One of the criticisms of Christianity is that Christian religions are guilt-inducing. When I first heard this, I thought, No way! Not MY church! I imagined people were talking about pastors instilling the fear of God into the congregation, telling them they were these worthless, below-the-dust-of-the-earth sort of thing, that Satan was going to drag them down to Hell if they so much as looked at anything ungodly. It sounds like some archaic sermon from a movie–did churches like this really exist? Now?
But then I realized this guilt thing was something more subtle, and that perhaps it wasn’t anything that church leaders were doing, but rather something perceived within the individual.
It’s like parenting, almost. With the “Breast is Best” campaign to encourage breastfeeding, came also feelings of guilt and shame for those who couldn’t breastfeed. It’s true, there are silly people who judge, just like in churches there are silly members who judge (even though we’re taught not to, it’s a part of human nature that can be difficult to overcome). But guilt for failure at breastfeeding doesn’t come from those who judge. And it doesn’t come from those caring people who promote breastfeeding. It comes from within. A person feels guilty or ashamed because they feel they didn’t achieve a certain standard. (Just to be crystal clear here, there is never a reason to feel guilty when you have tried your best.)
How does this relate to religion? Just like with parenting, there are things in church we are taught that we ought to do. These are good things. These are standards to help us rise a little higher, to do a little better. But just like parents who don’t succeed at “perfect parenting” (all of us), there are people who don’t succeed in following Christ’s teachings perfectly (again, all of us).
Christianity teaches forgiveness. Forgiveness of others. Forgiveness of ourselves. Forgiveness from God. There is so much talk of forgiveness that it surprises me when someone says they feel so judged and so guilty because they are not perfect. They are so overwhelmed by all the talk of how we “ought to be” and the constant reminders of commandments we should keep, that they just want to give up and run away from it all.
This makes me sad. But I understand. I’ve been there. There was a time when I just didn’t get it.
It is in the scriptures. It is what we are taught at church. It’s truth is whispered to us by the Holy Ghost if we are listening.
It is the Atonement.
Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. He took ALL our sins upon Him, felt every one of them. And not just our sins but all of our guilt, shame, sadness, jealously, anger, fear and every other difficulty that we face in our life. He did this because he LOVES us–imperfection and all–and also so that we can repent and actually become perfect. Obeying the commandments brings happiness and peace into our lives…if we feel guilty because we aren’t doing “it all”, then we have forgotten about the Atonement, we don’t understand it, or we simply do not believe Christ when He says “I love you, and I’ve prepared a way for you.”
The Atonement is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the Gospel. Without it, Christianity wouldn’t even exist! So to say that Christianity is a guilt-inducing religion is a lie. I believe it’s a lie that Satan places in our hearts to trick us away from something that could bring us so much joy. Think of it:
- Serving others –> Joy
- Being humble –> Joy
- Showing gratitude –> Joy
- Not being selfish –> Joy
- Growing and stretching spiritually –> Joy
- Admitting wrong, apologizing –> Joy
- Praying to our Heavenly Father –> Joy
- Showing love –> Joy
As I was burdened by these feelings that had been expressed, I went the next day to a religion class I have been attending. This particular evening we were covering Matthew chapter 5, which contains what are known and the Beatitudes.
It was like Jesus could have been talking to those very people who were complaining how overwhelmed they felt by all the commandments, or really, by their own inability to fulfill them all.
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
My translation: Be humble, and you’ll receive God’s kingdom.
Blessed are those that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
My translation: If you are sad, overwhelmed, overcome with guilt or anything else that causes you to mourn, you will be comforted if you turn to Christ.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
My translation: You may not be perfect now but if you hunger and thirst after it, you shall obtain it. You may not be able to keep all the commandments perfectly now, but if your heart is in the right place and you try, you will get there eventually.
You see, commandments have an eternal nature. God doesn’t expect us to practice the commandments with 100% accuracy at age 15, or 27, or 42, or even 99. We know we should all be kind, but we are still sometimes rude, impatient, choose not to stop and help, etc. We aren’t perfect at being kind. Does that mean we should give up on trying? Of course not. The same is true with any commandment. It’s all about progression. God says “have charity” and He knows we aren’t going to be 100% charitable today. But He knows if we keep trying and desiring to be charitable, we’ll get to 100% charity eventually…even if it isn’t until the next life.
After discussing the Beatitudes, our instructor presented the concept of “telos” to the class, an idea developed by Aristotle:
In terms of the material world [Aristotle] believed that organisms continually moved from imperfect to perfect states in a teleological development, the perfect being innate within the imperfect (E.g a seed becomes a plant, an embryo becomes a baby which becomes an adult). Thus the essence of something is found in the form into which it has grown (its potential has become actualised which leads to higher forms (Evolution?). Thus, ‘What determined a thing’s nature was what counted as its successful operation: its achieving what is good for it to achieve’ (Honerdich p. 56). Humans are organised to live a certain way and the rest of their nature is so organised as to be able to achieve this goal.
The way my teacher explained it, everything in this world is going somewhere. And it will get there unless something stops it. We are all designed to be perfect. We will all become perfect unless something gets in the way. There are a million things that could get in the way–distraction and confusion, for example. Or simply turning our path purposely away from God.
This concept really hits home when you read the very last verse in Matthew 5:
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
Jesus Christ is asking us to be perfect. He speaks in the present tense not because He expects us to be perfect this instant, but because He wants us to be working on it right now. Being perfect is not an impossible goal. We are all headed in that direction, as long as we are facing that direction and moving forward. He doesn’t expect us to be perfect now, no more than a parent expects their child to act like a grown up when they are two. He only wants us to be headed there. We just need to realize that it’s going to take a while, and be patient with ourselves. And what is perfection anyway? It’s doing all the things that bring joy to yourself and others.
Just remember you are God’s child. You are made to be perfect. You are made to be perfectly joyful. You’re going to get there, and you have Jesus to help you.