A Mega-Post on Guilt, Fear, Shame, Fire and Brimstone

Five anons:

I’ve always been on the receiving end of what you would call the ‘guilt-fear-shame’ tactics. When I was seven, I was handed one of those infamous “You’re a Sinner and You’re Going to Hell” pamphlets. Ever since then I’ve struggled … that I’m still doomed to hell simply because ALL I’ve ever known is the terror, the guilt, and the shame … How can they do this to others?

– I have always been told … “Don’t read anything that isn’t the Bible”, “You’re going to hell because you enjoyed Pokemon”, “Don’t you know Hollywood is a den of sin?” I constantly feel like it’s WRONG to have interests outside of theology/religion … I feel like I’m being trained to be a nun or monk. Is it right to feel this way?

– I sometimes feel like I’m sinning when I don’t have a bible in my hand 24/7. I feel that way when I’m doing my homework & watching cartoons. I feel that way reading anything that isn’t theology-derrived … Is this a natural part of growing on the journey?

– The word grace appears in so many bible verses, lessons and sermons… but I’ve never known what it actually means. so, what is grace?

– This isn’t an ask, but rather a thank you for your time writing. I feel I’ve grown more reading this blog than I ever have from being that person beaten in the face with all the ‘do not associate’ and ‘there is no depression if you believe’ tirades. Some of the things you say sting from time to time … but it’s a good hurt. I am VERY grateful for your condemnation-free encouragement…I would hug you and crush your ribs if I could.


Thank you for these very honest questions and for the awesome encouragement.  You and I both have been hurt by tons of churches that breathed condemnation: and for some of us, it could take a long time to recover. 

So please allow me the grace to break this down a bit with a little more nuance.  Please feel free to skip around.


1) Guilt/fear/shame are natural first reactions that point to a human truth.

If you would’ve asked me in the last two years if “guilt/fear/shame” were wrong, I would’ve yelled an emphatic YES.  Faith can never be sustained by the motivation of guilt because it’s an exhausting race that isn’t fueled by God nor even running towards Him.

But I began thinking: Why do we even feel guilt?  Should I be so quick to call it evil? Isn’t it as significant as every other emotion?  No one believes that all pain is bad either, because pain points to our humanity.

So feeling guilty is not wrong — it’s expected.  Please do not feel bad for feeling bad.

We’re all hard-wired to feel guilt/fear/shame.  These are the effects of the Fall in Genesis 3, and any time we feel those emotions burning our gut, it’s always pointing to something missing. In other words: Guilty feelings point to a “positional” guilt.  Guilt is part of our humanity saying: Something is wrong here, and we need a better way.

Sin killed our connection with God in the Garden.  You can see it in this broken fractured world.  We know this is not how things ought to be.  When we conform to the Fall, our hearts will the feel the guilt of going against our Creator.  It’s that sick feeling in your stomach which already tells me: you know what I mean.  

Even the kindest preacher in the world will still press your guilt-button, because you will always feel the gap between who you are and who you could be. This tension is an inevitable part of our fallen condition.


2) Guilt/fear/shame will always be wrong when it’s used by the preacher as a motivator.

The problem is when the preacher is yelling at you on Sunday about porn or drugs or TV shows, he’s dropping a sledgehammer down your throat.  He’s over-doing it.  He is mostly saying what you already know is true, and he’s not offering a solution.

A bad preacher will only tell you how it is.  A good preacher will carry you on a transformative journey from how it is to how things could be — and he does that by pointing to Jesus, the one who came to rescue us. 

Feeling guilt is natural, but if you think it will navigate your walk: it will only consume more energy than it creates, and that’s how self-condemnation happens.  To put it in theological terms, you can’t use the feelings of guilt as leverage to pay off the positional guilt.


3) Guilt/fear/shame, as an initial reaction, is inevitable because it points to the Holiness of God.

The Bible over and over talks about men and women who meet God, fall on their face, repent in dust and ashes, wear a sackcloth on their head, fast in terror of the Lord, and wish they were dead.  So much of the Bible is about God’s wrath, God warning us, God laying down justice.  We shouldn’t dismiss that.

If you could see the throneroom of God, like Isaiah did, you’d probably say the same thing: Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips … and my eyes have seen the King. 

Isaiah, who is probably holier than you and me and your grandma and Mother Teresa, could hardly stand his own sinfulness in the glorious sight of God.  I don’t mean to over-state the case: because I don’t think I can.

When we preach a “hyper-grace,” we short-circuit the Holiness of God.  I’ve seen what hyper-grace can do to people.  They often think they’re never wrong.  They dismiss rebuke as a “guilt trip.”  They become sermon-snobs.  They brush off the consequences of sin and jump quickly to grace, which is good, but unrealistic.


4) Yet God does NOT want you to stay in guilt.  In the end, we can only walk this walk by God’s grace.

If your first reaction is guilt, you need to know it’s okay.  It’s healthy and normal.  But we can’t stay there.  Ultimately, God doesn’t keep us in fear.  He is not some parole officer holding the trapdoor lever to Hell. In our continual faith journey, all fear gets put to death. 

That’s why 1 John 4:18 says,

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

God doesn’t want us to base our relationship with Him on do-more, try-harder, maybe you’ll make it.  It’s not based on the TV shows you watch, or reading the right Christian authors, or plugging into church programs.  You might know all this: but guilt is still controlling you.

Apostle Paul in Romans 8 says,

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ

— in perhaps the most victorious monologue in the entire Bible.

So the difference is that guilt never really finishes the sentence and doesn’t root for you to move forward.  Sure, guilt is inevitable, but it’s not the conclusion.

I know God’s grace is scary because we want to earn it somehow: but that’s the point.  We can’t.  God loves us in a way we don’t deserve and we can’t earn.  It is finished, he said.  We can only receive the gift.  It’s this love which picks us up, restores our brokenness, and sets us on His mission

Like Isaiah, we respond, “Here am I, send me!”  It’s the same when Jesus in Matthew 17 revealed his fully blazing glory on the mountaintop, then went down to a fallen Peter and told him, “Get up … Don’t be afraid.”  Jesus was the only one who could lift him up.  He picks up his disciples from the floor of their shame into his grace.

I’ll end here by unabashedly quoting myself:


When someone unconditionally loves you despite you with no end in sight, it changes you.  The only other option is to beat you up with religion and rules, which can’t sustain you for your whole life.  While grace takes longer, it will become a part of you in a way that moral conformity never can. 

Without grace, we’re just clocking in our daily tasks until we “feel holy” or we’re desperately trying to hit an arbitrary standard.  With grace, we a have a limitless love that provokes us into the same kind of love.  It changes not only what you do, but what you want to do.  It turns nobodies into somebodies as long as they remember they’re nothing who received something.

That’s the only truth that could ever motivate someone to anything.  We work hard, but grace empowers every effort.

— J.S.

5 thoughts on “A Mega-Post on Guilt, Fear, Shame, Fire and Brimstone

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