The Modern Trend of Guilt Without Guidance: In hopes of gaining some energy, and in an attempt to fuel my body with foods that don’t look like they were just pulled out of a 6th-grade boy’s lunchbox, I recently did a Whole30 diet with my wife.

Unfortunately, I didn’t receive many of the intended health/mood/energy benefits that are sometimes achieved. But I did learn, for the first time, quite a bit about the guilt and desire that is sometimes attached to food. In fact, I was fascinated to see how much religious vocabulary is associated with dietary habits. 

For instance, one transition I did successfully make was from multiple cans of Diet Coke each day to the preferred alternative of many who are health conscious – La Croix. I was shocked to see this label at the bottom of a La Croix (tangerine flavored) can. If you can’t see it clearly in the picture, at the bottom of the can, it says, “0-Calorie, 0-Sweetener, 0-Sodium = INNOCENT!” 

No guilt here!

Innocent. The only reason the word “innocence” would be advantageous from a marketing perspective is if you had a constituent of consumers who were riddled with guilt concerning their eating habits. The word literally means to be free from legal or moral wrong; without sin; guiltless.

Moral language like “guilt-free,” “clean,” “pure,” and “junk” has long been a part of the dietary world. The continued use isn’t too surprising to me. But in the bigger picture, what actually does intrigue me is the fact that our culture has been thoroughly unsuccessful in an attempt to grow intentionally amoral. 

If you’re skeptical that our country is attempting to think less morally, read any of entries of revolutionary psychotherapist Albert Ellis in the journal of the American Psychological Association. I appreciate Ellis’ contributions to counseling. I frequently use his A-B-C model of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy in my own counseling. But he very obviously believes that devout faith, fear of punishment from a rigid God, limiting your happiness on the basis of guilt, etc., are all psychologically unhealthy. In 1961, Ellis publicly criticized religion, saying it was, “on almost every conceivable count, directly opposed to the goals of mental health.”

This spirit is still prominent today and actively being passed on to a new generation. Just last month, one of the most widely read articles in the NY Times Op-Ed section was “Raising My Children Without The Concept of Sin.” The author laments her fundamentalist upbringing and insists that her children can be forces for good in the world without ever experiencing the feelings of guilt she believes are linked to communities of faith and religious dogma. 

My point is that our society has become intentionally less aligned with biblical morals, but it has not actually become less moral. And this means that we have a young generation that has become highly moral about issues like treatment of animals, recycling, dietary habits, vaccination, and smoking, to name a few. 

By the way, I’m not at all intending to disparage young adults from caring about such issues. Each of the issues I just listed impact God’s creation and are therefore worthy of careful consideration. I’m merely suggesting that 50 years ago, no one would have considered “consuming aspartame” a moral issue. Even though there are obvious biblical encouragements about how we steward our bodies (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:19-20; Rom. 12:1-2), the chemical contents of foods are really not on the radar of New Testament Scriptural directives. Issues like sexual immorality, greed, gossip, coveting, or disrespect of authorities, however, are overtly Scriptural, but register proportionately less on the average young adult’s moral compass than they likely would have 50 years ago. 

What we see then is that young adults are not inherently worse than prior generations. They have just as much of a conscience as prior generations. And they seemingly possess just as much willpower to fight what they perceive to be evil. The problem is that the cultural GPS has been recalibrated. In catechismal terms, you could say that young adults have just as much Natural Knowledge of God as they had before, but they lack a culturally robust awareness of the Revealed Knowledge of God. 

A little thought experiment might help. Imagine driving down the interstate on a pleasant summer day. The possibility of an accident certainly exists. If you’re careless, or if someone driving near you is careless, an accident can ensue. However, if you’re driving on the exact same highway in January, as the roads get more slippery, the likelihood of an accident goes up. If the guardrails get taken off the highway, the chance for fatality rises again. 

Most Christians I’ve worked with experience some level of guilt. However, many of them also inappropriately feel guilt over a biblically neutral issue far more than what they experience over an obvious sin. 

The cars aren’t more poorly designed than they were years ago, but the overall conditions have worsened. And spiritual wreckage is more common.

So what do you do? If you can’t control the external conditions, the only reasonable solution would be to become more skilled in the operating of your own vehicle. Cars need to slow down. Better driving instruction needs to take place up front. Vehicles need to be tuned up more regularly.

So, for instance, it may not have been essential to teach the principles of Christian identity formation in 1950. There was so much cultural force pushing people toward God, churches, biblical ethics, etc. that there was actually some assistance from your community. But in 2019 – an intensely individualistic, relativistic, meritocracy of a society – I’m not sure if you can survive from childhood to adulthood as a Christian unless you’ve repented of “performance-based identity” for the sake of an identity rooted in the righteousness of Christ. The cultural elements have become more antagonistic, more hostile, to the Christian faith. 

