Across Western culture, Christians are encouraged to feel shame by everyone from non-profit advocates, community fundraisers, and fitness gurus to cultural commentators, policymakers, and even teachers in the church.
To illustrate the phenomenon, my Google search for “mom guilt” yields an impressive 95.7-million results, while a similar query of the term “white guilt” produces a staggering 109-million findings. One writer cited a study that calculated the average amount of time Americans spend “feeling guilty” to be about five hours per week. Whether privileged or oppressed, blessed or stressed, we all face constant pressure to imbibe paralyzing guilt.
This puts Christians in a pickle. We believe after all, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). If there’s anything we should all experience, it’s guilt for our violation of God’s timeless moral law.
But the Christian story doesn’t stop there. We actually have a once-for-all atonement.
For we who depend on Christ by faith, our guilt—not the feeling of guilt but the actual legal record—is assumed by our substitute, the crucified Christ, and expunged. In its place, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to our account, such that the Apostle Paul can rejoice: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1)! There is much condemnation in the worlds of advertising, politics, and self-improvement, but the gospel anthem counters: No guilt in life, no fear in death; this is the pow’r of Christ in me.
This raises the question: In a culture where everyone from advertisers to politicians have perfected the art of pressing the sin-soaked conscience, how can Christians know the difference between godly shame and worldly sensations of guilt?
Undaunted, Not Haunted
I remember being a student at a major evangelical university squirming in my seat during our missions-emphasis week. Occasionally, one of the platform speakers would bring messages of hope—messages to the effect that God is sovereign (Proverbs 19:21), he has a plan for our lives if we walk submissively with him (Proverbs 3:5-6), we can perform any vocation to his glory (Colossians 3:23, 1 Corinthians 10:31), and we are free in Christ from the gnawing voice of the accuser (Revelation 12:10).
But, by and large, I remember how far more of those speakers would crank the well-primed evangelical guilt-manipulation engine, marked by its distinctive whirr of statistics, tear-jerking stories, and word problems ripped from a sixth-grade math textbooks (“If you just sacrificed one pumpkin spice latte per year, you could lift an entire Nigerian village out of poverty…”).
It’s hard to say exactly which of these two styles of oration was more dominant at these conferences, but the rhetoric of the latter cast a shadow in my life long enough to throw shade on even the most innocuous moments of pleasure—the moments reading a book or laughing with family when maybe, just maybe, I ought to be doing something more “spiritual.”
Hear me: I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t emotionally engage their godly shame. When a believer genuinely sins, the word of God calls us to repent—which, inevitably, involves some level of “feeling bad.” The gospel isn’t an emotional prosperity message that promises us total liberation from emotional discomfort.
Conviction is an indispensable ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8). And the cross of Christ does not only cleanse us of guilt; it compels us to carry the message of its shame-lifting, sin-atoning power to all the unreached nations of the world (2 Corinthians 5:14).
A gospel that delivers us from inner turmoil without motivating us to outer ministry is a theology of glory, and clean tomb without a Calvary road—a bloodless, cross-less, and ultimately Christ-less gospel.
So what is a freed, forgiven, atoned-for Christian to do when confronted with the fact that some 4.5 billion people live among unreached people groups, perishing spiritually without the gospel—and many of them also perishing physically from a number of horrific yet preventable causes?
The Triumphant March
In Paul’s gut-wrenchingly heartfelt second epistle to the Corinthians, he wrestles with tensions and anxieties in his own heart. Should he revisit the wayward believers in Corinth and cause them pain by rebuking them for their sin (cf. 2:1)? Should he continue to preach the gospel in Troas, even though he can’t stop thinking about the fledgling Grecian church plant (vv. 12-13)? To stay and evangelize the unreached, or to go and disciple the immature?
Ultimately, Paul left his work in Troas and went to Macedonia (v. 13) to meet with Titus, who would report to him the state of the Corinthian church (cf. 7:5-6). But the apostle doesn’t indicate which decision was “right,” and we should not expect him to. Oftentimes, the direction our lives assume in Christian ministry isn’t determined by commands on stone tablets so much as impressions on soft hearts—that which “seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (to borrow from Acts 15:28). To dissect Paul’s decision-making is not only beside the point; it’s actually the error the Corinthians themselves were making, leading them to doubt Paul’s genuine pastoral concern. Regardless of Paul’s itinerary, his conscience was clear (1:12) because his motives were sincere (v. 23).
Then, after describing this personal crisis, Paul explodes in unexpected praise:
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:14-17)
This tectonic shift in tone shakes the epistle all the way to the seventh chapter, and puzzled exegetes feel the aftershock to this day. Why does Paul suddenly break out in jubilation?
Paul, though burdened with pastoral love and concern, knew the sheer ecstasy of living with a clean conscience under the gospel banner of “no condemnation.” Far from being tossed on the rhetorical waves of guilt manipulation, Paul knew his position in Christ. Moreover, his above-reproach lifestyle afforded him a double-dose of confidence. So, when pressed to feel shame for not going to this spiritually needy place or that, he turns to a rather alarming metaphor.
Christ, the conquering king of the universe, is on his victory march through this conquered world, but his parade looks little like the pomp and circumstance of his day’s Roman royals (v. 14). His ministers—men like Paul—aren’t the mounted warriors leading the procession, but the conquered slaves in tow. Christ’s servants are led around the world wherever he jolly-well pleases, shackled in bonds of love. And rather than reeking like tattered, unbathed prisoners of war, Christ’s slaves diffuse the fragrance of grace. Received by believers, they smell like life; rejected by unbelievers, they smell like the unbelievers’ own condemnation; and, when ignored by the whole world, they are the savory aroma of Christ himself, wafting up into the rafters of heaven (v. 15).
Enslaved to a loving Savior, Paul is at peace knowing his prophetic motives trump any profit motive (v. 17). And wherever this glory-fueled, cross-carrying victory parade goes, Paul can sleep at night knowing that “as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.”
Ironically, it’s dead-end, worldly guilt that actually stops us from being faithful to our evangelistic calling. Fearful of the Master, we bury our talents (cf. Luke 19:21). But for Paul, his intense, consistent faithfulness to his calling stemmed not from steeping in condemnation but soaking in Christ.
The Right Motives
Don’t mistake a vague sense of emotional, first-world guilt as an unequivocal calling to a particular mission field. At the same time, don’t equate stubborn indifference with God’s permission to stay home. Struck by the sight of global idolatry, our spirits ought to be provoked (cf. Acts 17:16).
Regardless of our emotions, Scripture challenges us to look beyond the unstable waters of our own hearts and set sail with Christ instead. Instead of marching to the beat of our own whims, we are called to don the fetters of grace and follow in tow behind the conquering Lover of our souls. Wherever he leads, there we will go, spreading the scent of the gospel, no matter the outcome, no matter who’s sniffing.
If you are a missionary or mobilizer, for the sake of your soul and the souls of others: steer clear of the cottage industry of guilt manipulation. The same gospel that saves us sends us. The same Christ who crucified our guilt also compels our going. Thus, we can say, along with Jim Elliot, “Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.”
There is, after all, no condemnation in Christ.