Lisa is broken. On the outside she is pretty, confident, a hard worker, and a good conversationalist. On the inside she is horribly vulnerable to hearing criticism of any kind and takes even the suggestion of change as an indictment of her worth. There is a reason for that brokenness. Some of her friends came from homes where parents belittled and ridiculed everything they did. Mean people make terrible parents and the scars they leave in the lives of their kids last a lifetime. Lisa’s home wasn’t like this at all. Her family was made up of achievers; successful parents and older siblings who went after and gained seemingly everything they pursued. Disapproval wasn’t really voiced in her home, but that can be even more condemning than open criticism. At least when words are used you know what the other person thinks about you. The silence left her to imagine the worst when she got poor grades, made the choice to date a boy she knew her parents did not like or got let go from her first job… and imagine the worst, she did. Lisa learned to hide things because it was apparent that in her home, perfection was acknowledged. Anything less than perfection was given a shrug of the shoulders and the silence she knew was concealing her family’s judgment and contempt.
Lisa married a man that was in many ways just like her dad. The exception was that when he disapproved of something she did, he would ask questions that let her know he thought she was stupid. “Did you even think about that, or did you just shut off your brain and do it?” It didn’t matter if it was getting a speeding ticket or forgetting to pick up something at the grocery store, his questions always had the same underlying message: Doing something wrong makes you dumb and treated like you don’t count for anything.
After her divorce, Lisa was invited to a “Lady’s Night Out” put on by a church one of her co-workers attended. At the end of the evening one of the ladies gave her testimony about God’s love, acceptance and approval. Her story was filled with all of the open damage and physical abuse that Lisa had only heard about in other homes and families. Her deep longing to be loved without conditions as the woman had described the love of God through His Son, led Lisa to pray with someone that night and accept the saving grace of Jesus into her life. For several months she felt like she was floating. Something deep and profound had taken place in her heart and she felt peace and security like nothing she had ever even imagined. Then, one day it started happening; she began feeling disapproval from God. The first incident took place at work when she “pushed the line of truth” with a client and purposely hid some details to conceal that she had dropped the ball. As she got into her car to leave work that evening Lisa heard a voice inside her head that asked, “Are you okay to live with these lies?” She shifted her thoughts quickly to the things she had planned for the evening and drove home. That Sunday the pastor of the church she attended was giving the sermon and at some point his words that had always been kind and hopeful turned dark and condemning. He said something about God wanting us to become like Him and He is holy. “He loves us as we are, for who we are, but He also loves us too much to leave us that way” is what her ears heard him say, but what she felt was condemnation. The question she heard when she was leaving work reappeared in her mind and as she closed her eyes to pray she saw the dismissive and arrogant face of her ex-husband. What was happening? This God of love, acceptance and approval was shrugging His shoulders and expressing His disapproval. What could she do with that?
At first Lisa was leaning into blaming the pastor and the church. “Maybe this place is too legalistic” she thought. That idea had been planted by an aunt who was initially happy that Lisa had turned to God, but warned her that organized religion was man’s system and she should watch for manipulation and legalism to be used in getting people to do things the system needed to have done. Now that suspicion was creeping into her thinking and she found herself avoiding the weekend services and Bible studies she had been attending. She had been influenced by that suspicion and was wrestling with it, but she also knew that the feelings of God’s disapproval had started inside of her and not really from a sermon.
Finally Lisa answered one of the multiple requests that a friend kept making to get together for coffee. Mary was a woman who had met with Lisa right after she gave her heart to Christ and taught her things like how to read the Bible and pray. As Lisa described her experience, Mary carefully guided her into the Scripture to give her the perspective she needed to learn on conviction and helped Lisa to see where she was vulnerable to misread that conviction as condemnation because of her family environment and past. Lisa would have to guard this area of her life for a very long time until she could disassociate the condemnation she felt for not being perfect from the conviction that God was imposing because of His love for her.
This is a common battle that many believers face. The aversion in our society to being judged or rejected is on one hand an expression of strong pride, but on the other hand it is rooted, for many people, in some deep pain and fragile insecurity. We have a whole language around being “guilted into something” “emotionally manipulated,” or “packing our bags as we are being sent on a guilt trip.” The radar sensitivity most of us have to guilt and condemnation picks up the faintest appearance of it while it is still a block away. For those who have damage like Lisa’s, they can sense it when it’s not even really there. Here are a couple of perspectives that Mary would have shared with Lisa to get her to the place of responding in faith to the true convictions of the Holy Spirit.
