Guilt Isn’t Just a ‘Religious’ Problem.

I’m pretty sure everyone’s had one of those conversations where days or months afterwards you think to yourself, “Man, that’s what I should have said to So-n-so!” After analyzing the problem with the heat turned down, you end up spotting the fatal flaw, or key unquestioned assumption that was driving it in the direction it was going. Unfortunately, I have those all the time, both because I overthink things, and because I’m not always as quick on my feet as I’d like to be.

One such conversation arose in one of my philosophy classes in my undergrad. We were talking about the ethics of belief, the sub-section of philosophy that deals with when it’s okay to believe something. Questions such as: Can you believe something just because you want to? Is evidence always necessary for every belief you hold? Is it ever okay to believe something you can’t prove? That kind of thing.

Well, we were discussing Pascal’s famous (and widely misunderstood) argument The Wager. Pascal was writing in Catholic France at a time when philosophical skepticism had made a comeback and the classic arguments for the existence of God were in doubt. As part of a broader apologetic, he proposed a little thought-experiment to show that even without evidence skepticism still wasn’t your best option.  

guiltyThe gist of it is this: you’ve got two things at stake when it comes to belief in God, the truth of the matter and your happiness in this life. What’s more, you’ve got two faculties you use to come to your belief, your reason and your will. He says, “Well, say the odds for and against the existence of God are 50/50–there are good arguments both ways, and so your reason can’t settle the issue and the truth is unverifiable. Then what? Well, you shouldn’t consider the issue settled. You still have your will and your happiness to think about.” In Pascal’s view, it makes sense that you should still go for belief in God because that’s the only way to achieve the joy of meaning, purpose, and so forth that comes with belief in God. For the purposes of the story we don’t need to go further. For a better explanation, consult Peter Kreeft’s excellent summary and retooling of the Wager.

Here’s the payout for the story. Pascal argued that believing in God had benefits and joys for this life like meaning, purpose, virtue, and so forth. As we discussed this, my professor–let’s call him Professor Jones–said something I’ll never forget. He asked, gently, but with a hint of sarcasm, “Oh, you mean the joy of going around feeling guilty all the time for your sins?”  In Professor Jones’ mind, the corollary of belief in God is an overwhelming and unrelievable sense of guilt for violating his rules. This clearly didn’t seem like a step up to him.

Now, at the time, I didn’t have conversational space, or wherewithal to respond adequately, but if I had, I would have said, “Oh, but Professor Jones, you already walk around struggling with guilt over failing your god.”

Now, what do I mean by that? Well, let me break it down in a few steps.

Everybody Has a God. The first step is understanding that everybody has a ‘god’ of some sort. The world we live in tends to split people up between “believers” and “non-believers.” The Bible has a different dividing line: worshipers of the true God, or worshipers of something else. See, everybody has something in their life that they treat as a functional god. Whatever you look to in order to give you a sense of self, meaning, worth, and value is a ‘god.’ Martin Luther put it this way:

A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. —Large Catechism

So whether you “believe” intellectually, in a deity or not, you still worship something. This is because we were created by God for worship, so if we won’t worship him something else rushes in to plays that role in your life, be it money,  career, status, relationships, and so forth. It’s either God, or an idol. There is no other option.

Everybody Follows and Fails that God’s Commands. Following off of this, every god has commands and demands worship. If make money your god, then you are under command (compulsion) in order to do whatever it takes to acquire it. You will work as hard as you need to (become a workaholic) and sacrifice whatever you have to (relationships, kids, ethics) in order to get it. When you have it, you feel secure. You’ve achieved and obeyed and so the god has blessed you. The flipside is, if you fail it, make a bad investment, lose your cash in a housing crash, then you feel the loss of security, but also the crushing sense of guilt that comes with failing your god. Wrath descends.

