Friday, June 4, 2010

Holy Guilt

If there is one thing I miss and hate at the same time - it's the constant self-reflection and guilt found in the fervent Christian walk.

Hate because I could never quite accept who I was at that moment: pray more, love more, forgive more, worship deeper, .. the constant inner turmoil! I find it strange - yet not so strange - that the day I left Christianity, the day I ceased depression and suicidal ideation. I'm sickeningly happy, happier than I've ever been.

And yet something tugs on me when I see the deep convictions found in Christian blogs, journals, prayers, and sermons. What does the atheist have but his or herself to encourage improvement? What presses me to love my husband deeper but my own desire to do so? The Christian believes in an outer Good and Perfect being that calls them to be "holy as I am holy." Holiness being this completely unobtainable property.

But yet this creates a life long tug-of-war between the overflowing mercy of God's Grace and the call to "take up your cross" and follow Christ. One day the beleiver may be standing strong on verses that speak of their sonship and adoption into the Chosen People, and the next day mulling and cutting themselves over verses that require higher standards than they could ever reach.

How can a human being endure such constant warring? Does God really wish to do this to His people? Is this even desirable? Do we have a choice if He indeed exists?

I can say as an Atheist I've become who I could never accept I was/am, and yet inside I still hear the voice saying egotism and cynicism is not right and holy and there is something higher to reach. But yet - if I was only who I am now before I could have fought and won so many more battles. If I accepted the strength I have, the egotism, the out-spokenness I wouldn't have lost so many friends with my shyness and inability to speak my mind because of my belief that this was how God wanted me to be.

But is Atheism the answer? I doubt it. Yet if someone could surely help me see an alternative to this Holy Guilt and turmoil I'd be glad to hear it.


  1. wow Sarah this is really good. I totally know that feeling.
    My boyfriend always says that they threaten people with something that all people and living things are afraid of... fire. They say if you sin or do anything bad that you're going to burn in hell for eternity! "Is that what you want? To burn in hell forever?"
    And I ask, " What can I do that is so wrong that would get me sent to a firey pit for eternity? I mean other than being Hitler of course."
    And what is considered wrong? I mean here beating your wife is wrong... but in Iraq it's okay to slap your wife if she speaks out of line and that's not wrong. So how do you judge what's right and wrong? The bible? idk.

    When you're a Christian you're right there is so much guilt. It's a heavy burden. It's so nice to know someone else feels that way too. Relieving honestly.
    I hated the, "everyone raise your hands and worship" or "everyone speak in tongues." or "everyone come to the front" ... to me that's all personal. Faith is personal. If I don't want to raise my hands I don't wanna. If I don't wanna to speak in tongues I don't wanna. If I don't want to come to the front I don't wanna. And when you don't.... everyone stares with that, "oh look... katie's not raising her hands. we should pray for her more" or something ya know?

    ugh the frustration!! i know how you feel for sure!

  2. Amazing blog Sarah! It's good to know other people feel the same way I do.

    I am so happy I am out of that hellish lifestyle but there's a longing inside of me for something true.I'm searching and I hope I find it someday.

  3. Hi Sarah,

    Great blog! Just a few thoughts it triggered for me:
    How would you define "holiness" or "holy"?

    Interstingly you use the word "left" when you say you "left christianity". Could you clarify? What exactly were you "leaving"; a church, a community, a set of beliefs, an intellectual assent to a particular worldview, all of these, non of these?

    Finally the freedom you now experience to be more yourself reminds me of a rabbinic story. When you get to heaven God will not ask you "why weren't you more like Moses?" Instead God will ask you, "Why weren't you more like Sarah Exantus?" : )


  4. Those are great questions! They got me thinking.

    I'm not too sure how I would define holiness myself. I'm not sure the word can be or has been used outside of a religious context? How I was raised to see it is as a type of perfection and unobtainable property held by God. Which doesn't seem to make sense if God asked His people to be holy as he is.

    When it comes to leaving Christianity, I use it as meaning leaving the set of believing and worldview. I still go to church, still love my church, still consider Pastor my "pastor" and still try to participate in the community I was born, raised, and baptised to. I don't plan on leaving it, and don't care too much for the culture and community of Atheists that I have found. That's besides the fact that state-side, there isn't much of a community like that of churches.

    Ooooh, I love rabbinical stories! I think their theology makes the most sense to me. If I did believe in God, he would be someone who just wanted me to be who I am and no one else. Which is why I do not understand the Christian demand to believe. I don't think it would be so important to someone who created me. I try every day to be more me and less anyone else.