First you have to know that there is a past, present and future to the way in which God deals with our sin. Three words are used in Scripture, but are not very common in our language or understanding. They are justification, sanctification and glorification. Justification is the work that Jesus completed through His death, burial and resurrection. The sin that mankind chose in rebellion against God and that separated us away from Him and warranted His wrath and judgment against us, was dealt with perfectly and forever in the finished work of Jesus. John in the opening chapter of his gospel says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:12-13 (NKJV) This right is not given and taken away on a day by day basis or even on the incidence of specific acts of obedience and disobedience. Those who trust in Christ and have received Him as Savior have been reconciled to God. The perfect righteousness that belongs to Jesus is attributed to them so that they can stand before God without blame or shame. This is justification and those who are justified through faith in Christ are so far removed from the penalty of their sins, that God regards them as though they never had sinned against Him in any way at all. It is all about Jesus, grace and mercy. The way into this justified state is though faith alone. No good behavior, promises of reform or following of laws and rules can earn it for you. Justification deals with the past in that we are delivered from the penalty of sin by the once-for-all-time saving work of Jesus. When people come to Christ in faith they will experience the freedom of release from sin’s penalty and the peace that comes from a reconciled relationship with their Creator.
The second word is Sanctification. Where justification is a past event that continues in its effect into the future, sanctification is a progressive work that the Holy Spirit initiates in the life of a believer from the moment that they are reborn. This work is a holy-making process. Paul tells Timothy (2 Timothy 2:20-21) that our usefulness in God’s house is connected to the sanctification (making holy) of the “vessel” of our lives. As that cleansing goes on the lesser or unholy practices are set aside and God can then use us for His holy purpose. There was a little story that was made into a movie many years ago called “King Ralph.” The premise was that the whole known royal family had been killed in a tragic accident and the only surviving heir to the British throne was some uncouth American named Ralph. The comedy develops as the proper counselors and attendants to the man, who was king by lineage, try to reform him to become a king in poise, actions and understanding of the realm. While the premise is absurd, it does cast a faint shadow on the work of sanctification. Through the new birth provided by Christ’s actions of justification we have been granted a status as sons and daughters of God (the King of everything). Our life before new birth has only prepared us to live selfish, prideful, disobedient, greedy, lustful, angry, dishonest… you get the point. And all of these practices are sinful. So the Holy Spirit begins the process to reform us or separate us from those sinful practices so that we are living outward lives that are consistent with who we have been made to be inwardly. This is the work of sanctification.
Now, let’s talk about guilt, because a lot of people experience guilt and do the disclaimer “There is therefore now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus…” quoting Romans 8:1. That passage is talking about the justifying work of Jesus and the condemnation referred to means “punishment” not guilt. So does the Holy Spirit as a part of His sanctifying work produce the awareness of guilt? Yes. This is what you may have heard referred to as “true moral guilt.” There is a false guilt that is imposed on a person who has trusted in Christ’s justifying work and been reconciled to God. This guilt is the effort of Satan to bring the actions of the past back into the view of a believer in an attempt to question God’s goodness and the sufficiency of the Cross. That is false guilt and must be defended with Scripture. On the other side of this, however is the presence of true guilt. This is what Lisa first experienced. The lie she told her clients at work was wrong. It may have been a functional part of “business” that she had done before and rationalized as being a necessary part of doing her job, but as a daughter of God, that lie became incongruent with her Father’s holy nature. I’ve had some people tell me that they did not like my teaching style because they would sometimes feel guilty while listening to me. My response: “Perhaps you are.” If we do something that is contrary to God’s ways even in our justified state, we will feel guilty for having done it. In fact the presence of this guilt is part of the assurance of our justified status because the unjustified couldn’t care less about lies, lust and licentiousness. What we must understand in the face of true guilt is that it does not indicate God’s rejection of us. On contrary, this guilt or conviction is the loving actions of a Father who wants His children to live conformed to Him so that we may experience the fullness of His blessings and freedom.
