The Purpose of Guilt

Eternal life is to know God (John 17:3). Until we know God, we’ve come short of eternal life. There are two things that consistently keep us from knowing God: sin and false tradition. These two barriers each their respective antidote; one is heed (obedience), the other is diligence (searching for further truth). Consequently, the two most important things that can be preached are repentance and the tearing down of false traditions. These will invariably bring us closer to God.

With that as a prelude, I’d like to address one false tradition that’s crept its way into every corner of the world today. This false belief manifests itself in a variety of ways, including safe spaces, trigger warnings, persistent validation, participation medals, unconditional approval, and the constant reassurance that no matter what you do, you’re “good” with God. These, and many others, are all attempts to create counterfeit peace.

To be clear, God’s love is unchanging. He will always love you unconditionally; that cannot change. But because He loves you, He desires to fix you, and set you right. In truth, we long for His love and healing. Our souls’ deepest yearnings are to be set right, at peace with ourselves. The Lord knows there is only one way this can be achieved: by becoming one with Him. On our own, we are broken and incomplete. We must be infused with His Spirit in order to experience true peace.

The pervading false belief of our day seeks to destroy that peace by offering a quick-fix counterfeit. Like many of Satan’s counterfeits, it offers immediate gratification; and like many of Satan’s counterfeits, the solution is only surface-level.

Satan creates and promotes his counterfeit blessings in an attempt to prevent us from actually getting nearer to God. That’s his ultimate motivation. One key to detecting if something comes from him is if it encourages us to stay the same. If he keeps us the same, he keeps us miserable. His sleight of hand is that he sells peace of mind on the surface.

Naturally, when someone is fearful, we want to calm them; when someone is sad, we want to cheer them up; when someone is hopeless, we want to give them hope. Things swing too far, however, when we become more focused on feeling good than doing good. We live in a world that’s beginning to see any bad feeling or negative expression as the enemy in and of itself. Instead of teaching that we remedy these feelings by doing good, the world is currently trying to put bandaids on every negative emotion.

According to the most basic tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid things they fear is misguided. However, this is exactly the approach we take when we create safe spaces and trigger warnings. One of the most sound forms of therapy we have for anxiety disorders is what’s called “exposure therapy.” This entails gradually exposing a patient to past stressors, allowing them to form new associations–ones that don’t reinforce the fear. This is how the amygdala can get rewired again to associate a previously feared situation with safety or normalcy. The solution isn’t avoiding the stressor, it’s confronting it. After all, we can’t always control the world around us. The short-term avoidant solution is an illusion, because the moment the ground shifts beneath you, everything turns to sand.

We do a similar thing with guilt. Naturally, violating our conscience has an effect on us. In tune with the world’s song, we tend to treat that feeling like it’s something that should be avoided. We put bandaids on guilt by reassuring people they’re being too hard on themselves, God only wants them to make an effort, or that their eternal life or standing before God isn’t contingent on their behavior. We say these things because we don’t want the anxiety of imperfection to be so demotivating that they give up hope all together. We assure them that they don’t need to live their lives in worry because their salvation is secure.

This is the spiritual equivalent to a participation medal.

The issue with participation medals is they make you feel good superficially, but something deep in your own psyche starts to feel like being rewarded for simply “being” cheapens the prize. It feels hollow and meaningless. Nothing looks wrong, but something feels wrong. On the surface, you feel good, but that feeling stays surface level. Underneath, it eats away at you.

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Another way of thinking about it is imagining the stress you feel after getting in your car and seeing the “check engine” light come on. If our goal was to avoid stress at all costs, we might consider finding a way to hack the car’s computer and turn the light off. On the surface, our stressor falls out of sight, out of mind. Under the hood, however, something is going to go terribly wrong. The issue eats away at your engine.

The prophet Alma found himself teaching against this philosophy throughout his ministry. His own life experience specially qualified him to teach against this belief. At the beginning of the book of Alma, one Anti-Christ named Nehor appears on the scene. Even though his story ends at the end of chapter one, his influence carries for years and years. He taught that

… all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life (Alma 1:4).

Lift up your heads! Rejoice! This sounds like a positive message, so what’s the problem? What Nehor was selling was counterfeit peace. And yet, something about this rhymes with the consolation we offer others and ourselves. It feels nice on the surface but doesn’t address the problem underneath.

What does Alma know about this? Well, after living in a way not congruent with God, an angel appeared and made him aware of how God felt about his choices. Alma fell unconscious for a few days and described his experience thus:

12 But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.

13 Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.

14 Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.

15 Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds (Alma 36).

This wasn’t a pleasant experience until he turned his life around by reconciling himself to God. The insight this experience gave him allowed him to testify that in order to even want to be with God, we have to turn from our sins.

18 Or otherwise, can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea, a perfect remembrance of all your wickedness, yea, a remembrance that ye have set at defiance the commandments of God? (Alma 5.)

14 For our words will condemn us, yea, all our works will condemn us; we shall not be found spotless; and our thoughts will also condemn us; and in this awful state we shall not dare to look up to our God; and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence (Alma 12).

“…hide us from his presence.” Remember that this was the first thing Adam and Eve wanted to do after they ate the fruit. They chose to be apart from him.

Alma eventually has a son who loses sight on what’s important. He makes some poor decisions, and so Alma sits him down to give him some fatherly counsel towards the end of his life. He notes that he’d rather not point out his mistakes, but that it serves a purpose:

And now, my son, I would to God that ye had not been guilty of so great a crime. I would not dwell upon your crimes, to harrow up your soul, if it were not for your good.

But behold, ye cannot hide your crimes from God; and except ye repent they will stand as a testimony against you at the last day (Alma 39).

Consider the role of Old Testament prophets, who came warning the people that they needed to repent or they’d be destroyed. Do you think they understood the importance guilt’s role in leading us back to God? We either let a portion of his light convict us of our sins now, or face all of it when we stand before him to be judged. Have you ever wondered why God’s glory and hell are both depicted as fire? They’re the same fire! What will be the glory of God to some will be hell to others:

3… Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws?

Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell.

For behold, when ye shall be brought to see your nakedness before God, and also the glory of God, and the holiness of Jesus Christ, it will kindle a flame of unquenchable fire upon you (Mormon 9).

Guilt isn’t inherently bad; it serves a purpose. What you’re mistaking as a tool of the adversary may actually be God pricking your heart, letting you know you need to repent to dwell with him (Acts 2:37). It may be the “check engine” light in your car informing you of some repairs that need to be made to ensure everything is running smoothly.

P.S. The purpose of this post was to expose a false tradition that prevents us from getting closer to God. The next post will offer a solution to properly addressing the guilt and anxiety that comes from our imperfection.

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