  5. Katie- I can actually completely understand the admonishments of worship leaders to do certain things. This is mainly because I do not believe in individualistic worship, where everything's about me and my God. I think communal worship is extremely important, especially in the Biblical context. Everywhere you look you see instances of people raising one voice in worship.

    I'm not knocking free worship and, as we call it, "the secret place." I think those are all good things. But there is power in humanity when it joins together in one voice.

    I also think that if a worship leader is leading they can be doing it out of their own intuition and not out of any desire to lead communal worship, and can thus make people feel uncomfortable.

    It's a complicated situation!

  6. Long response is long:

    Wow, really stirring blogs you've written lately! I've encountered the same phenomena in my previous Christian life and my current form of practicing naturalistic Deism as you have.

    I beat the tar out of myself trying to prove to myself that I was somehow different because of my faith and could overcome my vices, and it never happened. Nonetheless, I feel all the responsibility I did as a Christian now as a skeptic, but little of the guilt.

    A few things I could attribute this to:

    1) A professor of mine suggested that the whole origin of human society (and religion, by extension) is our group-mind and an instinct toward altruism. We know objectively that impulses portrayed by most religions as detestable are simply damaging to societal connections, which once upon a time were the difference between survival and certain death. To be selfish, for example, operates on some instincts (self-survival) and crosses others (social connection, reproductive access, etc.) As humans, our minds are just so complicated that we have a constant fight between our amplified versions of much older and simpler objectives, all of which get criss-crossed and mixed with our much higher emotional spectrum. Your husband, for example, occupies a very important and distinct social space within your consciousness, and your responsibilities to him, whether you view them as such or not, are manifold.

    2) If you ever get to read E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India," you'll get to see Christians, Muslims, and Secular, Western-tradition Humanists duking it out while Hindus throng around them and scratch their heads in confusion. The Christians and Muslims were no surprise to me when I read through it, but I also had to recognize that Secular Humanism is a reaction much more to Abrahamic religions than to non-Abrahamic ones. People wouldn't have become Atheists the way they are now if they didn't have specific problems with previous beliefs.

    Remember that, secular as you are, you were raised in the church, and as you've said, you still feel a connection to the believers. We can go back to my first point- society and the ones you associate with are loaded with instinctive and emotional benefits for you; you want to find a stable ground like they have. I guess that's a little simplistic, but that's the way I see it.

    3) Richard Dawkins (lulwut) did a study on belief and faith in the brain, (have you seen it?) finding the "belief" center of the human cortex closest to the places for scent and taste. Basically, if something is against your personal beliefs and mores, you'll react to it as as a disgusting smell or bad taste. The problem with Christian morality, then, is that the self is repulsive to the faith. By abandoning the idea of God's judgment, you therefore freed yourself from the previous form of self-judgment. Nevertheless, you still seek a form of truth in the universe, as evidenced by your "journey." I think the fact that you have no distinct concept of a "guilt" now is evidence that you have had one all along- though your ingrained troubles are gone, you nonetheless feel a desire for order and direction.

  7. Going back to the idea of something being held up by our brains as true gives it what I consider to be holiness. I believe all humans feel pain and suffer needlessly, so I consider human rights sacred, even though I have no concrete religious standard. (Though I'm probably closer to one than most secular people.)

    What I, in the end, don't understand, is why, as a Christian, I was so wracked with guilt all the time over little things- I've never killed, raped, stolen, etc., yet I found little qualms with myself all the time. I know that I have a responsibility to art, science, humanity, etc., and while I can more easily detach that myself from that in the name of *personal* survival, an older instinct than group survival, I feel responsible to the sources of reproduction, food, and protection embodied in other humans. Plus, I'm a damn nice guy. ^^;

    Did any of that make sense? I just got done watching WALL-E and my moralistic sense is in overdrive. @_@;

  8. Wulf- Everything you said made absolute sense. And I can not find anything to disagree with or question you over. Honestly. =P Those are excellent points.

    "We know objectively that impulses portrayed by most religions as detestable are simply damaging to societal connections, which once upon a time were the difference between survival and certain death."

    Great statement. I love it. My only issue is the use of the word "objectively." Although in the context it works, since we know objective from religion that certain things are instinctively wrong. The only use of objective that I disagree with is apart from the human objective, or from our reality. I'm a Trekkie and a sci-fi buff, so I can recall many a story and episode where a foreign species is found to have a morality separate from our known one. In that case, I do not believe there is a morality that judges whose is more correct.

