Sunday, February 24, 2008

Laying on the Guilt (?)

A lot of the time, it is our [pastors’] job to make people feel guilty. And that’s a good thing.

(Once again, this is from the same blog as my previous two posts, and from its post entitled, “Lent for Dummies”.)

Is there a difference between helping people acknowledge their guilt and making them ”feel guilty?” I think there is and that it is rather important.

Thinking over the various sermons in the New Testament, such as Christ’s, St. Peter’s, or St. Paul’s before Festus and before Agrippa, I don’t really see any of them trying to work on anybody’s emotions, although they do confront people with their sins. St. John the Forerunner excoriates people, as did other prophets before Him, and Christ blasts the scribes and the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. St. Peter tells his hearers they have wickedly seized Christ and crucified Him, and they are pricked in their hearts. So from these examples we can see there’s nothing amiss with reminding people of their sins. It needs to be done. If that is what’s meant, good.

But there’s a real danger here, or at least I think there is, of this sort of thing degenerating into manipulation, or what we may call emotional blackmail. I am *not* supposing the author of the words I've quoted is at all guilty of this, but I bring it up because we’ve all heard preachers who do it. But Christians need to take care to avoid this unChristian method. Conversion is not something we seek to extort or that could even be genuine if we were to “succeed” that way.

Notice St. Peter’s approach, for example, in Acts 2. He doesn’t begin by trying to lay a guilt trip on his hearers with the intention of later exploiting it – even for their own benefit. Instead, St. Peter begins his sermon with the Good News. Only much later does he briefly remind his hearers of their guilt. Surely this is a better approach than to begin by heaping on the guilt. Why? For a couple of reasons.

First, because most people haven’t the courage really, truly, and honestly to face up to themselves and their sins unless you utterly break them down in what amounts to psychological cruelty. (The end does not justify such means!) But if you properly present to them the Lord of Love, the Lord of Life and Light – again, soberly, avoiding emotional manipulation in doing so – and if the Holy Spirit through your words reveals that strong, unconditional Love to them, then they are fortified by Him to face anything, even themselves. And they will do it! The preacher won’t have to do much, if anything, to induce it; certainly not pile on the guilt, for the same Holy Spirit Who brought them to Jesus’ Love will also prompt them to acknowledge their sinful condition (of which they were already aware, on some level). They will do it with a godly, joyous sorrow.

Secondly, if you do as Jesus did with Zacchaeus (for example), first extending the wondrous, infinite Love, then you get a response such as his, a repentance accomplished for Love’s sake and accompanied by fruits befitting repentance. Zacchaeus, with great joy, gave half his possessions to the poor and to the many he had cheated, he gave back four times the amount he had taken from them. That’s to say, he became a giver himself, a joyful lover, after the model of his Savior and participating in His loving.

When my sister, Barbara, first began attending Orthodox services, she spent the first several months weeping her way through the Divine Liturgy, weeping for her sins, yet weeping with joy. What always got her started was, of all things, the Beatitudes!

But if you try to convert people by provoking in them an emotional crisis of guilt, then their motivation will almost certainly be narrowly focused and self-serving; namely, to alleviate that guilt you have induced. Moreover, their “conversion” is apt to be shallow, a matter of emotion rather than of the deep human spirit, something that wears off after the emotional crisis has eased. You likely end up not with a giver but a consumer of love, and only a sometime consumer, at that.

None of this is to say there is no emotion in true conversion. To the contrary, the emotion is usually huge. But it is, so to speak, a symptom, a spillover effect, rather than the substance of the matter. Therefore, a preacher should not take the artificial approach of seeking to provoke the symptom (emotions), but should address the human spirit, which dwells at a far more profound level than emotions. That is where true conversion takes place. And, as best I can tell, only the transforming Love of God can reach there.