A few moment’s reflection You can see this everywhere: from the careerist who can’t forgive herself for blowing that promotion, to that bitter young scholar struggling to live up to his father’s expectations, to the mother who crushes herself because her child-god didn’t turn out picture perfect the way she needed her to. All of them struggle under the weight of the guilt brought on by their failure to please their functional gods. All of them suffer guilt and shame, even if we don’t call it that.

David Foster Wallace has a justly famous quote on the subject:

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Only the Biblical God Offers Forgiveness and Grace.

Here’s where it all clicked for me, though. I was reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God and I ran across this brilliant passage at the end of his chapter breaking down this idolatry dynamic:

Remember this— if you don’t live for Jesus you will live for something else. If you live for career and you don’t do well it may punish you all of your life, and you will feel like a failure. If you live for your children and they don’t turn out all right you could be absolutely in torment because you feel worthless as a person. If Jesus is your center and Lord and you fail him, he will forgive you. Your career can’t die for your sins. You might say, “If I were a Christian I’d be going around pursued by guilt all the time!” But we all are being pursued by guilt because we must have an identity and there must be some standard to live up to by which we get that identity. Whatever you base your life on— you have to live up to that. Jesus is the one Lord you can live for who died for you— who breathed his last breath for you. Does that sound oppressive?

..Everybody has to live for something. Whatever that something is becomes “Lord of your life,” whether you think of it that way or not. Jesus is the only Lord who, if you receive him, will fulfill you completely, and, if you fail him, will forgive you eternally.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (pp. 170-171)

So to sum up: Everybody has a god. Every god has rules and everybody fails their god. Everybody walks around with guilt and shame. But only the God we find in Jesus Christ will forgive those sins so that we don’t have to walk around feeling guilty all the time. Ironically enough, believing in God isn’t the road to more guilt, but the road out from underneath the guilt you already struggle with.

This is really the answer I’d wish I’d given Professor Jones.

Soli Deo Gloria

12 thoughts on “Guilt Isn’t Just a ‘Religious’ Problem.

  1. To answer Keller’s question, yes, it does sound oppressive, and on two levels. On the first level, there’s exclusivity: Jesus is the only God you can worship; I like worshiping different “gods.” As long as I don’t get too stuck on any one thing I feel pretty balanced. On the second level, how do you not feel guilty when someone dies for you? Part of the gospel is that you can’t pay Jesus back for his sacrifice, right? But I would feel like I had to pay him back, and I’d be crushed by guilt over and over again when I slipped up.

    So while I think your and Keller’s critique of the secular worldview is spot-on, I don’t think Christianity sounds any more appealing. Which, of course, may be a “me” problem. Often when I read Christian writers describing things I’m supposed to have felt–like a need to be forgiven, say–I don’t recognize myself in it. Maybe I’m a sociopath. An atheist sociopath. Cue Antoine Dodson.

    • Alex,

      Good points. Let me take them piece by piece to see if this clears things up:

      1. You like worshiping different gods and Jesus sounds exclusive and oppressive. And I will say that it is exclusive. Thing is, marriage sounds oppressive when you’re Barney Stinson or the Fonz. It’s different when you’re inside, though. Dating different girls for a while is probably fun, getting to know each one a little bit and so forth. But it’s only in the “confines” of marriage that you get to know one, truly, and securely. Marriage is the exclusive joy that dating ought to aim at. As I wrote in this piece:
      We see this point at work in love, too. While some guys might find the freedom of dating girl after girl appealing, we find the joy of deep freedom in finally landing. When you choose someone to love, yes, you have to sacrifice other choices, other options, other ways the world might have been. But you’re finally free to give yourself to her, fully and completely. You’re free to spend time getting to know her instead of briefly and casually perusing the surface-level presentations of the millions of other women out there. You can be fully open and fully known, instead of just browsing through relationships. That’s the difference between joy and mere amusement.

