


Unrealistic Expectations

Lots of things can keep us stuck in places that are hard to get out of.

Like harboring unrealistic expectations.

When my first son was four years old, I found myself angry and frustrated with him a lot. One day I “happened” to see a book on the inspirational display at the grocery store, Overcoming Hurts and Anger. I don’t remember anything else from that book except the wise counsel to adjust your unrealistic expectations. I realized that although my son was four, and a smart, prodigious four at that, it was still not fair to expect him to be and do things appropriate for a twelve-year old. It was amazing how much happier I was when I decided to expect four-year-old things of him!

Many people have unrealistic expectations of what growth and change should look like. The downside of our microwave culture is that we expect things to be fixed instantly. Last week a friend who is just starting out a long journey of overcoming a lot of hurts from her past asked what she could do to speed up the process. I suggested she work to build daily the always-popular habit of saying no to her flesh and yes to self-control, loving others, and doing the opposite of what comes naturally. Fifteen minutes later she texted me with a question: “I hate people today. Can I stay home from church?”

So much for the fast track!

One of the most dangerous places for our unrealistic expectations, though, is what we think God should do. Some of the most bitter and angry people I know, or who have loud voices in the culture (think of the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) are those who feel betrayed by God, so they decide He isn’t there.

That sense of betrayal and disappointment comes from having expectations of God according to how we think He should act:

• Protect the innocent from pain and suffering
• Protect the people who maybe-aren’t-so-innocent-but-not-as-bad-as-axe-murderers from pain and suffering
• Show the same grace to all of us by treating us all the same
• Give us an easy life
• If I do all the right things to be “a good person,” God should do His part to make life work the way I want it to

When we pray fervently for what we want and He doesn’t answer the way we want, many of us get angry with Him. That’s a part of my story. It’s easy to decide God doesn’t care, or He is evil, or He isn’t there at all.

Many times, we pray in faith, believing God will give us what we ask for, but we ask for things He never promised in the first place. Or even worse, we “claim” them on the basis of a scriptural promise wrenched out of context, such as “all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matthew 21:22). Jesus never promised that if we believe in our prayers, we would receive what we ask for. Believing in the Bible is all about trusting in and surrendering to the goodness and character of GOD, not our prayer list. We will always receive an answer to our prayers because God is good. Sometimes the answer is “No, beloved,” because we ask amiss. Psalm 84:11 promised, “No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.” If God says “no,” it’s because it’s not a good thing for us. His “no” is a “yes” to something else. But because we have such a limited perspective, it is essential that we trust in the unlimited perspective of the God who sees everything.

When we feel disappointed in God, when we think, “God didn’t come through for me,” that’s the time to take a step back and ask, “What kind of unrealistic expectations did I have in the first place?” That may be a great question to talk through with a mature trusted friend who can see things more clearly. Then we can place the unrealistic part of our expectations into God’s hands as an act of worship and trust . . . and watch our anger and frustration subside.

I’ll share some thoughts about why those expectations of God are unrealistic in my next blog post.

 

This blog post originally appeared at
blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/unrealistic_expectations
on Oct. 11, 2010.


Why Our Expectations of God Are Unrealistic

In my last blog post I talked about “Unrealistic Expectations” and promised to explore some of the reasons our expectations of God are unrealistic (and thus why we get frustrated or even furious with Him). I mentioned several ways in which we think God should act. Here are my responses to why those expectations are unrealistic.

Show the same grace to all of us by treating us all the same

No child ever has to be taught about fairness. The heart’s cry for justice is part of our design. But we are broken in our understanding of so many things, and we usually equate fairness with equality. We want God to treat everyone the same way. But God isn’t doing the same thing in everyone; He is creating a masterpiece that will bring glory to Him and goodness to us for all eternity, and His means and tools will differ from person to person. Creating a masterpiece of sculpture in a piece of marble takes different tools and techniques than creating a masterpiece of an oil painting. It’s a good thing that God doesn’t treat us all the same.

Give us an easy life

Easy, sheltered, enabled lives produce spoiled, entitled children. God’s intention is that we grow up to maturity, which necessitates learning to survive the bumps in the road and the harder aspects of living in a fallen world. He is creating an adult, glorious bride for the Lamb, who is fit to reign with Him. An easy life is completely inadequate to the task of preparing us as the church to become the bride of Christ.

