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  • Ross Moughtin

When guilt knocks at your door


“Not today, thank you.” His face fell, he appeared completely dispirited before walking away. Jacqui is always unnerved when this happens. Invariably her cue to sing the Keith Green song: “Jesus came to your door, you left him out on the streets.” It may be the effect of living in a vicarage for over 40 years, wary of protecting your family from passers-by wanting money. But what do you do when people, who make out that they are destitute, want money? Yesterday’s visit was simply a variant on this theme, when a polite young man came to our doorstep to sell household goods at exorbitant prices. I answered the door rather than Jacqui. The give-away is his id card for an offenders rehabilitation scheme. It all looks very official – until you actually read it. Clearly a scam. Jacqui and I are very different. She is kind, sensitive and caring. And so she takes the line to help them anyway. Clearly they must be in real need if they are reduced to selling house to house even if they are using fake ID’s. In contrast, I take police advice. Moreover I refuse to feel guilty when someone tries to play me. Again, something I learned from being a vicar. There’s always someone out there trying to play the guilt card. For guilt trips are simply a means of psychological manipulation, especially in the home. “After all I have done for you!” Psychologist Guy Winch writes “Guilt trips might be the bread and butter of many families' communications, but they are rarely as benign as we think. While they often ‘succeed,’ in that the recipient indeed changes their behaviour as a result, these ‘successes’ always come with a price—one few guilt inducers consider.” He concludes: “Guilt trips frequently induce not just strong feelings of guilt but equally strong feelings of resentment toward the manipulator.” It’s important for us to realise that false guilt has nothing to do with what's true and accurate, nor related to true repentance. As our prospective doorstep salesman walked away yesterday, he appeared totally dejected. “I’ve made no money since the Lockdown,” he bemoaned in a vain attempt to activate my conscience. The danger, certainly to me, is that we can overreact when people would guilt trip us. They may be doing the right thing in the wrong way. That takes some discernment, to see through the manipulation to the real request. I don’t know how often people tried to make Jesus feel guilty, albeit with the best of motives. Clearly the disciples may have tried this in the early days of the Galilean ministry. You may remember how “very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:36). He had just spent the previous evening healing everyone who had come to his door in Capernaum – and next morning they were back, in force. But where is he? So Simon and his companions go on a search party for Jesus. “When they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’ ”(Mark 1:37). I don’t know whether they were consciously wanting to make Jesus feel guilty, that he wasn’t where he should have been. Already, they explained, there’s a long queue and you’re keeping them waiting. Certainly as vicar I would have felt guilty of abandoning my post, so to speak. However, as ever Jesus does what you least expect him to do: he moves on. “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” He clearly refuses to be motivated by guilt, by other people’s expectations of what he should do – even if that should make him unpopular or appear uncaring. Throughout his ministry people tried to manipulate Jesus. If guilt doesn’t work, try flattery or fear. Or even, as John relates, superficial allegiance. Either way, we read “But Jesus didn’t entrust his life to them. He knew them inside and out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn’t need any help in seeing right through them.” (John 2:24f) That’s a key ministry of the Holy Spirit – we need him to see right through us and expose our true motives to ourselves. So what would appear as guilt is simply a need to please or conform. Or alternatively to convict us of sin, to expose – however painfully - those areas of our life which dishonour God, to reveal our need to repent and so receive his free forgiveness. For some of us, because of our personality- type or upbringing, this can be a hard challenge. However, the good news is that the cross of Jesus sets us free from guilt, real or otherwise! “For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves. And friends, once that’s taken care of and we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we’re bold and free before God!” (1 John 3:20f) And that makes all the difference!

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