      2. Jesus not only died for me, but he rose again from the dead. He’s alive and he continually tells me in the Gospel that I don’t have to “pay” him back. That’s the thing about grace: it’s a gift. Now, it’s okay to live out of gratitude the rest of your life. That’s fine. But that’s not oppressive at all. Say you had a best friend who was rich. Then, say you had a very large debt you owed to a bookie because you’re a gambler. Like $1 million bucks. Now, it turns out that you placed the original bet with money you stole from your friend. Then, say you find out your friend has paid it off. Do you feel guilty? Do you want to pay him back? Maybe. Does he expect it? No. He says to you that he paid it not expecting you to pay it back. He paid it because he wanted to have his friend around. So you spend the rest of your life learning to be a good friend to him. It’s a life of gratitude and joy that you have such a gracious, giving friend.

      3. As for the fact that you don’t “feel” the felt need, Keller talks about that in the book in a few ways. You really might enjoy the section. But one thing he says is this:

      “You may say, “I see that Christianity might be just the thing for people who have had collapses in their lives. But what if I don’t fail in my career and what if I have a great family?” As Augustine said, if there is a God who created you, then the deepest chambers of your soul simply cannot be filled up by anything less. That is how great the human soul is. If Jesus is the Creator-Lord, then by definition nothing could satisfy you like he can, even if you are successful. Even the most successful careers and families cannot give the significance, security, and affirmation that the author of glory and love can.” The Reason for God (pp. 170-171).

      You might not feel anxious, or guilty in some of these ways, but you’re not experiencing the depth of joy and love you were intended for.

      So, that’s what I’d say. I hope this helps.


      • Thank you for illuminating, Derek. Just to clarify one small thing: when I say I don’t feel a need to be forgiven, I mean that I don’t feel guilty when I fail at worshiping a god. I’ve read Reason for God and it’s a great book, but I’m not coming at the question of God from a position of success and happiness, because honestly I have neither. I’m a total fail in most of the ways the world gauges success. But I don’t think that means there’s something wrong with me.

        I feel guilt if I wrong somebody else–I’m not a total monster. But I don’t feel guilty about not living up to someone else’s standards. If I fail to live up to my own standards–and believe me, I do–that’s when the guilt comes in. And so if Christianity can free you from that (and if it’s true), maybe it is better. So even if I’m not yet swayed to your position, I absolutely agree with the fundamental point of your post: guilt is not the sole propriety of the religious and abandoning religion does not free you from all guilt.

    • Alex, you seem like a prime candidate for God. God delights in REVEALING His Truth to Truth seekers such as yourself.
      You see, God IS Spirit, all these books you read will never reveal anything to you. You’re looking to carnal things for spiritual understanding.
      I bare witness to The reality of Jesus Christ. It IS God who choses us, even when we’re not exactly looking for him. God can, and does most certainly exist outside the confines of religion and books.
      He delivered me of a 25yr porn addiction, 20yr daily pot smoking addiction and my life long tv addiction over night. I thought i was going crazy, i’m not a church attendee, i wasn’t reading the bible at the time, but i was searching for the truth.

      Anyways Alex, Jesus Christ IS real and IS The Living God. It’s supernatural and beyond explanation. Once He reveals Himself to someone, that person is never the same. His Spirit IN you is what guides you and sustains you from that point on.
      I’m not a learned man, heck, i got a grade 9 education and most would consider me un-successful, but, i got Jesus inside of me, and that’s all i need. Everyday i offer myself up to Him, a living vessel unto Him that i may do the good works of The Father , that i may do as Jesus says. An obediant servant to The One who gives me life. He gives physical life tha we may have spiritual Life.

      Peace and Love, not as the world gives.

  2. Belief ion Christianity is not you can just size up and choose to believe in. We are DEAD in our sins and trespasses. As Jesus said, “If you sin, you are slaves to sin.”

    We are all born unbelievers. And we are pretty much committed to stay that way, our entire lives. But God calls…and chooses us through the hearing of the gospel and in Baptism (when faith comes…Baptism is complete).

    “Faith is a gift of God”.

    We are drunk with this modern notion of “free-will”…so naturally we carry it over to believing that WE can choose God. That, is what is known as blasphemy.

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