If I do all the right things to be “a good person,” God should do His part to make life work the way I want it to

That linear “A ensures B” kind of thinking makes sense to our limited, immature minds, but reality doesn’t work that way. We cannot manipulate God to make life work the way we want it to. We are part of a much bigger picture that involves spiritual warfare, the battle against our own flesh, and God’s purposes that can only be accomplished in ways we don’t understand in the process.

One of the most important places of understanding God wants us to reach is the profound truth I saw on a t-shirt once:

2 essential truths:
1. There is a God.
2. You are not him.

God is God, and we are not. We don’t get to dictate the way life works, and God will lovingly bring us to the point, as many times as necessary, where we let go of the illusion that we are in control.

He is in control. We are not. And that’s a good thing.

But the granddaddy of unrealistic, albeit understandably so, expectations are these:

• Protect the innocent from pain and suffering
• Protect the people who maybe-aren’t-so-innocent-but-not-as-bad-as-axe-murderers from pain and suffering

This is really the bottom line issue for most problems with our understanding of God, the age-old difficult question, “How can a good and loving God allow pain and suffering?”

The bottom line answer is that because of the sinful choices of Adam and Eve, we all live in a world where evil and suffering were unleashed. Our world is now fallen and corrupt, and bad things happen all the time. Part of the equation is that God honors our choices, which are significant and real—even the choices that bring unintended consequences of pain and suffering. Yet God is in control, and He can redeem even the most heinous choices and the most awful pain and suffering. He delights to exchange “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:3).

We have a hard time imagining how God can bring good out of evil, and especially out of our pain. Sometimes it’s even harder when we look outside ourselves, to the suffering of innocent children such as the growing number of children abused and murdered by their mothers’ boyfriends. And I really don’t have an answer for that; I just know that God is good, and He is loving, and my inability to see how He will make it all okay in the end does not affect whether it’s true or not.

One of my favorite stories comes from my dear friend whom I’ll call Emily, who was not only raped repeatedly by her father from the time she was two years old, but he would take money from his friends so they could abuse her as well. Emily has a vibrant relationship with Jesus, especially because she has learned to listen to Him.

One day after the Holy Spirit gently restored a vivid memory of one of these gang-rape sessions for her to process, she said, “Jesus, I had a sense of being covered in something heavy, like a stack of blankets, while the abuse was going on. What was that about?” The Lord lovingly told her, “That was Me lying on top of you, protecting you from the full brunt of the abuse you were experiencing. The men had to come through Me to get to you, and I took a portion of their evil into Myself before it got to you.” Through her tears, she asked, “But why? How could there possibly be any good to come out of that horrific sexual abuse?” Jesus said, “Beloved, you are a diamond of great value. Every incident of abuse that you sustained was a hammer and chisel in My Father’s hands, creating a new facet in the diamond. When you see the finished product, you won’t believe the stunning beauty of the jewel that you are. And you will say it was worth it.”

(Incidentally, Emily hasn’t had to wait till heaven to start seeing the value of her horrific suffering. She has been able to be “Jesus with skin on” to other wounded women and children because she understands their suffering.)

The reason our expectations of God are so often unrealistic is because He is so much bigger, so much more glorious, so much more loving, so much more in control, than we can possibly comprehend. May we grow in our understanding as He continues to prove Himself faithful and good—in everything.

 

This blog post originally appeared at
blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/why_our_expectations_of_god_are_unrealistic on Oct. 26, 2010.


Why Kids Leave the Church After High School

The Youth Transition Network has released the results of research about why 70% of students in high school youth groups have left the church within a year after high school graduation.

One big reason is the unrealistic expectations that our young people sense from parents and church authority figures. When asked, “What does it mean to be a good Christian,” students responded with a long list of do’s and don’ts, always and nevers:

• No sex
• No secular music
• No fun
• No profanity
• No bad attitudes
• Be perfect
• Be a virgin
• Be wholly devoted to God
• Be righteous
• Be a role model
• Don’t doubt
• Have all the spiritual answers
• Always be positive
• Always be in a good mood
• Wear proper clothing
• Go to church all the time
• Always read your Bible
• Always be praying
• Know the whole Bible
• Get along with everyone
• Always be happy
• Never talk back
• Do not fail
• Do not fail
• Do not fail

Wow. And that’s a PARTIAL list! If someone said to you, “This is what it means to be a Christian,” would you want to sign up?

