Tim Keller

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.  

The 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.”

Failing Your Gods

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 this, every god has commands and demands worship. If you 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 so the god has blessed you. The flip-side 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.

With 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 the answer I’d wish I’d given Professor Jones.

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A.T.S. (Biblical Studies) at APU. He also contributes at the Gospel Coalition, Mere Orthodoxy, and Leadership Journal, as well as his own Reformedish blog.

Original posted at DerekZRishmawy.com. Used with permission.

Cue Transformative Discipleship

What will the world look like in 100 years? Or more specifically—what will Christianity look like in 100 years? In a 1,000 years? In 10,000 years?1 This might be very hard for us to fathom. Thinking about the distant future is not something that we practice naturally. It takes intentional effort to think about the deep future. And here’s the thing about it: once we truly contemplate on what the world may or may not look like, we will recognize that the landscape in which we currently conduct our discipleship ministries will look nothing like the world inhabited by our future ancestors. Just think about the difference 50 years makes. Compare 1964 to 2014. Think about how the discipleship playing field has changed. Just think about the different strategies that Christians have implemented over the course of the past 50 years. Culture is always shifting. People are always changing. Christianity, to a degree, even changes. So how should this affect our discipleship-making? What can the Christian church do today to ensure that it leaves a lasting mark for the next generations of Christians? The Christian message might not need to evolve, but perhaps its discipleship-method does.

Cue Transformative Discipleship

Transformative Discipleship can be defined as a method of discipleship-making that is willing to change its form, appearance, and structure to effectively engage current culture with the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

What might this look like? In Center Church, Pastor Tim Keller helps us out:

Paul himself presented the gospel content in different ways — using different orders, arguments, levels of emphasis, and so on — to different cultures. And we should too. The gospel is so rich that it can be communicated in a form that fits every situation.

He goes on to expound upon this idea of gospel contextualization:

A contextualized gospel is marked by clarity and attractiveness, and yet it still challenges sinners’ self-sufficiency and calls them to repentance. It adapts and connects to the culture, yet at the same time challenges and confronts it.

Now what Keller calls gospel contextualization, I call transformative discipleship. The reason that I prefer this term is because transformative discipleship calls us to look at how discipleship-making methods have shifted throughout history. What this means is that we should be willing to look into the deep past and evaluate the positives and negatives of our ancestors’ discipleship-making methods. This would call us to analyze past mistakes and construct better present-day discipleship-making methods. Practically, here is what this model would emphasize:

1. Transformative Discipleship is historical.

Christians using the Transformative discipleship method would be willing to learn from 2,000 years of church history. The positives and negatives would be discussed openly, and gleaning wisdom from the Christian church’s past would be promoted.

2. Transformative Discipleship is culturally-centered.

Every culture places value on different things. That is why a versatile discipleship method is needed. The Transformative discipleship model challenges Christians to focus on the culture that they inhabit, engage with society, and learn how to best infiltrate the culture with the gospel message.

3. Transformative Discipleship is evolutionary.

This model emphasizes the importance of changing and molding the way current discipleship methods are being used within the church if necessary. As culture shifts and changes, the Christian church must practically “evolve” the ways that the gospel message is presented. This might seem commonsensical, but far too often the Christian church has not been willing to adapt its practices to fit its patrons. However, a flexible model is what Transformative discipleship is all about.

4. Transformative Discipleship is multi-faceted.

One of the key aspects of Transformative discipleship is its willingness to promote a vast variety of discipleship techniques. This mindset will promote to Christians the importance of going out into their surrounding communities with the gospel of Jesus Christ. This may look like door-to-door evangelism or perhaps simply having home groups scattered throughout the city. The transformative discipleship model is open to a number of different discipleship methods and approaches.

infiltrate culture with the gospel for the Future

Partner—GCD—450x300If you think that there is a possibility of Christians living on this earth even for the next 500 years, than perhaps teaching the transformative discipleship method would be beneficial to implement. Instructing present-day Christians the transformative discipleship method would hopefully begin to shift our focus to how this generation and the next generations can infiltrate culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our teaching would shift from teaching “one-size-fits-all” discipleship methods, to teaching a transformative model that emphasizes molding the message of the gospel to fit the audience that one is witnessing too. This is what Keller has in mind when he specifically talks about gospel contextualization. I just am taking it one step further and calling the church to consider the distant past and even the far off future when teaching discipleship techniques to today’s next generation of Christians.

Again the gospel message does not change, but the methods in which we teach the gospel is always transforming and molding. Specifically, our gospel-proclaiming techniques shift and change to best fit the people groups that we are ministering too. This aligns very well with what the Apostle Paul taught:

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” —I Corinthians 9:19-23

I have simply introduced a few of the ideas that a transformative discipleship method would entail. There is no doubt that these ideas would benefit from being developed more thoroughly. However, at this point, it suffices to say that the transformative discipleship model is a method that I believe should be adopted by most Christians and churches simply because it teaches current believers to look into the past, live in the present, and expectantly look to the future when discussing various facets of Christian discipleship.

1. J.L. Schellenberg’s book, Evolutionary Religion, has influenced me a lot when writing this article. His ideas of thinking about the past, present, and future have proven extremely useful when writing about Transformative Discipleship. I am in debt to his wonderful writing.

Matt Manry is the Director of Discipleship at Life Bible Church in Canton, Georgia. He is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary and Knox Theological Seminary. He also works on the editorial team for Credo Magazine and Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He blogs regularly at gospelglory.net.