As some of you know, Unka Glen is one of my absolute favorite bloggers and has been mentoring me for over a year. You can see his fingerprints all over my blog. We wanted to share many of the conversations and convictions we’ve had over time so you can experience some of the same breakthroughs we’ve had together.
We’re also hoping this will help you in finding a right mentor that is always aiming to set you free and move you forward. In this way, you can see an inside glimpse of how discipleship happens.
JS Park: On your blog (which is extremely popular #insidejoke), you mention how guilt is never a good motive for the Christian walk. What’s a good indicator to know you’re being guilted? Any red flags to be aware of?
Unka Glen: As I’ve mentioned before, it’s about humility. Now, in my case, I’m a scoundrel. And let me give you a quick story to illustrate.
I’m asked to give a talk at a conference hosted by Willow Creek Community Church, the mega-church. As I was preparing to give my talk, one of the event organizers noticed that I didn’t have a name tag on. I explained that since leaving the foodservice industry, I had left name tags behind. They insisted in a sort of scolding way that I put on a name tag, so I took one of the name tags and wrote the name Hugh Jass on it, and went out that way.
Here’s the thing: A) I’m a scoundrel and I’m really only happy when I’m doing something naughty, B) I’m not big on conforming to church culture, C) and I knew the crowd would love it, and they did.
Now, if you come up and try to guilt me on any of it, you’ll have no luck, because guilt is about the enemy trying to drag you down from the high opinion of yourself that he temped you to have in the first place. If you come up to me and say, “That was naughty”, I couldn’t disagree with you. If you say, as my wife certainly did, that this was inappropriate, I’d offer no resistance. If you say this is something you should change one day, I’d say sure, I’ll add it to the bottom of a very long list, and who knows when we’ll get to it.
But if you say, “You aren’t the perfect little Christian you think you are,” well, that wan’t stick. NOBODY thinks I’m the perfect little Christian. I know who I am: I’m a work in progress.
JSP: Sometimes mid-sermon, a pastor takes a left turn and piles on guilt. How can we spiritually/emotionally guard against that? Does it mean we should tune out the whole sermon? What is the thought-process in real-time to tackle the guilt-driven preacher?
UG: I hear some people say, “Eat the meat and spit out the bones” and all I hear is laziness or a lack of courage to find someone who actually knows what they’re talking about to get the help we need. You can’t un-hear stuff. If you hear emotionally manipulative stuff, at least some small part of it is going to stick with you in some way. Life’s too short to put up with that.
JSP: What do you do when the preacher, who is a good friend of yours, is still in the learning process and drops a guilt-bomb? Because while generally I would reject any preacher fueling on guilt, there are some we will actually be able to talk with (like you did with me).
UG: Yeah, if you know the dude and he’s open to hearing a word on it, then by all means, I’d cuff him and tell him preaching grace would have a far deeper impact. I’d put it in a positive light, and tell him that he doesn’t need to push those emotional buttons. Preaching grace will always have more of an impact while obviously being more kosher.
But like I say, he’s got to be open to it, and at some point you’ll have to go back to the roots of all that to make changes. I wonder how many pastors preach guilt because it’s all they’ve ever heard preached. For some brothers, telling them they can never preach guilt again would be like putting them in a round room and telling them to stand in the corner.
Not to get on the soapbox here, but I wonder how much all that has to do with a lack of true discipleship. You don’t sit down with someone one-on-one and just lay on the guilt and expect that to work over the long run, like they’d come back for more.
If you can get an environment of discipleship going, then the possibilities are endless. In fact, I wonder how much you learned about ministering to people from the ministry principles that we talked about AND how much you learned about ministry from the way I ministered to you. If your friend sees you as more of a peer, then it might be an uphill journey, but it’s certainly worth taking a shot and laying out some suggestions for him.
JSP: How do you talk to someone about their guilt-driven methods? Certainly they’re not all bad people, most likely just taught wrong (like myself at the start of ministry). Is there a particular way to show someone how they’re being shrill and unhelpful?
UG: It’s hard for the laity to effect things from the ground up, and preachers don’t often hear each other preach, so it’s tough. But I often ask pastors to look at Jesus’s admonition about weighing people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and not lifting a finger to help them (Luke 11:46). I ask them to look at the part of their talk where they said the words that set people free. If you’re not doing that, you’re on the wrong side of that admonition.
Break down the lie holding me back. Show me the nature of how I became so entangled in this sin. Point to the Bible verse that shows why I always struggle with the same things. I want to be closer to the Lord, but I’m stuck. If you can’t help me get moving forward, then telling me to do what I can’t seem to do is (as you’ve put it) describing the water people are drowning in.
In the end, guilt-driven preachers are doing all this guilt manipulation because they feel they HAVE to, in order to help them. My assumption is that the Holy Spirit draws everyone to Himself, and if people aren’t moving forward, they’re stuck, and that’s where I come in. God is doing the motivating and is really driving the ministry part — I’m just pulling that rock out from under the wheel so it can all move forward.
Guilt-driven preachers are operating under a different premise. They think THEY are the thing moving it all forward. They assume (and it seems silly when we say it out loud, like all deceptions from the enemy that don’t hold up in the light) that people act sinfully because they don’t know or understand that they’re sinning. As if all you have to do is drive home the guilt hard enough and they’ll repent. In this false view of things it’s the pastor that moves it all forward, not God.