What’s also heartbreaking is what ISN’T on the list:

Reveling in God’s love for me
Appreciating His gifts of grace and mercy
Loving God back because I am so moved by His tender love for me

No wonder so many students live a “goody-two-shoes” Christian life on Sundays and Wednesday nights, and a completely other, separate life the rest of the week! No wonder they don’t see the point of staying connected to a church once their parents stop making them go.

So many of our students feel that they can’t be successful Christians. They think it’s hopeless to live up to the expectations they sense. They think that being a Christian is just too hard.

Sounds like they need to be introduced to what grace looks like. Sounds like they need to have it modeled to them. Sounds like the rest of us need to embrace it ourselves and live it out so they can see it up close and personal, and see why following Jesus is so much more than checking off the boxes on our spiritual report cards!

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/why_kids_leave_the_church_after_high_school on April 28, 2009.


“Trusting God a Joke Since Wicked Prosper, Godly Suffer”

I write to you feeling perturbed about God. At times I really wonder the question of His existence.

I would appreciate if you could enlighten me in the area of trusting in God. I find it hard to trust Him nowadays. I trust in Him to provide financially, but instead I receive more financial problems. I see sinners who are ruthless and despicable earning tons of money, curse Him with the very breath He gave them. What a joke! His children suffered in hunger and He dared to claim that He will not allowed the righteous to suffer hunger. Sometimes when I see how He blessed those rogues, I told myself where is His logic? Of course He hopes that by showing mercy, these crooks will repent, then how about His children who are suffering hunger? You mean God enjoys people cursing Him so that He could bless them? Then I think His children will begin to curse and swear at Him.

I poured my hope on Him in several areas of my life. He said that whoever called upon the name of the Lord shall not be put to shame. I trusted Him time and time again in some areas of my life such as my career, my family problems etc. But none of them came true for me. Instead my feeling right now that He is a cheat and I feel more ashamed trusting Him. What a joke!

I thought to myself, if He cannot even keep up His promise as Jehovah Jireh, our providence, that can meet our needs on earth, how can we trust Him for our salvation?

My pastor emphasized a lot on His grace and prosperity. I believe wholeheartedly but now I feel very cheated by such messages. I felt worse than Job, he suffered but at least God restored him eventually. I felt like a fool believing in a book that was claimed to be written by Him.

Jesus came to give us life so that we can have life more abundantly. Now instead of having life more abundantly, I guess it should be read as a bums life. A life that is cheap and useless comparable to the fate of a bum.

I winced when I read that your pastor emphasizes prosperity. If it’s the same kind of prosperity theology that some preach here in the U.S. that God wants to lavish good stuff on His kids, including health and lots of money and whatever our hearts desire then no wonder you are disillusioned with Him. We believe this is a false gospel and it leads believers to stumble because it teaches a lie about God.

God is concerned about His glory, and about us having a close, intimate relationship with Him (the second produces the first). Making us or keeping us comfortable usually doesn’t result in God getting the glory or in a close, dependent relationship with Him, because it’s so easy to cherish the gifts instead of the giver.

So, because of false teaching, it is quite possible that you had unrealistic expectations of a God who is not the same God of the scriptures a God who is holy, just, righteous, sovereign, and not at all committed to jumping through our hoops. And then you blame God for not being faithful or good, correct?

But because God IS good and because He loves us so much, He only acts in our best interests. If our prayers are for things that are not in our best interest, He will not grant our requests (or our demands). Which is why I think Philippians 4:6-7 is so incredibly important: God wants us to let our requests be made known to Him with thanksgiving. However He chooses to answer, when we give thanks, we are relinquishing our illusion of control and expressing our belief that He is sovereign and He knows what He’s doing.

I learned this important (and now precious to me) lesson the hard way when He kept saying “no” to the huge prayer of my heart for physical healing. I invite you to read my story, How to Handle the Things You Hate But Can’t Change.

Blessings,

Sue Bohlin

[Editor’s Note: The inquirer shares the frustrations of the psalmists in seeing the rich and ruthless get off apparently scot-free, seemingly unnoticed by a God who promises justice and blessings. This quandary is nothing new, but it is significant that a sovereign God would allow it into the Scriptures it would make God look bad if there were no bigger, truer picture as explained briefly above. See for reference: Psalm 73: 2-12.