Similarly, in 2019, you need Christian instruction on what to actually feel guilty about. Most Christians I’ve worked with experience some level of guilt. However, many of them also inappropriately feel guilt over a biblically neutral issue far more than what they experience over an obvious sin. I know lots of students who feel horrendous about getting a B+ instead of an A. I know many people, women and men, who hate themselves for weighing 5 more pounds than they believe they should, and are riddled with guilt if they indulge in the carbohydrates contained in a single sandwich. I’m stunned in having seen a young adult walk around a building for 20 minutes looking for a recycling bin because the normal garbage was unacceptable. This same individual was unconvinced that a sexual relationship with a young man she was not married to, so long as there was mutual consent, was a spiritual problem. 

What's happened in recent decades is that the spiritual guardrails have been taken off of society, individuals are driving more recklessly, and we're far more exposed to crazier elements.

A week ago, a college student asked me if it was ever wrong to go against your conscience? They had heard a minister once say that. I’ve heard similar sentiments. If I had to guess, I believe the minister was partially quoting from Martin Luther’s famous statement at the Diet of Worms (1521). When asked to recant of his obstinance to the Roman Catholic Church, he replied: 

Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture or by evident reason, I shall not recant. For my conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.

Luther, Diet of Worms (1521)

The important thing to notice is the first half of Luther’s statement. He says that his “conscience is held captive by the Word of God.” A conscience that is held captive by the Word of God would be wrong to contradict precisely because you’d be contradicting the Word of God. Searing a conscience that is accurately calibrated to the Bible is indeed sinful. 

But the Bible does not advocate bowing to a poorly calibrated conscience, which is where many young adults find themselves today. In fact, the Bible does tell us of an occasion where one of Jesus’ disciples was was being held captive by a conscience not calibrated to the gospel. And God demands that he recalibrate. In Acts 10, Peter receives a vision from God in which a sheet from heaven rolls out “unclean” meats. A voice from heaven then says: “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” (Acts 10:13) Peter replied, “Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:14) And then the voice scolds Peter, saying, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15) 

Peter needed some conscience recalibration, as he was being prepped by the Lord to embrace a Gentile convert, Cornelius (Acts 10:23-48), which undoubtedly would have made him feel dirty in years prior. Welcoming a fellow worshipper of Jesus as a spiritual brother was not wrong, though his conscience, at that point, may have led him to feel like it was. (NOTE: This was a recurring struggle for Peter, cf. Galatians 2:11-21, which proves that regular recalibration is necessary.) 

The obvious takeaway is that consciences, though tremendously valuable instruments, can be wrong, need to regularly be recalibrated, and at times need to be defied if they stand in opposition to the gospel. 

This doesn’t discount being sensitive to those with “weak” consciences, which the Apostle Paul addresses in Romans 14. But on a personal level, just because something seems wrong, or something causes me to feel guilty, shouldn’t dictate my action. The authority of the Word must constantly be reconstructing my conscience in a world that is hammering it. 

As it stands, I say enough foolish things, do enough stupid things, and think enough incorrect things that I simply don’t have the bandwidth to withstand additional guilty feelings for the neutral things of my life.

As a sinner, when I repent, Jesus tells me that “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God” (Luke 15:10).This is true whenever any sinner repents. So we eagerly repent and joyfully repent and become liberated in the confidence that all of our junk has been paid for by Jesus. 

But I don’t know what the angels do when I feel undeservedly guilty about stuff which I shouldn’t feel bad about. It can’t be rejoicing. Perhaps confusion. Maybe even sadness that I’m feeling bad unnecessarily. More than anything though, I’m guessing they’d wish I’d look more deeply into the thing that commands their attention – the gospel they endlessly long to look into (1 Peter 1:12). In it, we find truth, we find ourselves, and we find the real differences between right and wrong. 

Because of the forgiveness offered in the gospel, there is no reason to feel guilty about anything you’ve done wrong. 

Furthermore, because of the clear truth offered in the gospel, there is no reason to feel guilty about anything that isn’t actually wrong.

Finally, the good news is that the only one who was truly INNOCENT! loved us enough to absorb the hellish effects of our sticky, high-fructose-corn-syrupy sins. It felt terrible for him. But nothing has ever been righter, purer, or more beautiful than his expression of love. And nothing will motivate a young generation to recalibrate like the taste of that grace. 

We thank Pastor James Hein and for this week's blog.