One other observation that messes with this whole guilt, conviction and condemnation matter: people in places of spiritual authority do get the delivery wrong… a lot. What I mean by this is that Lisa’s first inclination to blame the pastor or the church may not be as “off” as pastors and church leaders would like to think. I’ve gotten the lines crossed plenty of times where the teaching about God’s holiness has become polluted with a good deal of my personal convictions. Living responsive to the personal convictions produced in my heart by the Holy Spirit is essential to my growth in Christ. Making other people feel responsible to adopt and obey those convictions is a quick path to condemnation. Paul addressed this subject in the controversy over the observance of certain traditions or dietary practices. In contrast to sins like lying, stealing or coveting, there are simply not any clear warnings or commandments that speak directly to every point around which people would carry a personal conviction or hold a strong opinion. So Paul says that these matters are to be settled in each person’s own soul. (Romans 14:1-5) I’ve heard leaders and pastors go on campaigns against watching television, sending our children to public schools, putting up Christmas trees in our homes and even on driving habits. Those in places of spiritual authority, whether that is in giving sermons or one on one disciple-making need to be careful in the way that we are guiding people. We must guide them to uniformity in following the clear teachings of Scripture, but for the other matters of personal choice, they must be led into a life of responsiveness to the individual convictions of the Holy Spirit and tend those for themselves. That line of distinction needs to be rigorously taught and practiced.
Jesus was clear in describing the Holy Spirit’s work in the world. He used terms like comfort, teach, guide, reveal and remind. Another word that Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit’s work is “convict.” This is part of what Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would do. It’s promised because it’s important for us to grow up in the salvation we have received and progressively overcome the power that sinful practices have had in our lives. I’ve had people say that they were okay with conviction, but they just can’t deal with any guilt. I guess it’s a semantics thing, but the word convict as Jesus uses it to describe the work of the Holy Spirit is a Greek word which means to admonish, tell a fault or rebuke. I’m not sure where the line of differentiation would fall to keep that from feeling like guilt; the Holy Spirit is pointing at your sin and calling it wrong. If all of this (justification through Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit) is true, there is no room for condemnation in the presence of Holy Spirit conviction. That which the Holy Spirit points out does not change the past work of justification that has delivered me from the penalty of sin. The Spirit convicts of sin, so that through repentance and reliance on the Holy Spirit, I can live progressively freer from sin’s power. If you are a believer and your sin makes you feel worthless and rejected by God, you need to go back to the truth of Scripture, fortify your heart with truth and then welcome the Holy Spirit’s conviction as a an expression of God’s love for you. This is the truth that Lisa needed to understand. She has to learn to stand in the reality of Christ’s justification that produced that “floating on air” feeling and the amazing peace she experienced. Then she has to welcome the convicting work of the Holy Spirit as He is lovingly reshaping her character into the image of Jesus.
As you read the section of Scripture (John 16:5-11) where Jesus talks about the convicting work of the Holy Spirit you will notice that He describes that conviction in three expressions: Conviction of sin, righteousness and judgment. It is pretty easy to see where the Holy Spirit’s work to convict people of sin and to bring their actions into the perspective of a coming judgment would be important. We get a bit confused over the conviction concerning righteousness wondering what distinction that would have apart from the conviction of sin. The answer is found in Jesus’ explanation in verse 10 where He says that the Holy Spirit will convict regarding righteousness “because I go to the Father and you see me no more.” This is the positive side of conviction. Where the conviction of sin draws us away from activities that are inconsistent with God’s nature, righteous informs us on what conforms to Him. Jesus was the living example of righteousness with clothes on, so with His return to the Father the Holy Spirit would provide the conviction of “do this” along with the warnings to “not do that.” We need daily internal guidance to move us away from the destructive patterns of sin and toward the life-giving actions of doing what Jesus would do in relationships, work, charity, and service. If your aversion to guilt keeps you away from the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, you are being kept from proactive guidance as well as preventative.
The third word is glorification. It refers to the transformation of our physical bodies after death where everything that has been vulnerable to sin is finally removed. This is the future work of God in relationship to our sin and in that glorification of our bodies we are freed forever from the presence of sin. Justification deals with the past and removes us from the penalty of sin. Sanctification deals with the present and progressively frees us from the power of sin. Glorification deals with the future and will free us from the very presence of sin… forever!