Regarding the inquirer’s reference to Psalm 37: 25-2 about the righteous never being forsaken or their children begging for bread, Hard Sayings of the Bible, by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. and others, explains, “David must surely have seen good people in great difficulties! But this misses the psalmist’s point. He did not question that the righteous may be temporarily forsaken, needy and poor. Rather, he observed that nowhere can it be shown that the righteous have experienced continued desertion and destitution…. The point is this: in the long haul, God does not forsake his own whether they have little or much; their children will be blessed! (pages 267-268).” Hard Sayings of the Bible also addresses the issues of why the godly so frequently suffer and the ungodly seem so prosperous related to Psalm 73. For another Probe perspective on how Psalm 73 helps us deal with the problem of evil, please see Dr. Ray Bohlin’s article “Where Was God on September 11?”]

© 2008 Probe Ministries


False Guilt – Refusing Christ’s Atonement

Kerby Anderson provides an insightful look at the important topic of false guilt. He helps us look at the sources of false guilt, it’s consequences and the cure in Jesus Christ. If we refuse  to fully accept Christ’s atonement we can be trapped in false guilt, instead we should embrace His atonement and accept what He did on the cross for us.

Introduction

Have you ever felt guilty? Of course you have, usually because you were indeed guilty. But what about those times when you have feelings of guilt even when you didn’t do anything wrong? We would call this false guilt, and that is the subject of this essay.

False guilt usually comes from an overactive conscience. It’s that badgering pushing voice that runs you and your self-image into the ground. It nags: “You call this acceptable? You think this is enough? Look at all you’ve not yet done! Look at all you have done that’s not acceptable! Get going!”

You probably know the feeling. You start the day feeling like you are in a hole. You feel like you can never do enough. You have this overactive sense of duty and can never seem to rest. One person said he “felt more like a human doing than a human being.” Your behavior is driven by a sense of guilt. That is what we will be talking about in these pages.

Much of the material for this discussion is taken from the book entitled False Guilt by Steve Shores. His goal is to help you determine if you (1) have an overactive conscience and (2) are driven by false guilt. If these are problem areas for you, he provides practical solutions so you can break the cycle of false guilt. I recommend his book especially if you can recognize yourself in some of the material we cover in this essay.

In his book, Steve Shores poses three sets of questions, each with some explanation. An affirmative answer to any or all of these questions may indicate that you struggle with false guilt and an overactive conscience.

1. Do you ever feel like this: “Something is wrong with me. There is some stain on me, or something badly flawed that I can neither scrub out nor repair”? Does this feeling persist even though you have become a Christian?

2. Is Thanksgiving sort of a difficult time of year for you? Do you find it hard to muster up the Norman Rockwell spirit–you know… Mom and Dad and grandparents and kids all seated around mounds of food? Dad is carving the turkey with a sure and gentle expression on his face, and everyone looks so…well, so thankful? Do you find yourself, at any time of the year, dutifully thanking or praising God without much passion?

3. How big is your dance floor? What I mean is, How much freedom do you have? Do you feel confined by Christianity? To you, is it mainly a set of restrictions? Is it primarily a source of limits: don’t do this, and don’t do that? Does your Christianity have more to do with walls than with windows? Is it a place of narrowness or a place where light and air and liberty pour in?

Usually a person driven by false guilt is afraid of freedom because in every act of freedom is the possibility of offending someone. Offending someone is unacceptable. Other people are seen as pipelines of approval. If they’re offended, the pipeline shuts down.

False guilt, along with an overactive conscience, is a hard master. As we turn now to look at the causes and the cures for false guilt, we hope to explain how to break down the confining walls and tiresome chains that may have kept you or a loved one in bondage to false guilt.

The Source of False Guilt

Next, I would like to focus on the source of false guilt: an overactive conscience. What is an overactive conscience? How does it function? Steve Shores says, “The mission of a person’s overactive conscience is to attract the expectations of others.”

Imagine a light bulb glowing brightly on a warm summer’s night. What do you see in your mind’s eye? Bugs. Bugs of every variety are attracted to that light. The light bulb serves as a magnet for these insects. Imagine that light is an overactive conscience. The expectations of others are the “bugs” that are attracted to the “light” of an overactive conscience.

Now imagine a light bulb burning inside a screened porch. The bugs are still attracted, but they bounce off the screen. The overactive conscience has no screen. But it is more than that. The overactive conscience doesn’t want a screen. The more “bugs” the better. Why? Because the whole purpose is to meet expectations in order to gain approval and fill up the emptiness of the soul. This is an overactive conscience, a light bulb with lots of bugs and no screen.

