"I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you." [Nehemiah 1:6]
That glaring breach
Broken down walls are a powerful visual metaphor for guilt. How so?
Mirriam-Webster's dictionary defines guilt in two core ways: "the fact of committing a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty" AND "feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy." In these two definitions, we get to the heart of guilt - the breach of a standard. The standard may be external or internal. It may be legal or moral, cultural or personal. But we know we've breached a standard we've set ourselves or been set, and it doesn't feel good.
In a sense, we've built a wall - this far I will go, and no further. Or - this is my new standard to build up. But how often do we find ourselves busting through our standards, or not being able to finish the standards we start and set ourselves. We end up experiencing breached walls. Sometimes, all over the place. And it just doesn't feel good at all!
How much of the changes you've attempted to make, or made, in your life, have been driven by this sense of failing a standard followed by successful or unsuccessful further attempts to make the standard and keep it? Think:
Personal health patterns and habits.
Personal spiritual patterns like Bible reading and prayer or church attendance.
Stopping socially problematic behaviors - like gossip, or jealousy.
Reigning in your spending.
The list goes on, but I would suggest that most human change is driven by a sense of violating a personal, social or moral standard and then trying to rectify this poor performance through doing better next time.
The danger of ICT
This is where the danger becomes clear in pursuing an "ideal self" without God. Check out our first post here for a basic breakdown of Intentional Change Theory (ICT). In short, ICT is all about personal growth through defining a pathway from your real current self to your ideal future self and then getting about working this plan. The problem is, in the end, that an "ideal self" is a set of standards that are all too easily breached or failed, and guilt is the reality incurred when such breaches occur.
Whenever we make plans to change and grow in any area, we have to set standards of behavior. If you want to exercise more and regularly, you have to set out a pattern of habits. Same goes for any area of our lives. So far, so good. The challenge is - what is realistic? Do you want to be realistic, or ambitious? If you want to be ambitious, how ambitious is too ambitious? And then, of course, what happens when you don't make the mark you set for yourself, or don't make it consistently?
Guilt kicks in. That's what happens. The icky feeling of failure. The icky feeling of failing again. Of being in that awkward, painful, and distressing place of setting and not meeting your standards. It sucks. It's a kick in the guts. And it seems inevitable.But is it?
Enter the renewing power of forgiveness
I don't believe guilt is the inevitable and sole driver of change in our lives. Don't get me wrong, guilt is an important feeling that indicates a breach in standards. We need this indicator. But to live on a "mouse wheel" of guilt induced behavior change is a really relentless, tiring, and debilitating way to live. It is the default for humanity, but it doesn't have to be.Forgiveness is the guilt circuit-breaker. Let me explain, from Nehemiah chapter 1. What is the core of Nehemiah's prayer? Check it out:
"I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you." (Nehemiah 1:6)
Confession. Of sin. Sin that produces guilt in the human heart. Sin that is a breach of God's standards, producing a guilty awareness, that can be cleared in only one way. King David understood the only way guilt gets cleared, and poetically declared his insight, in Psalm 103:
"Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—3 who forgives all your sinsand heals all your diseases..." (Ps 103:2–3)
Even more powerful are the promising words of forgiveness God gives to Israel through Jeremiah the prophet after their rebellion against Him:
"In those days, at that time,”declares the Lord, 'search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare." (Jeremiah 50:20)
God's word gives us insight into the alternative way to grow, to become more than we are now, to lean into becoming who we are called to be, "ideally", in Christ. And it's not a process driven by guilt. But a process inspired by the power of being forgiven. Guilt removed such that it can no longer be found.
But how do I change, if it's no longer by guilt's driving force?
You and I can change by faith in the power of a loving, merciful and forgiving God who backs you as you choose to partner with Him, rather than prove to yourself and Him that you can match and exceed the standards - wherever they are from.
You change by fixing your eyes on the One who fulfilled the highest standard in the Universe - the standard of being a perfect, sinless human - and letting Him lead you by faith in His empowering grace. You can leave a life driven by fear of guilt and shame and condemnation behind (what Paul argues in Romans 8).
True change is possible...but it's not guilt-driven
True change is God-led, and for us as Christians, Jesus-empowered. Hear Paul's dramatic life change, as a biblical example from the New Testament:
"I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." (1 Ti 1:12–14)
Isn't that cool. A violent man forgiven, and then entrusted with the service of being an Apostle to the newly beginning church of Jesus Christ. That's true change. And it was lasting change. And this is what every human heart craves!
Soaked in Forgiveness
Nehemiah knew forgiveness was the key to the changes he wanted to see happen in Jerusalem. That's why he started the epic building work with a season of prayer seeking God's complete and total forgiveness for him and his people. He wanted the work he was about to do to be soaked in forgiveness. True and lasting change can be soaked in nothing less.
This week, as you continue to grow and think about how you can change, ask the question, "are the changes I'm seeking to make soaked in the forgiveness of my heavenly Father?" If not, why not take the time, like Nehemiah did, to bring your guilt and shame to Jesus first, before you seek to change further, and soak yourself in the forgiveness and mercy of God. Trust me, you won't be the same as a result!
Written by Ps. Rob.