You know the drill. Your pastor gives a challenging sermon. You feel exposed and guilty. Things in your life need to change and you find yourself squirming a bit, thinking, “Yes, I need to work on that, I need to do something about that.” A self-improvement regimen starts forming in your head as you say to yourself, “I need to read my Bible more. I need to pray more. Maybe I can get an accountability partner to help me with that.” You envision yourself successfully following your action plan for spiritual growth. Guilt has moved you to get to work and fix yourself.
What’s going on here? Have you ever thought about exactly how you experience guilt? I think most people experience guilt like the shrill, piercing whistle of a drill sergeant jolting his recruits out of their slumber at some ungodly hour of the morning to begin whipping them into shape.
For many of us, this is how our conscience works: we know we fall short in some area and, when exposed by a sermon, a book, a friend, etc., we feel guilty. The piercing whistle of guilt goes off in our heads and our inner drill sergeant demands that we get to work. Powered by our own effort, we push ourselves towards growth and transformation. This is particularly true for those of us who are high-capacity, get-it-done type individuals.
It’s time we re-consider how we respond to guilt. If we stop for a minute and really listen the next time a wave of guilt hits us, I think we could “hear” something different. Instead of a piercing, shrill whistle, what if the experience of guilt is more like a ringing cell phone? Instead of guilt demanding that we get to work on our flabby souls, what if our guilt is actually inviting us into a conversation. Not a conversation with ourselves, with our “inner drill sergeant”, but a conversation with our Savior, the one who knows us better than we know ourselves, the one who knows that we are far more broken and needy than we want to admit and more deeply loved and cared for than we ever dared to hope or imagine. A conversation with the one who took our guilt on His shoulders because He knew that no regimen of our own creation could ever remove our guilt and transform our hearts.
The next time you’re sitting in church and you hear the call of guilt, what would happen if you ignored the drill sergeant and picked up the phone? What if you took the time to listen to the one who knows that what you really need is not a self-improvement regimen, but an encounter with His unconditinonal love? What if you were honest with Him and admitted your neediness and ongoing struggle with sin?
You would have the opportunity to drink deeply from the forgiveness and mercy poured out for you at the Cross. You could open your heart to the outpouring of grace made available through the Cross and the Spirit. And then, from that place of dependence, you could move forward, cooperating with what he does (or does not) tell you to do.
Beats following a drill sergeant any day.