A key to understanding the overactive conscience is the word “active.” Someone with false guilt has a conscience that is always on the go. False guilt makes a person restless, continually looking for a rule to be kept, a scruple to observe, an expectation to be fulfilled, or a way to be an asset to a person or a group.

The idea of being an asset is a crucial point. When I am an asset, then I am a “good” person and life works pretty well. When I fear I’ve let someone down, then I am a liability. My life falls apart, and I will work hard to win my way back into the favor of others.

So an overactive conscience is like a magnet for expectations. These expectations come from oneself, parents (whether alive or not), friends, bosses, peers, God, or distorted images of God. False guilt makes the overactive conscience voracious for expectations. False guilt is always looking for people to please and rules to be kept.

An overactive conscience is also seeking to keep the “carrot” of acceptance just out of reach. This “carrot” includes self- acceptance and acceptance from others and from God. The guilt- ridden conscience continually says, “Your efforts are not good enough. You must keep trying because, even if your attempts don’t measure up, the trying itself counts as something.”

For that reason, an overactive conscience is not happy at rest. Though rest is the birthright of the Christian, relaxing is just too dangerous, i.e., relaxing might bring down my guard, and I might miss signs of rejection. Besides, acceptance is conditional, and I must continually prove my worthiness to others. I can never be a liability if I am to expect acceptance to continue. It is hard to relax because I must be ever fearful of letting someone down and must constantly work to gain acceptance.

In summary, a person with false guilt and an overactive conscience spends much of his or her life worn out. Unrelenting efforts to meet the expectations of others can have some very negative consequences.

The Consequences of False Guilt

Now I would like to focus on the consequences of false guilt. An overactive conscience can keep you in a state of constant uncertainty. You never know if you measure up. You never know if you have arrived or not. You are always on the alert. According to Steve Shores there are a number of major consequences of false guilt.

The first consequence he calls “striving without arriving.” In essence, there is no hope in the system set up by the overactive conscience. You must always try harder, but you never cross the finish line. You seem to merely go in circles. Or perhaps it would be better to say you go in a spiral, as in a downward spiral. Life is a perpetual treadmill. You work hard and strive, but you never arrive. Life is hard work and frustration with little or no satisfaction.

The second consequence is “constant vigilance.” The overactive conscience produces constant self-monitoring. You are constantly asking if you are being an asset to other people and to God. You are constantly evaluating and even doubting your performance. And you never allow yourself to be a liability to the group or to any particular individual.

A third consequence is “taking the pack mule approach to life.” An overactive conscience involves a lifelong ordeal in which you attempt to pass a demanding test and thus reveal your worth. The test consists of accumulating enough evidences of goodness to escape the accusation that you are worthless. For the guilt-ridden person, this test involves taking on more duties, more responsibilities, more roles. As the burdens pile higher and higher, you become a beast of burden, a “pack mule” who takes on more responsibility than is healthy or necessary.

Just as there is no forward progress (e.g., “striving without arriving”), so there is also an ever-increasing sense of burden. Each day demands a fresh validation of worthiness. There is never a time when you can honestly say, “that’s enough.”

Finally, the most devastating consequence of false guilt is its effect not just on individuals but the body of Christ. Christians who struggle with an overactive conscience can produce weak, hollow, compliant believers in the church. They are long on conformity and short on passion and substance. They go to church not because they crave fellowship, but because they want to display compliance. They study God’s word not so much out of a desire to grow spiritually, but because that is what good Christians are supposed to do. We do what we do in order to “fit in” or comply with the rules of Christianity.

Steve Shores says that the central question of church becomes, “Do I look and act enough like those around me to fit in and be accepted?” Instead we should be asking, “Regardless of how I look and act, am I passionately worshiping God, deeply thirsting for Him, and allowing Him to change my relationships so that I love others in a way that reflects the disruptive sacrifice of Christ?”

The Continuation of False Guilt

Next, I would like to talk about why people continue to feel false guilt even though they know they are forgiven. After all, if Christ paid the penalty for our sins, why do some Christians still have an overactive conscience and continue to feel guilt so acutely? Part of the compulsion comes from feeling the noose of false guilt tighten around our necks so that we panic and fail to think rationally about our situation.

