Guilt Factories

I used to think there was a sort of tension between “faith” and “works”. It’s in the pages of scripture. It’s expressed by Paul and then differently by James. The arguments roil out from there.

A while ago, I came to the (still work in progress, beware!) conclusion that both concepts are two sides of the same coin. One doesn’t flow out of the other. They are the same thing.

This is a hard thing to live out. Especially when you’ve still got those old categories rolling around in your head.

But there’s something worse. There’s this philosophy that says grace is all you need, or faith is all you need (depending on what sort of works you have in mind), and then denies it in practice.

To me, this is how you build a Guilt Factory.

First you say that grace/faith is all that matters. Then you say that works flow out of grace. Then, as a result of that, you say that what God really cares about is your “heart”. Because if you heart is in the right place, your works are going to be in the right place too.

Then finish it off with a dollop of strictly enforced cultural norms, traditions, and piety. The piety is were it really gets intense, because the grace/faith you’ve been given is supposed to end up in works that are supposed to end up looking exactly like the received norms, the traditions, and the piety.

If you don’t have that piety, you don’t have the works. If you don’t have the works, you don’t have the faith. Either you (at best) have a “hard heart” or (at worst) are plain wolf among sheep.

That’s a Guilt Factory right there.

It’s an amazing way of turning something free and unlimited — forgiveness, for instance — into something limited, and most importantly, definable. There’s no way that it won’t make you feel bad. You can preach your perseverance of the saints till you’re blue in the face, but you’re going to have a congregation full of people doubting their own salvation.

The only way out is to remember this: Piety is horseshit.

Or filthy rags. Either way.

Piety is Phariseeism. That’s not a hard call. You take scripture and wrap it up in a cocoon of your own stuff, you’ve got a Pharisee. Whether that be eating meat offered to idols, or voting for a particular political party, or following God’s will for your life (more on that in a later post)… Basically anything that binds a Christian’s conscience to something that isn’t in scripture.

So what do we say to this? Is it okay to just keep sinning because forgiveness is free?

Well, no. But isn’t it strange that this is where our brains go first? We’ve found a loophole! “Well, doesn’t that mean I can do whatever I want?” Kind of skipped over the amazing grace part. This seems to be a recurring theme in this human experiment.

Either way, when you weld piety onto the side of grace, you get a Guilt Factory. Your sin in a heart condition, and your heart condition is what God really cares about… so what then? How do you change your heart? Certainly not by working at it — after all, works are bad right? Do you ask God? What if he says “no”? What if this is a Jacob-have-I-loved, Esau-have-I-hated situation? Doubt, insecurity, and guilt.

As an added bonus, you can’t help create rankings. Everyone is equal under grace (it’s a binary state, you either have it or you don’t), but piety allows you to out some people above other people. The more holy above the less holy. The more extreme above the less extreme.

I’ve seen this work out. It always ends up that the people with the most extreme positions on something (Let’s wear only dresses! Let’s not listen to rock and roll music! Let’s wear head coverings! Let’s not date! Let’s not kiss! Let’s not dance! Let’s not have worship instruments in the service!) Which, I mean, as things you might do personally, without binding any other consciences, these may all be fine… but as soon as you start looking down on other people who don’t agree with your weird-o stance, there’s a problem. If your faith community is doing this collectively… it’s time to get the heck (Let’s not curse!) out of dodge.