    But, we don't have such contexts, just the human context.

    And you are a damn nice guy. For that, you are awesomes.

  9. Ok, that's good. ^^;

    And no, we can be as *close* to objective as we want to be simple because we have social science and can study social dynamics. We're only talking humans here, anyway, but our brains have rules that we end up following or at least reacting according to. I guess "objective" is too certain of a word, but I'd like to think that our interactions can be measured enough to make solid statements about them, since we have nothing else to go off of, scientifically speaking.

    Except for the dolphins. But we shut those mofos up with fish. ;p

  10. Hi,
    "type of perfection and unobtainable property held by God. Which doesn't seem to make sense if God asked His people to be holy as he is."
    i agree it doesn't make perhaps the way holiness has been defined to us (i was taught the same thing) may not have been what the biblical writers intended..for example when commanded to keep the sabbath "holy" what does that mean?
    Plus certain Scriptures assume we can obey the law, Deut 30:14 “But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it. "... just some thoughts...
    i also agree on your assumption about God as our creator. if he created you to be "you" then your logical act of worship would be to become as much "you" as God intended. : )

  11. You know, that's a good point Maureen. I always got upset at people claiming that Jesus came as a way for people to get out of a law they could never obey. Why command it if we're unable to uphold it?

    I'm going to have to look into the original author's idea of holiness... it's just so hard though. Look for a book on holiness and the first 50 books are devotional and hardly get into the meat of the issue. *sigh*

  12. A friend recently told me he's hear a preacher use the term Holy Guilt. I do not believe it exist. Let's try a little word substitution:

    "But just as he who called you is [guilty], so be [guilty] in all you do." 1 Peter 1:16

    Jesus is holy. When He was in the flesh did He experience guilt? No.

    Hebrews 4:15 confirms: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin." He *empathizes.*

    According to the Lexicon the Greek word means "1) to be affected with the same feeling as another, to sympathize with 2) to feel for, have compassion on". He had compassion. He felt for us; He even wept. Was he "afflicted with the same feeling," and to the extent 'guilt' is a feeling, did He feel guilt? If so, He felt *our* guilt, not His own because "He did not sin." Guilt is also way more than a feeling.

    One of the Hebrew words for guilt, I don't have time to look them all up, means: "offense, sin, trespass, fault." So let's try some more word substitution: Holy offense, Holy sin, Holy trespass, Holy fault.

    Now the Greek. One passage as example: "When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, "Crucify him, crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no *guilt* in him." This passage is referred to in Acts 13:28, which in the ESV is the *last* mention of guilt in the Bible that I can see at (an excellent resource). The Greek here means: "cause for which one is worthy of punishment, crime."

    Now 2 Corinthians 7:10 (NIV): "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death." The ESV renders 'sorrow' as 'grief.'

    The Greek for sorrow means "sorrow, pain, grief, annoyance, affliction." Godly sorrow, Godly grief, Godly affliction, yes. No connection to 'guilt,' though.

    Let's also examine 'holy' a little more. Usually it means sanctified, set apart, consecrated. I just don't see that of guilt. God is Holy. We are guilty. God, through the Law, declares us, judges us, and convicts us of that guilt, but the fact of the matter is the guilt is not *of* God. The holiness is *of* God. The guilt is *of* us, and it is merely a factual declaration of true reality, which, for the Just, is crucified with Christ so that we may be sanctified and set apart from our guilt.

    I didn't hear the context, but it sounds as if he was suggesting God uses guilt to draw us to Him (set us apart). If so, the intention is well-meaning but the expression flawed. If he meant to say Holy remorse, I might be more inclined to agree, but I'd have to think about it. Guilt is not a tool; it is not a verb; it is not a process. It is a noun that functions as such to name a factual thing. Awareness of guilt through knowledge of the Law and conviction of the Spirit shows us our inadequacy and need, and we by grace turn to God through faith in Christ, but the guilt is there. God doesn't produce or create it; He declares it and provided a Way to absolve it. It is not a characteristic or attribute of God.

    If at the end, all that remains is what is Holy, what of guilt? Is there guilt in God's Holy Habitation?

    The reverse seems to be true. There is no guilt in heaven, so it can't possibly be Holy. Hebrews 12:14: "Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." So if I am experiencing Holy Guilt how can the guilt follow me into the kingdom unless it's Holy, but if it can then there must be guilt in heaven. Can you imagine such a thing?

    I can't. Drop the language and use the Biblical concept of godly sorrow which leads to repentence.