The Guilt Gap

Of all the things we talk about in church, there are three subjects in the Bible which I have seen make people especially uncomfortable. In each of these areas, I have sat in the pews trying to avoid the preacher’s gaze; and also been the preacher opening the awkward text. The three I have in mind are lust, financial giving and evangelism. Those topics don’t have a huge amount in common, other than this: many Christians feel a secret sense of shame about failures in these areas, and wouldn’t especially want those failings to be made public!

This article is about the third of those things – our failures in evangelism, and how we process the sense of guilt we so often feel when the subject is raised.

The problem is that as well as being draining, joyless and exhausting; guilt can be utterly paralysing. I am aware of ‘evangelism-training’ events in which a fearless and extrovert evangelist has berated ordinary Christians for their timidity and left them so battered that they have been even less likely to speak for Jesus after the event than they were beforehand! And yet – the guilt we often feel about evangelistic failures is not easily dismissed because we recognise the sting of truth in the warning of Jesus about those “who deny me before men”. Because we all have.

I can remember some specific times when I was given opportunities to talk about my faith in Jesus – and bottled out. One was with a friend who I had prayed for over many years, hoping for the conversation to head towards a gospel opening. But when my prayers were answered I failed. Worse still, I can remember a period of my life when I concealed my faith from my colleagues. Peter’s dreadful night of denial before the cock-crowed three times was nothing compared to my year of treachery. The result was that when anyone spoke about our role in the Great Commission, all I felt was paralysing guilt.

In the Bible, in myself and in others I have observed three ways of responding to this sense of evangelistic failure. The first two are unhelpful ways of processing guilt, but the third I have found to be liberating.

The first of these responses is hiding. This should hardly surprise us, as the first sin mentioned in the Bible was almost immediately followed by the first human attempt to hide from God. It is sometimes more comfortable to have a debate about the literal nature of Adam and Eve’s hiding, than it is to face up to the fact that we spend too much of our lives doing exactly that now. Lingering in a sense of inadequacy and sin, we shrink back from prayer, shuffle uncomfortably in our chair during communion, and trudge joylessly through life with little thought of sharing Christ. Unsurprisingly we find this folly of fallen humanity elsewhere in scripture too: the great King David (no less!) described the period after his sin and before his confession as like his “bones wasting away” and of “groaning all day long”. (Psalm  32:3). Now, that imagery is strikingly and poetically vivid but, which of us has not sat in unconfessed sin feeling dirty, shamed, tired and frankly a bit grumpy!? When we have denied Jesus, and failed to take up the cross and play our part in telling others of him – then denial and hiding is a self-destructive way of processing guilt.

The second and equally dangerous way of processing our sense of shame or cowardice is by seeking to take ourselves in hand; applying ourselves to the task and doing evangelism by sheer force of our willpower. Go back to the guilt-trip evangelism-training session from the ebullient-evangelist I described earlier. The medicine he prescribed for those failing Christians who weren’t doing evangelism, was works. He might as well have said, “you are guilty, sign up and join my mission-team and your guilt can be removed.” Such an approach is devastating, because while he might have preached a gospel of grace to sinners outside the church, he laid a burden of works upon sinners in it! And that is no gospel at all.

What then is a more helpful approach?

I am convinced that one of the reasons that we so often fail to speak for Jesus is that we haven’t really grasped the extent of the grace of God towards us in Christ, the power of the cross to reconcile us to God, or the implications of that for the Christian life. King David’s guilty-misery described in Psalm 32:2-4 didn’t persist however.  Verse 5 continues, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.” David ended his Psalm in song and rejoicing, not because he worked off his debt to the Lord; but because The Lord forgave him.

And here is perhaps the key sentence in this article:

The same gospel which we seek to tell our friends; that Jesus’ death on the cross can do away with all their sin and reconcile them to God; is the same gospel which deals with all our failures – including our evangelistic disasters and denials.

I am not saying that sanctification and discipleship don’t require effort in a way that justification doesn’t! Progress in the Christian life is a co-operative effort requiring input from us in a way that receiving forgiveness does not. However, our reliance on God’s grace, for forgiveness of sin is the same throughout. In fact, as we mature in the Christian faith our sense of our reliance on God’s grace grows all the more. All the good works we do (including evangelism) must flow from this, not come before it. One of the scenes in the gospels which moves me the most is John 27:15-17 in which Jesus meets Peter again after Peter’s denial. Jesus firstly restores Peter’s relationship to himself and then recommissions Peter to speak for him. The gospel we share that says that all our friends’ sins can be washed away by Christ, is the same gospel which deals with our sins too.

The fact is, we cannot share what we do not have! If the reality of our daily Christian lives is that we think we need to earn away our sin – we will be paralysed with a sense of guilt that seems irremovable. Furthermore we will be gloomy, introspective and anxious and not exactly a walking advert for the Christian faith. These blessings don’t come from trying harder, doing more, or pushing ourselves ever further – they come from confessing our failures to the Lord, asking for His forgiveness and allowing Him to restore us.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones addressed the subject of miserable, ineffective Christians in his 1964 classic book, “Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure”. While stylistically it is very much a product of its era, it is nevertheless a source of continued help to many people today. In it he says: “Have you realised that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?”

What did he mean and how is it of help to us here?

The point is this. If we listen to ourselves we will hear guilt, failure, and condemnation. But what we can speak to ourselves is the gospel of Christ with all its cleansing power. “If I confess my sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness.” (1Jn1:8-9) is a sermon I have had to preach to myself many, many times!

When we ask God to apply the gospel, with all its beauty, grace and liberating power to us first – then we will not find ourselves hiding, nor making evangelism an irksome burden of works-righteousness; but rather a privilege and a joy.

Guilt paralyses us, but Jesus liberates us. So if like me, you find evangelism difficult, and you have a tendency to beat-yourself up with guilt about every missed opportunity and failed conversation. Don’t hide from God, don’t attempt to expunge your guilt through effort – first come back to the cross and bask in the love and grace of God in Christ. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.” (Eph 1:8). We need to learn and learn again that God does not begrudge the grace He gives us – which He wants to “lavish” upon us.

Now that really is something to share with a dying world!

Further reading:

When We Get It Wrong by Dominic Smart
From Fear to Freedom by Rose Marie Miller
Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortland
Spiritual Depression by D M Lloyd-Jones