JSP: Is feeling guilt “wrong?” Many of us think guilt is a natural emotion that points to conviction. I’ve heard preachers say, “If you don’t feel guilt, you’re not really repentant.” How would guilt be different than conviction?
UG: Conviction and guilt are opposites. Sure I need to be aware that I am guilty of an act of sin, in order to repent; otherwise, what am I repenting of? But we’re talking about the emotional state of guilt, not the state of our innocence. I am guilty, I am forgiven, and I am a work in progress. What is the theologically appropriate way of looking at all that? Is it to go back and wallow over a sin that can no longer be found?
The emotion of guilt drives me away from God because it makes me focus on my unworthiness. It’s a lie because it doesn’t finish the sentence. Sinner, yes, but saved by grace because of a love beyond human contemplation, adopted into the family, grafted onto the vine, and a room in the mansion.
Conviction drives me closer to God. It says I’m better than this. It says, like the prodigal: I’m not asking for too much — I’m settling for too little. It paves the way back to God, it gives me more than the fleeting, weak, and paper thin motivation of the emotion of guilt. It gives me a spiritual determination to put my foot down, and make this change by the power of God, not my will power.
JSP: Sometimes young students are stuck at a retreat for a few days with a preacher who uses lazy pushy guilt tactics. Otherwise the pastor is not a bad dude; the kids like him; he also has kids and such. Is it ever possible then to “eat the meat and spit out the bones?” Is there a type of discernment that can love the preacher while sifting his preaching?
UG: It’s a tough line to walk here. Someone would ideally be teaching their own students what emotional manipulation is, and how to reject it; not just manipulation in church, but in the workplace, in families, in dating relationships, you name it.
It’s important for a Christian to know how to steer a course and stay on it, without someone cutting in and laying down some of that northbound residue of a southbound bovine.
If it’s my students and they’re at a retreat and some other dude is preaching guilt, they should already be rejecting it, but I’m going to have to cuff the preacher firmly, if politely, and tell him, "My kids are motivated just fine in their walk, and all that negative emotionality isn’t helping. What they need are solutions and insights, not reminders that sin is bad and righteousness is good. We’re all clear on that."
I think it comes down to asking whether this is a negative ineffective way of motivating people to go in the right direction, or deep down it’s just bad theology. If you come down on the latter, then it doesn’t matter how you work it, it’s just not going to be a tolerable thing.
I can tell you this: I supervise a service that brings diverse denominational pastors together, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptist, among others, all kinds of preaching styles. Black and White, Latino and Asian. I’m not their boss, and I don’t pay them a cent. Three of them in the rotation bring the word for us every week. But I can tell you that if any of those preachers on any of those sermons stood up and started preaching guilt, I would snatch that mic out of their hand mid-sentence and tell them to go home and think about what they’ve done. (That’s guilt-on-guilt metaguilt.)
JSP: I was recently at a revival where the preacher suddenly went on a wild guilt-tanget, and while I wasn’t buying any of it, I had brought a friend who was totally guilted. How can we approach a friend who has been guilt-tripped while also not being judgmental towards the pastor?
UG: I often hear preachers say the worst things, and I know the way they want that to be taken, but you can tell nobody in the room is taking it that way, because it was sloppily worded, and that’s because their default setting is: manipulate.
The truth is, discernment and judgement, though they seem to be in the same camp, do not really overlap at all. Discernment brings understanding, and understanding brings forth patience and grace. Judgement excludes all understanding, there is nothing to understand, they are wrong and they are to be condemned, period. So I think it’s really a discipleship issue, one of teaching that distinction, between discernment and judgement.
The other discipleship point on manipulation is to look at the opposite of things that manipulators use. Where they use the sin of fear, they should preach the virtue of courage. Where they preach wallowing in the destructive emotion of guilt, they should be preaching the Godly virtue of conviction. And where they preach in a way that has us cowering in the corner in shame, God calls us to a life of zeal, where we rise up and throw off the shackles of the sin that so easily entangles us, and start running this race with renewed passion.
So it’s not just that you’re denigrating the use of fear, guilt, and shame — it’s that you’re saying such manipulation lacks the staying power of courage, conviction, and zeal. When you put them side by side, you can’t really conclude that maybe shame is better than zeal every now and then.
One other quick point that might help your friend put all this in context. It can feel strange for people who aren’t used to questioning what they hear in church to suddenly analyze and pick things apart. And as you found out, once you apply even the most basic standards of decent human communication, a whole lot of preaching is found wanting.
I think right about now is a good time for your friend to start helping you evaluate your preaching. That is to say, you should show your friend what good preaching is, and what bad preaching looks like, and express the goals that you have. Then there can be feedback on how well you’re doing on those goals.
Likewise, if you’re a smart man, you’d ask what he or she might say about all this stuff — not what to preach, you understand, but what could be said to a friend. Teach all the good ministry principles you’ve learned, and then ask how it would be voiced to someone else. Women have way WAY higher EQs than we do, so it’s always good to get feedback on whether this thing hit the right note emotionally with the opposite sex.
As an exercise, you can play sermons where things are not quite kosher, and ask what could be said differently if you had preached that sermon. Trust me, once you teach someone how to use good ministry principles, and they can combine that with a superior understanding of the human emotional landscape, things really blossom.
- Part Four: Walking with Jesus — How Grace Works in Everyday Life
- Part Five: Impossible People — Being Gracious To You-Know-Who