Steve Shores uses the example of a death-row inmate who has just learned of an eleventh-hour stay of execution. He has just been pardoned, but his body and emotions don’t feel like it. He has been “sitting in the electric chair, sweaty-palmed and nauseated, when the wall phone rings with the news of the reprieve.” He may feel relief, but the feeling of relief is not total. He is only off the hook for awhile. He will still return to his cell.

The person with a overactive conscience lives in that death-row cell. The reprieve comes from responding to that guilt-driven voice in his conscience. For Bill it manifested itself in a compulsive need to serve others. If he were asked to teach AWANA or to teach a Sunday school class, he would have great difficulty saying “No.” He had to say “Yes” or else he would feel the noose of false guilt tighten around his neck.

Bill’s comments were sad but illuminating. He said: “I felt as though not teaching the class would confirm that I am a liability. The disappointment…would inflict shame I felt as a boy. Disappointing others always meant that there would be some sort of trial to decide whether I really belonged in the family.”

He went on to tell of the time he made a “C” on his report card (the rest of the grades were “A’s” and “B’s”). His father lectured him unmercifully. At one point, his father declared that “it was Communist to bring home such a bad grade.” Bill didn’t know what a Communist was or what Communism had to do with bad grades. But he did understand that if he didn’t bring home good grades he was unworthy.

Bill even remembered the six agonizing weeks until the next report card. When it arrived he received five “A’s” and one “B.” What was his father’s response? Was it delight? Was it an apology for his previous comments? Not at all. His father merely said, “That’s more like it.” The reprieve was halfhearted and temporary.

In essence, false guilt is a stern warden that may give a temporary reprieve but is always ready to call upon you to prove your worthiness once again. We may know that Christ died for our sins. We may know that our sins are forgiven. We may know that we have value and dignity because we are created in God’s image. But we may feel unworthy and feel as if we must prove ourselves at a moment’s notice.

The key, as we will see in the next section, is to embrace Christ’s atonement rather than our own. We must not only know that we are forgiven through Jesus Christ, but act upon that reality so that we live a life through grace rather than legalism.

A Cure for False Guilt

Finally, I would like to conclude by talking about Christ’s atonement for us. If we are to break the chain of false guilt, then we must embrace Christ’s atonement rather than our own. Although that statement may seem obvious, it is difficult for someone with an overactive conscience to truly embrace emotionally. For such a person, perfection is the means of achieving salvation. If I can be perfect, then I will no longer feel shame, and I will no longer feel guilt. This is the personal atonement that someone with false guilt often is seeking.

The Bible clearly teaches that Christ’s atonement was for our sins. Sin is “any attitude, belief, or action that constitutes rebellion against or transgression of God’s character.” Clearly sinful man is incapable of making restitution because our best works are as filthy rags before a holy and omnipotent God (Isaiah 64:6). Our atonement must be made by someone with clean hands and a sinless life. Christ, of course, fulfilled that requirement and died in our place for our sins.

Nevertheless, someone with false guilt seeks a form of self- atonement. Why? Well, there are at least two reasons: indiscriminate shame and doubt about the character of God. The first is indiscriminate shame. We should feel guilty and we should feel shame for sinful behavior. The problem comes when we feel guilt and shame even when a sinful action or attitude is not present. Steve Shores believes that the “weeds of shame” can begin to sprout even when we have a legitimate need. We then tend to use the machete of false guilt to trim these weeds back. We say, “If I can do enough things right, I can control this and no one will know how bad and weak I am.” This performance-oriented lifestyle is a way of hacking at the weeds that grow in the soil of illegitimate shame.

The second reason for false guilt is a stubborn propensity to doubt the character of God. Many Christian psychologists and counselors have argued that the reason we may question our Heavenly Father’s character is because we question our earthly father’s character. And for those who have been abused or neglected by their fathers, this is an adequate explanation. But we even see in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve doubting God and they did not even have earthly fathers. So I believe it is more accurate to say that our sin nature (not our family of origin) has a lot to do with our tendency to doubt God’s character.

This is manifested by two tendencies: blaming and hiding. When we feel false guilt, we tend to want to blame others or blame ourselves. If we blame others, we manifest a critical spirit. If we blame ourselves, we feel unworthy and don’t want others to see us as we are and we hide emotionally from others. The solution is for us to embrace Christ’s atonement and accept what He did on the cross for us. Christ died once for all (Romans 6:10) that we might have everlasting life and freedom from guilt and the bondage to sin.

©1996 Probe Ministries.