How the Church has Weaponized Guilt
By Naomi Pepper
One of my childhood best friends recently became a Christian. I’ll call him Paul for the sake of anonymity and because his conversion reminds me a bit of Saul becoming Paul in the Bible. He made some intense lifestyle changes on his way into the church, and he’s hardly recognizable. I’m proud of him, but I also worry about the amount of anxiety he’s experiencing as he tries to “get things right.”
Over Christmas break, Paul made breakfast. It was super vegan and kind of terrible. It was actually so terrible that when he took a bite, he immediately began choking on it. If you grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist, you might remember hearing people tell you not to drink water with your food because “Ellen White says so.” I watched Paul take a sip of water because he was choking and then immediately pray to God for forgiveness. He proceeded to eat the rest of the meal because he felt guilty about wasting (I could not).
Let’s be clear: I do not believe that God would have condemned Paul for drinking water with his food in any normal circumstance, and especially not this one. Paul’s cooking was terrible, probably the worst vegan food I’ve ever had, and he did the only logical thing he could by washing it down. I would argue that I did the next logical thing by not finishing the food, but that’s another story.
When a healthy conscience becomes ridden with anxiety, guilt, and shame, it’s no longer the work of the Holy Spirit. One of the clearest things we know about the work of the Holy Spirit is the fruits it produces: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Paul was not feeling peace during his transition into the church.
Church communities are slow to correct behavior like Paul’s because his anxiety showed itself as strong conviction, but I remember when he left the church as a kid for almost the exact same reason that he is back in it now: guilt. He was made to feel like it was indulgent or wrong when he enjoyed life, and Paul really, really enjoyed life.
Paul felt on a grand scale what I’ve felt in smaller doses. A twinge of guilt when we’ve made a mistake is good. It keeps us accountable. But obsessive anxiety tears us down, and those who taught it to us were wrong to do so. The church used guilt as a weapon to either keep us in or kick us out as young people (for Paul, it was both), and that was wrong.
In an attempt to reverse the effects of weaponized guilt in my own life, I’ve begun focusing on the work that God actually wants to do in my life, and I believe that He has bigger priorities than making me feel guilty about drinking water with breakfast. God’s intention is to build me up, not pick away at my faults until I’m an anxious mess. He intends to make me soar on wings like eagles, run and not grow weary, walk and never faint (Isaiah 40:31), not grovel at His feet for all eternity.
If the focus of our faith is finding new sins to purge, it seems to me that we’d be awfully bored in heaven when there are no more sins for purging. There will be less of me and more of Him as I grow, but that comes from focusing on the “more of Him” part, not the “less of me” part. We can’t just get rid of ourselves; we need to fill up with God and His love for us that trumps any guilt weaponization from the church.
“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7