Sometimes you just have to wonder how effective the message of grace really is. Grace is preached in our churches and grace is believed by our congregations, but it is guilt that is so frequently experienced. Grace is sung about, the grace of God is celebrated, but it is duty that weighs heaviest on our minds. We affirm grace to one another; we confess grace to all. We persuade, encourage and urge others to rest in the grace of God, but all the while we can be battling against the conviction that we ourselves have ‘let God down’.
We are grace-loving, guilt-suffering Christians wearied by the effort of living up to a higher standard of excellence in the Christian life than we are capable of achieving. We love the idea of grace, but so often our lives are tethered to fear and weighed down by guilt.
We don’t actually need any external regulations to bind us in this way, nor do we need legalistic preaching. We are usually fettered by our own internal expectations that limit our capacity to enjoy life. Their constant chafing at our consciences is either intolerable, in which case we have thoughts of leaving the Christian faith, or is accepted as the deserved discipline of God.
So what’s happened to grace in all of this? How can we believe in the God of grace and yet live as though our God were a tyrant waiting to condemn at the first opportunity? Someone might answer this question by accusing us of lacking in faith, but then all they have achieved is the addition of yet more guilt to our already crushing burden. Our faith in Christ, our faith in God’s grace is there, that cannot be reasonably denied. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to be impacting on our experience of living the Christian life.
A common cause for this is that what we call God has become mixed up with someone else entirely. Demands, expectations, criticisms and condemnations that seem to us to come from God come instead from an internalised form of a parent or some other significant authority figure from our childhood.
A father who demanded perfection from us in our schoolwork, a mother who ruled by fear. A teacher who bullied us, a caregiver who expected us to meet their emotional needs. These have become a part of us, their voices still sound from the recesses of our consciousness. Like water from a geyser that falls back to the earth from which it gushed, the source of our negative, self-critical thoughts is not heaven, but the depths of our own soul.
The process by which this occurs is called introjection. As we grow and our personality forms, it feeds off the personalities of those on whom our existence depends. We internalise them so that their personalities become absorbed into our own. This, of course, is a positive thing for the vast majority of us in so many ways. But it will always have its drawbacks as the frailties of our caregivers find their way into our own psychology.
An internal dialogue is set up by this process, the one with which we are all so familiar. For many this will take the form of an accusing voice that is embroiled in an argument with another protesting one. A desire will emerge, child-like, spontaneous, which will then be crushed by a parent-like injunction. An achievement be denied its rightful celebration by the presence of a nit-picking, critical voice that will not allow us to feel good about ourselves.
These are the kinds of difficulties that all of us experience to some degree or another. But they are made more complicated for the Christian when we confuse these voices, these expectations, criticisms and injections with the voice of God. The internalised father has become the heavenly Father.
Spiritualising our internal conflicts intensifies them as it gives them an urgency they don’t merit. If it is God who is telling me that I am a failure as a Christian, then that is serious. If it is God who is instructing me to be busy in the church beyond what I can reasonably manage, then all concerns about being too busy must be sinful. If it is God who is making demands of me, criticising me, accusing me, then I am already caught in a life of guilt and anxiety. The love that sets me free and the grace that welcomes me as a child of God are devoured by a voracious legalism, driven not by doctrine, but by psychology.
This is not a difficult problem to overcome. All we need is to see that we are responding to God in a similar way to how we responded to our parents or other important figures from our past. Once we recognise that our fear, guilt, anger, feelings of unworthiness and of failure have a history that predates our faith and have overflowed that history into our experience of faith, then we are well on our way to cleaning up the contamination this has caused. This de-contamination of our faith is an important step on the road to a mature Christianity.
It must be added at this point that although this will clear away the flood waters of our history from our faith it will not relieve us of the critical internal voice that lurks within our psyche and that caused the problem in the first place. It does, however, make it a lot more straight forward for us to turn our attention to that critical voice and the difficult feelings it provokes if that voice is not longer mistaken for the voice of God.
De-confusing our faith becomes an urgent priority if we are in a position of leadership within the church, since we have a role in setting its culture. Grace-loving, guilt-suffering leaders will produce a conflicted church, one that celebrates grace in its words, but that lives under, and functions by, the tyranny of rules. Acceptance in a conflicted church is never unconditional, but is always linked to the demand for commitment. Sadly, conflicted churches appeal to conflicted people. The demanding culture, which always speaks more loudly than any sermon on grace, resonates with and reinforces that negative, critical, condemning, voice that has been our unwelcome companion since childhood.
The grace of God undermines this self-limiting process. God accepts us, and welcomes us freely and unconditionally. His delight in us depends not on who we have been and who we should be, but on Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus we are not, nor will we ever be condemned. We are a people blessed by God. Criticism originates from earth, heaven is too busy shouting for joy.
But for me, a real wonder of God’s grace is that we are still accepted, welcomed and rejoiced over even when our faith is so contaminated with the flood waters of our past that we struggle to accept it.