I Have Sinned–Or Have I?

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You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.       -Martin Luther

A person’s conscience ain’t got no sense.       -Huckleberry Finn

When we read, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9, NIV), we tend to assume the prophet was speaking of those who justify their sin because “something that feels so good can’t be bad.” But heart and conscience can deceive in the other direction as well, convincing us God will be angry if we can’t keep every “bird” of impure thought from “flying” over the “head” of our consciousness (and occasionally dropping something less firmly constructed than a nest but still pretty messy).

Those of us with sensitive scruples run up against false guilt regularly:

  • “What’s wrong with me that I let myself think about things like that?”
  • “I haven’t had a drink in months. Why can’t I stop feeling the urge every time I pass a beer ad?”
  • “I’m supposed to love everybody. I must be a terrible person to be annoyed that my boss keeps nagging me to work Sundays.”

And, sadly, there are thoughtless and selfish people (not to mention that master of discouragement we call the devil) who are always ready to take advantage of false guilt with such comments as, “I thought you cared,” “But we were counting on you,” or even, “I thought you Christians were supposed to be so generous/understanding/pure.” Even well-meaning friends can unwittingly lay false guilt on us when their priorities don’t coincide with ours–and perhaps not with God’s will for our lives.

It’s not a minor concern. The quicker we are to blame ourselves for what goes wrong, the more likely we are to avoid seeking God because we fear He’s disgusted with us anyway.

Of course, it’s vital to pray continually whether we’ve done anything wrong or not. (Please, don’t read that and scold yourself for every time you let your consciousness turn from God in the past week.) But instead of immediately crying, “God, forgive me!” at every fleeting temptation, we’d do well to evaluate the situations that trigger our feelings of guilt. Then, we can decide whether we truly need to confess a sin, or whether what we really need to ask God for is discernment, confidence, or comfort.

Try evaluating guilty impulses by these criteria:

  • Did I actively seek this out, and willfully continue in it? If you feel an impulse of self-pity on not getting your own way, that’s not sin in itself. But if you spend the next hour mentally rehearsing how badly life and God always treat you, you’re turning temptation into willful rebellion.
  • Am I expecting myself to be perfect? Being human means you will always do careless things in this life. Mistakes, even thoughtless ones, aren’t necessarily sin, and God is ready to treat our slip-ups with tender understanding:  “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14).

And remember that much sin comes down to our heart attitudes. The person who says, “God will forgive; that’s His job,” is already in trouble–and so is the person who takes personal credit for every temptation avoided. But those who trust God to keep them humble are justified in His sight. And regularly asking God for His strength and wisdom is the best way to escape false guilt.

COMING SOON! My new e-book, 100 Ways to Live as an Optimist in a Pessimistic World, will be available this spring. Join the 100 Ways email list for up-to-date news, special offers, and teaser optimism tips!


How Not to Feel Guilty About Your Weaknesses

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If I wanted to boast, I would be no fool in doing so, because I would be telling the truth. But I won’t do it, because I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life or hear in my message,  even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:6-10, New Living Translation).

Whatever the nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” one thing is evident: he didn’t blame himself for not being able to get rid of it. Perhaps you can’t say the same thing in regard to your own obsessive habit, troublesome emotions, or chronic illness. Many Christians are troubled by “thorns” being ground in ever deeper by the accusations of others or accusations from our own minds:

  • “You should have learned better by now.”
  • “You aren’t trying hard enough.”
  • “You must have done something to deserve it.”
  • “You didn’t pray enough.”
  • “You just need to have more faith.”
  • “You aren’t really sick, you’re just looking for excuses” (a frequent “second thorn” for Christians who struggle with mental illness).

Many of these accusations are due to assumptions that there’s one all-purpose explanation for every problem (the mistake Job’s friends made when they fixated on the idea that suffering was always God’s judgment for sin). Some such thoughts come from the devil, who isn’t called “the accuser” for nothing. He knows that if he can get us focused on feeling guilty or hopeless, or on searching for answers in the wrong places, our effectiveness as Christians will be seriously hampered.

In Paul’s case, the “messenger from Satan” had the opposite effect and resulted in Paul’s becoming even more effective for Christ. It can be the same for us, if we follow Paul’s example:

First, he asked God for help. He didn’t give up in despair after one request, either; he prayed “three different times” until he got a clear answer.

Second, he accepted God’s answer as the best one, even though it wasn’t the one he’d hoped for. Rather than fall into the trap of continuing to beg God to change His mind (or to be so busy begging for what he wanted that he didn’t even hear God’s answer), he had faith God was wiser than he and would work things out for good.

Finally, he looked for ways to bring good out of a painful situation. He learned to use his weakness as a reminder to seek God’s plans instead of making his own. And he learned to appreciate how his problems ultimately helped him serve God’s purposes better than he could have by relying on his own strength.

If you have a “thorn in the flesh,” don’t waste energy feeling guilty about it. Ask God what, if anything, He wants you to do about it. Then ask Him to show you how He can use it to fulfill His higher purposes.

COMING SOON! My new e-book, 100 Ways to Live as an Optimist in a Pessimistic World, will release in April. Get on the mailing list now (send your request to info@positivecontentfactory.com): you could win prizes for spreading the news!

  • A blog for naturally melancholy Christians tired of being told to "snap out of it"; for Christians who struggle with mental-health issues and long for assurance God delights in them nonetheless; and for naturally optimistic Christians who want to understand their "gloomy" loved ones.

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    I am the go-to writer for people with tough stress issues and special emotional needs—and for those who love them, organizations that serve them, and anyone who just wants to better understand the world of mental/emotional struggles. Or who just wants to pick up some good stress-management tips! Visit my main website at www.PositiveContentFactory.com.

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    Bible quotes used in this blog are from the New Living Translation or the New International Version (1984). See http://www.biblegateway.com/ for copyright details.
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