“Guilt is universal,” wrote Paul Tournier, a Christian psychiatrist (Tournier, Guilt and Grace, p. 152). And according to him, you can do one of two things with that guilt: you can either repress it or recognize it.
Repressing your guilt “leads to anger, rebellion, fear and anxiety, a deadening of conscience, an increasing inability to recognize one’s faults, and a growing dominance of aggressive tendencies” (Tournier, Guilt and Grace, p. 152). In other words, repressing your guilt only leads to behavior that increases it!
On the other hand, recognizing your guilt “leads to repentance, to the peace and security of divine pardon, and in that way to a progressive refinement of conscience and a steady weakening of aggressive impulses” (Tournier, Guilt and Grace, p. 152).
Whether you repress or recognize your guilt may be influenced by the type of religion you practice. Tournier says there are religions of moralism and religions of grace.
Tournier adds that moralistic religions make the guilt problem worse. “A moralistic religion, a deformation of religion saturated with the idea of taboos and picturing God as a threatening being, awakens fear, and sets in motion the sinister mechanism of obduracy, revolt, and wickedness” (Tournier, Guilt and Grace, p. 152). In other words, by emphasizing rules and regulations, moralistic religion produces exactly what Paul warned that law-based religions produce, i.e., even more sin! (Rom 7:7-11).
The alternative is a religion of grace that can break into “this vicious circle and leads to repentance and thus to freedom from guilt” (Tournier, Guilt and Grace, p. 152).
When you read the Bible, you can find both kinds of verses—frightening verses that speak about judgment and comforting verses that speak to God’s grace. Ironically, in his psychiatric practice, Tournier found that people were adept at picking out the passages in Scripture that did not apply to them.
What he means is that Tournier found that people who were smugly self-righteous, who “flaunt their self-satisfaction, at the cost of a repression of their guilt, who scorn and pass judgment upon other people and flatter themselves on their virtues” were the ones who noticed passages that spoke about “the assurances of grace,” and ignored the passages about judgment (Tournier, Guilt and Grace, p. 153).
Meanwhile, the people who were most aware of their own sins, and the most wracked by guilt, overlooked the grace passages and occupied themselves with verses that spoke about God’s judgment. As Tournier says, “instead of drawing from the Bible the marvelous consolation which is there precisely for them, they have a morbid passion for hunting out texts on the severity of God, His wrath, curses and punishments” (Tournier, Guilt and Grace, p. 153). For example, Tournier explains how many clients obsessively worried about committing the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29) or of reaching the point of being impossible to be restored to repentance (Heb 6:4-6).
I can say that in our podcast, we receive numerous questions about those very same passages!
So what’s to be done?
Following a long line of theologians who distinguish between law and gospel, Tournier says we need both passages, but at different times, for different people. “We need the assurance of grace to meet our conviction of guilt, and we need the severity of God to drive us back upon ourselves, to the recognition of our guilt and misery, and to make us entrust ourselves still more ardently to the divine grace” (Tournier, Guilt and Grace, p. 158).
If you are highly sensitive to your sins and focus all your Bible reading on the passages that list all the reasons why you should be condemned, then I would urge you to stop and turn your attention elsewhere. You have heard one side of the Biblical story—the law side, and now it’s time for you to listen to the other side—the grace side.
Let me help.
Yes, you are a sinner, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
Yes, you are ungodly, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom 4:5).
Yes, you deserve wrath, but “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Rom 5:9).
However great your sins, Jesus’ love and work for you are greater.