Here’s a counterintuitive suggestion that I want to discuss: When the non-Christian culture makes people feel guilty, the last thing I want to do is to tell them to avoid those feelings.
Let’s start about a year and a half ago when Gillette came out with their viral ad, which challenged notions of what it means for “boys to be boys.” Socio-cultural norms of male aggression and objectification of women were targeted, and for some reason, it left a swath of (particularly conservative) men feeling targeted and guilty for the mere fact of their biological sex. Much of the political right swung back by glorifying the innate wonders of masculinity and forming ad hominem attacks against the producer and the company. I couldn’t help but feeling like both sides were missing each other in a moment that was part of a substantial shift in how our culture is beginning to think about morality.
In some senses, we feel similar pressures in the merchandising and advertising that we see every time we go to a store: guilt-free beauty products, cage-free eggs, conflict-free diamonds, ethical smartphones, humanely sourced foods, and the list goes on indefinitely. To some consumers, certain of these categories represent serious ethical issues; to other consumers, these categories are something of a joke, a humorous attempt at “virtue signaling” by those who can afford to spend more in order to claim a moral high ground, whose apparent altruism is really a self-serving means of making penance.
And then, of course, you have this idea of “white guilt,” where guilt-feelings about centuries of oppression toward ethnic minorities are on the one hand internalized, pushing white people toward certain activist behaviors, sometimes with the result of a “white savior” complex. Or, on the other hand, guilt-feelings are suppressed or minimized, pushing white people toward a place of so-called “white fragility,” leading to a posture where they struggle to talk honestly about issues facing the black community in the US without equivocating, appealing to anecdotal evidence, or lashing out in ad hominem attacks.
Now we could quibble about the finer points of each of these three examples. We could deep-dive on the “worldviews” in back of each (the reality is that a broad range of “worldviews” connect with either side of these divides). We could argue about the way some of these issues have been weaponized by the (political) right or left. We could list example-after-example of how either side is, at points, grossly inconsistent in their value judgments. We could parse definitions or try to label groups as “Marxist” or “Klansmen.” But let’s suspend those arguments for a moment and make a 30,000-foot observation about these three highlights as a microcosm of our cultural moment.
My main observation is simply this: our culture is largely divided on the basis of those who are working to multiply/amplify feelings of guilt and those who are working to negate/silence feelings of guilt. Frequently, those who amplify guilt on one issue are working to silence guilt on another.
As a Christian, I should have a theological system for understanding guilt and guilt-feelings, as the concept of guilt is an overtly theological matter for the Christian. In order to connect Christian theology to these modern issues of guilt-feelings, I want to first draw out some theological principles from Romans 1–3 and then use the exegetical insights from that passage to help us better understand the issues of our cultural moment.
The arc of Romans 1–3 lays much of the foundational theology for the entire book of Romans. At risk of over-simplifying, it states the problems to which the remainder of the book provides the answers. Let’s look at each of these problems:
Problem #1: The Suppression of God’s External Truth
In the first chapter of Romans (particularly vv. 18–32), Paul explains how the Gentiles who reject the truth of general revelation—that creation itself points to God—go on to reject the Creator in exchange for a lie. That lie about the external world results in God’s giving people over to the lie that they’ve created for themselves. If they worship the material, God gives them over to it. If they worship the sexual, God gives them over to it. Because they’ve tamped-down what is obvious from creation, their inhibitions toward their sinful idols are negated, resulting in lifestyles of license and abandon in particular categories of behavior.
Problem #2: The Condemnation of God’s Internal Truth
Turning now to Romans 2:1–16, we see the internal conflict of what Schaeffer called “the man without the Bible.” People without even the written Law of God find themselves passing judgment on other people (2:1–3). Although there are aspects where non-Christians suppress truth, this can only happen in a single area for so long. It is, as my friend Dave put it to me the other day, like an inflated ball in a pool. You can press it below the surface for a time, but eventually it will come back to the surface with a vengeance.
This self-condemning law works in such a way that God does not need to point non-Christians to passages of Scripture in order to condemn people. He merely will one day point people to their own pointed fingers and hold them guilty for failing to uphold their own moral standards (2:14–16). Every twinge of guilt, every muted opponent, every hurled insult, every feeling of moral superiority will be replayed for them in the day of judgment.
