Do you struggle with guilt because you’re not doing enough? People are upset at you? You should be a better friend?
I certainly do. And last night I had a bit of a breakthrough as to the root of the problem. It all started with a bit of a journey I took on the internet, and it’s a little bit “stream of consciousness”. But I think it’s important, so I’d like to invite you on this journey with me as I try to explain!
It started with Jane. Jane is a pseudonym for a woman who has gone public with her story of being drugged and raped while a student at Master’s University. She was held captive for several days, and when she came to, she went immediately to the police and did a rape kit. She also told the school, expecting them to help counsel her. Instead, she claims they brought the rapist in, demanded she forgive him, and demanded that she drop the charges. Eventually she claims she was kicked her out of the school when she wouldn’t comply.
She shared her story last week and it blew up the internet. She has also shared the police report and corroborating evidence, since she’s being accused of lying. (For the record, I believe Jane, and yes, Jane, I see you.) As I was reading this, though, I followed a link to another article explaining the difference between the Jewish and Christian versions of forgiveness.
In Judaism, if a person has wronged someone else, they must seek forgiveness from that person. Christianity, on the other hand, tends to stress forgiveness from God rather than forgiveness from others. The writer explains:
In evangelical Christianity, the dynamic is all different. In this situation, Jane’s rapist presumably already confessed his sin to God, and gained forgiveness through Jesus’ sacrifice. So when Jane walked into the room, her rapist was already forgiven. And if Jane refused to forgive him too, if she continued to make an issue out of what had happened, she would become the problem. She would be walking in sin. After all, once God has forgiven someone for a sin, it’s over, and it would be wrong for another Christian to continue making an issue of it.
I’m reading this and I’m thinking to myself, “Isn’t that terrible what they did to Jane? Isn’t it terrible that they expected her to ‘forgive’ him just because he said sorry, even if there was no acknowledgment of the depth of what he did to her, no evidence of changed behaviour? Isn’t it awful that they expected it to be swept under the rug?”
I could see, looking at this situation, that when Jesus said in Matthew 6:15:
But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
He did not mean it as a get-out-of-jail free card to rapists. He did not mean that they could just say sorry and everything would be okay. That doesn’t connect with the God I know. I think God meant that we aren’t to hold bitterness, and we are to let go of vengeance and trust God with the situation.
But–and here’s where important insight #1 comes in–it does not mean that we can’t or shouldn’t allow their behaviour to affect our behaviour.
You can forgive someone without having to reconcile to them. Reconciliation requires true repentance on another person’s part. Forgiveness does not.
Now, both youngest daughter (or Thing 2 as I like to call her) and I have been dealing with similar situations in our personal lives. We live with perpetual guilt because we should have phoned this person. We should have returned that message. We should have answered that text. We should have reached out to her this week. We should have been a better friend.
And as I thought about how ridiculous the way we treat forgiveness often is, it hit me:
At heart, I believe that my emotions aren’t supposed to matter. At heart, I believe that discernment must be unChristian.
You see, if we’re supposed to reconcile with everyone who apologizes, and act like nothing ever happened, then we are supposed to ignore our own feelings. Now, I could take a step back and look at Jane’s situation and say, “that’s obviously not what Christ meant.”
But then I said to myself, “But Sheila, you tell yourself to ignore your own emotions all the time.”
It may not be about forgiveness or sin per se. But I’m constantly telling myself to ignore how I feel and to be loving anyway.
I live by two verses: In Luke 9:23, Jesus says:
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
And in John 3:30, John the Baptist says of Jesus:
He must increase, but I must decrease.
I must decrease. I must deny myself. Therefore, what I want shouldn’t matter. What matters is whether or not I am loving those around me, right? That’s the Christian thing to do, right?
What ends up happening, though, is that I find I can’t love everybody around me.
Some people are difficult. Some people hurt me in little ways, or some people I find more annoying than others. But they want things from me. They ask favours. And I should grant them, right? I should be loving, shouldn’t I?
Take one tiny example. Sometimes I’ll get an email asking something of me. I won’t want to do it, but I won’t want to answer the email and say that, either, because I should be helping people. I mean, sure I work all day, but at night I like to watch Netflix for a bit and knit. If I have time to watch Netflix for a bit and knit, then surely I could help this person, right?
So I feel guilty. And the email sits there. And sits there. And sits there. Until, 6 months later, it’s really too late to help the person anyway. So I can happily delete it, because, “Well, I guess there’s nothing I could do about it now!”
But I spent 6 months staring at that email, feeling guilty, before I deleted it.
Instead, I could have owned my choice from the beginning.
I could have said, “I have a lot to do and this person just isn’t a priority right now. So I’m going to say a polite no.”
That’s what boundaries are, and I do believe in boundaries. I even told Thing 2 yesterday afternoon, before I had some insights, that she should choose one thing to say yes to every week–one person to help and to pour out to, and then instead of asking whether she should say no to everyone else, she can say, “I am a kind person. I have helped. But I can’t help everybody, so now I have the freedom to say no to others.”
I do believe that. But I also know how hard it is for me. And I’ve realized the reason that it’s hard is because I don’t feel like I have a right to say, “Some people bother me,” or “I would prefer not to spend time with this person.” I feel as if what I think shouldn’t matter, because I am to deny myself, right?
As I’m mulling this over, though, something hit me. I’m ignoring half of those verses. Take a look at them again:
He must increase; I must decrease.
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
Do you see what I was missing? I believe in the deny myself part of the verse. I believe in the “I must decrease” part of the verse. I tell myself that my feelings don’t matter; that I need to soldier on; that I should be pouring myself out.
But Jesus doesn’t say that. Jesus doesn’t simply say that we must decrease. We decrease so that He increases. It’s about Him.
I live my life thinking that the way to live the Christian life is to love absolutely everybody else and do things for everybody else and not let the fact that certain people are toxic hurt me, because the badge of honour of a Christian is that nothing ever gets to me. I’m above it, because I’m in Christ.
But if I do that, then what I’m saying is that the definition of a Christian is that what everybody else wants matters far more than what I want.
That’s not Christianity.
Christianity says that what God wants matters.
I live as if the Lord’s prayer says:
Thy kingdom come, everybody else’s will be done…
But that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus says,
They kingdom come, Thy will be done.
Do you see the significance of that? Christ does not want us pouring our lives out for everybody else. Christ wants us pouring our lives out for Him.
And Jesus knows I can’t do everything. Jesus knows that some people sap my energy more than others. Jesus knows that I am called to certain specific things, and if I do others they will take me away from my central calling.
So what’s the answer? Stay in very close communion with Christ so that you can hear when He is asking you to give someone else a hand. Talk to Him constantly so you can start to hear His voice saying, “Say yes to that request. I have a plan for that…” But then know that if you don’t hear that voice, and you feel like, “that’s not something I can take on right now,” you can say no.
Too often we think that the Christian life is about emptying ourselves of everything. But we forget the second step: so that we can fill us up with Christ. That’s what makes the difference. That’s what ends the guilt.
You do not have to please everyone. You only have to please God. And you do that by listening to Him and by following Him, not by allowing everyone else in the world to set your agenda.
That’s the weird emotional journey I was on last night, but I feel very free right now. I thought it may help some of you, too.
So let me know in the comments: Do you struggle with feeling as if your feelings ultimately shouldn’t matter? Do you struggle with guilt? Do you think this way of looking at it can help? Let’s talk!