We, then, see something of the shift from Romans 1 to Romans 2. It’s the shift from what is outside the self (the revelation of God in creation) to what is inside the self (the revelation of God’s moral law on the human heart). It’s the shift from the suppression of truth to the persistence of truth. But in other ways, Romans 1 and 2 form a sort of continuity. People are guilty before God because they’ve suppressed both the truth of creation and because they’ve ignored their own self-condemnation. On both counts, people stand rightly condemned by God.
Problem #3: The Privilege of God’s Written Truth
Starting in Romans 2:17, Paul turns his attention to the people of Israel, or in the words of Schaeffer, “the man with the Bible.” Any sort of ethnic privilege that the Jewish people had because they possessed the written Law of God (3:1) became a standard of even greater judgment against them (2:17–24). The person with the written Word of God is all the more condemned because he not only sees the witness of creation and feels the witness of his conscience but also reads the witness of the Bible. Thus the Law of God in written form shuts the mouths of those who have it (3:19) with the end result that the moral baseline of all humanity—both those with the Bible and those without it—is unrighteous (3:9–20). Of course this universal human baseline also lays the foundation for a universal solution to that unrighteousness—a righteousness that does not come from the Law but comes from faith (3:21–31).
In summary, Romans 1–3 demonstrates (among other things) that we should expect non-Christians (whether religious or irreligious) to face just condemnation from God because they (a) suppress external truth, (b) express internal truth, and (c) avoid written truth when they encounter it.
Our Cultural Moment and Romans 1–3
So what does this have to do with our present cultural moment? Let’s connect a few dots. First, for the past several decades, we’ve lived in a culture that has, in the main, worked to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. They turned a blind eye to (or, perhaps even expressed approval of) the sexual abuse of power by Bill Clinton. They consumed apparel and food and technology that came on the backs of child labor and the destruction of the environment. They voted for politicians who harmed people of color (e.g., mandatory minimums and the “war on drugs”) or, at minimum, avoided any demonstration of concern for people of color. So, in some sense, as a child born in 1985, most of my growing-up years were Romans 1, Exhibit A.
Growing up in the pervasive climate of secularism, we saw the “Coexist” bumper stickers. We heard the common refrain, “that’s just your truth.” We were called “intolerant” for insisting on objective moral standards—absolute truth. Throughout that era, many evangelicals began to flesh-out a system of apologetics that was geared to address the objections coming from so-called “postmodern” thought. In many ways, Francis Schaeffer planted the first seeds for this new apologetic in his popular trilogy. But while evangelicals were busy challenging postmodernism as a monolithic entity, culture was shifting beneath us and absolutizing in a more systematic way.
The current cultural moment has shifted dramatically from the “postmodern” boogey man that I grew up hearing described in church. The suppression of truth that was attempted on a grand scale has, to a certain extent, reversed course and turned into an enormous explosion of truth and guilt that is too much for anyone to bear, let alone escape unscathed. The secular gods could not become pacified and have become angry. The greater we tried to excuse sin, the greater accusation arose from within. The guilt that ripples out from the “left” in the West is Romans 2, Exhibit A.
But what about Romans 3? Within American culture, we have a well-defined group of cultural Christians, those with a religious background and with claims of a “born again experience.” This group has the Bible. Many have been taught the Bible. But for decades, those within this culture have placed themselves at the helm of a variety of anti-Christian behaviors. Elements of this group championed slavery, defended slavery, lynched black men and women, instituted Jim Crow, defended Jim Crow, and now sit on the sidelines telling people of color to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. And that’s just the start of it.
Rightly the text says, “The name of God is blasphemed among the [Americans] because of you” (Rom. 2:24; Isa. 52:5). The people with the Bible have a privilege, but with great privilege…you know the rest.
Before I conclude by making some applications based on this connection between Romans 1–3 and our cultural moment, I need to answer a few “but what abouts” that I’ve encountered from time-to-time.
- “Isn’t there a difference between objective moral guilt and guilt-feelings?” Yes. Absolutely. Schaeffer is the one who used this distinction, and I find it quite helpful. Sometimes our guilt-feelings represent our objective moral guilt exactly, other times they may underrepresent that guilt, and at other times they may overrepresent that guilt. The key observation is that guilt-feelings are in some sense tied to the reality of objective moral guilt, reminding us of the God who is there and is not silent.
- “How do guilt-feelings relate to shame and the shame-honor culture of the East?” I think there are extensive intersections between the rise of guilt-feelings in the West (with a more psychological edge) and the experience of shame in the East (with a more communal edge). It seems to me unsurprising that muting is the new form of shunning and doxing and canceling is the new form of honor killings. We can learn much about how to respond to the current culture based on the response to the shame-honor culture that we find in the Bible.
- “But isn’t it wrong to make people feel guilty for things they didn’t do?” We don’t have time here to extensively answer this question, but I can at least point in a few directions. First, sins of fathers are frequently repeated (albeit in different forms) by their children. This is why the Bible can at times talk about visiting judgment on the third and fourth generation and also talk about how children will not be judged for the sins of their fathers. Second, Romans 5 indicates that objective moral guilt is rightly passed down to us for something we did not directly do. If we reject that notion of imputed guilt, we must also reject the possibility of imputed righteousness. In short, all people are born under some form of objective moral guilt and may rightly or wrongly be led to have guilt-feelings in connection to the guilt of past generations. In either case, guilt-feelings over the sins of past generations only serve as a reminder of the objective moral guilt we all rightly obtain from Adam.
- “Aren’t Christians free from any guilt because they are in Christ?” I would make two clarifications here. First, there are many religious people who claim the name of Christ but who do not belong to Christ. They must feel the full weight of the Law and the associated guilt if they are to have any hope of belonging to Christ in truth. Second, those who belong to Christ still feel the sting of the law when they sin (Rom. 7:7–25). The law of God wages war against the law of sin, resulting in a craving for rescue from this battle (vv. 24–25). So although our objective moral guilt has been erased by Jesus (giving us an alien, objective moral righteousness) and no ultimate condemnation belongs to us (Rom. 8:1), we still experience guilt feelings. The Christian is not called to pretend away the sting of guilt but to walk in the Spirit and allow the Spirit to minister the hope of adoption to their heart (Rom. 8:1–17).
So how should the Christian respond in a culture of guilt? With the previous clarifications in place, I want to offer three categories of response.
First and foremost, the Christian ought to take the posture of a missionary rather than a culture warrior. Our goal is to point men and women to the grace that is offered to us in Jesus Christ and not to simply fight another worldview battle. There are times when worldviews need to be confronted. But there are times when allowing people to carry forward the implications of their own worldviews (i.e., presuppositional apologetics) helps us demonstrate their need of the gospel more clearly. So, instead of trying to tell people that they are not guilty and should feel good about themselves (thereby buying into the postmodern, self-esteem, moralistic therapeutic deism), we should tell people that their guilt is far worse than they envisage. Instead of trying to excuse people from their feelings of guilt, we should continue to expand their guilt through appeals to general and special revelation. Only when sin comes alive through the Law can people “die” and be “raised” with Christ. Resolve to walk with people down the path of shame to the place of honor.
Second, we should anticipate the spasmodic reaction to guilt from cultural Christianity. The evils of cultural Christianity against our black and brown neighbors results in a culture of the blind leading the blind (Rom. 2:19). We should anticipate that those who are Christian in name only will, just as the man without the Bible, attempt to suppress the truth and excuse himself from the feelings of guilt that arise from his unpropitiated objective moral guilt before a holy God. But for those who have the Law and know they have fallen short (Rom. 3:23) there remains an opportunity to experience redemption (v. 24–26). Only by seeing their guilt as truly as those of the pagan irreligious people can religious people truly find hope (vv. 27–31).
Third, those who are truly Christians sometimes rightly feel the sting of guilt and sometimes wrongly feel it too (1 Tim. 4:2). Church history is filled with examples of true believers who magnified their feelings of guilt (e.g., Augustine’s sensitivity on sexual lust) or who suppressed their feelings of guilt (e.g., Christian slave masters in the US). On the one hand, Augustine’s hyper-sensitive conscience had ripple effects for future generations, and on the other hand, so did the under-sensitive consciences of Christian slave masters. We ought always to place our guilt-feelings under the subjection of the Spirit and the Word. But we ought not dismiss these feelings merely because non-Christians experience similar moral motions. In fact, the responses of the pagans to sin, righteousness, and coming judgment ought to cause us to tread cautiously when dismissing feelings of guilt that have arisen in our non-Christian culture (see, for example, Matt. 12:41–42; Luke 10:25–37; 1 Cor. 5:1).