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Emotional Bullying: Using Guilt to Lead Kids to God

guiltI was talking to a friend who, although raised in the church, is pretty antagonistic toward Christianity. He was talking about his childhood and how Sunday school and VBS constantly beat into his head his personal responsibility for Christ’s death.

Not in the “Christ died for your sins” vein, but more like, “It was your sins that drove the spikes into Jesus’ hands and feet.” The way his parents and church hammered (no pun intended) into him his personal responsiblity, made him feel mortifying shame.

It worked, he was a devout little kid. But he wasn’t propelled out of a sense of gratitude or wonder. No—his driving motivation for being good was humiliation.

As he got older, he walked away from the whole thing. I know so many people who have had the same experience. When they get older, their guilt turns into anger and frustration.

I ‘d seen the same things laid on kids in churches I’ve attended, and it breaks my heart. To a little kid, there’s a huge difference between “Christ died for our sins” and “your sins made Christ die.” It may be subtle, but it’s there.

Have others experienced this?

So I asked on Twitter if others had this same experience growing up:

Here’s some of the responses:

This last one really resonated with me. I can’t count the times I was told that people were going to look at me during judgment and mouth the words, “Why didn’t you tell me!?” as they were led to their eternal torment. Great, I have to spend eternity with that on my conscience?

Guilt’s not a great motivational tool

I get why it’s so easy to use guilt—especially on children. They’re so tender and making them feel guilty tends to make them respond immediately. But in the end, it may do your cause more harm than good.

It’s similar to the way parents use overpowering fear and intimidation to get immediate obedience out of a child even though they’re creating relational difficulties that will come to fruition later.

When children get older and are capable of deeper reflection, they start to resent the guilt that was used to motivate them. They start being distrustful and leery of emotional controlled.

We need to be mindful of how we communicate these profound truths to children (and, let’s be honest, adults too). The emotional implications for some of the extremely dramatic language, imagery, and metaphors we use can be damaging.

Jesus simply said, “Let the little children come unto me.” Not, “Compel them to come unto me by making sure they understand what bad little children they are.”

I’d love to hear your story. Did your parents/church introduce you to Christ in an organic, healthy way? Did you spend a lot of your childhood feeling guilty? Do you agree or disagree that guilt is not the best tool for religious instruction?

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30 Comments Post a comment
  1. I watched a movie called “Jesus Camp” and the guilt trips they were laying on the little kids was quite disturbing. I had to turn it off about halfway through, I couldn’t take it anymore. I think I will send the parents a link to your blog.

    July 25, 2014
    • That movie was so depressing.

      July 25, 2014
      • I can’t even work up the nerve to watch it. I suspect it would trigger a lot of traumatic memories.

        July 25, 2014
  2. Korrinie #

    Whoa, yes, was I guilt-tripped as a kid. Not only was I personally responsible for driving the spikes into Jesus’ hands & feet (“as if you’d done it, yourself,” I was told), but I was also responsible for my parents having to punish me AND for anyone I hadn’t witnessed to, AND for anyone I’d witnessed to & had been considering Christianity but had seen me sin/disobey my parents/have a bad attitude & decided it wasn’t life-changing enough for them to actually convert.

    I lived in constant fear under a shadow of guilt steeped in shame. It was terrifying.

    It’s a wonder I still claim to be Christian. But I’n the liberal type who tells her kids, “God loves you, the end.”

    July 25, 2014
    • O #

      Sorry, but that is not Christianity. I am sorry for your guilt trip, but Christianity does involve facing sinfulness and receiving atonement in the love and grace of God through Christ.

      August 1, 2014
      • Luckily for us, it’s the Spirit who convicts us of sin and not the intimidation of others.

        August 1, 2014
  3. I can relate so well with this post, especially the fear of spending eternity with other people’s damnation on my conscious. It was something I worried about all the time as a kid, and would routinely have nightmares about friends or family members saying “Kelsey, why didn’t you ever tell me? I would’ve listened!” and knowing it was all my fault as I watched them being dragged off to Hell. It was terrifying.
    When I was in seventh grade my Sunday school class watched a very dated ’80s video (can’t remember the name) about a car load of teens who crash and instantly die. Only one of the teens was a Christian, and he’d never talked to any of them about Jesus. As his friends were sent to Hell they asked why he’d never even tried to tell them — after all, they didn’t even know they were going to Hell and he could’ve changed the course of their eternal destiny. The film ended with the Christian teen being ushered into Heaven … with the eight of his friends eternal destinies weighing forever on his conscious. That film gave me so many nightmares.
    The brief Sunday school lesson after the film was basically that this is what would happen if we didn’t tell everyone we knew about Jesus and tried to invite them to church. At least in my church experience, I feel like a lot of times the guilt card was pulled out when they wanted the youth to do something specific like bring their friends to kids’ church or youth group or they wanted us to participate in a church activity involving some form of evangelism.

    July 25, 2014
  4. I was raised Catholic & even as a twenty-six-year-old woman, my parents STILL guilt trip me about not going to Mass, not praying enough, etc. They would use guilt & scare tactics about us going to hell to get my brother & me to behave. My problem isn’t with God or even Catholicism. My problem is with people like my parents who are homophobic/close-minded/hypocritical bigots that act like going to church/praying constantly/”being religious” makes you a good person. I give props to all the folks who really try to live what Jesus’s teachings were. One day, I’d like to find a church that’s accepting & openminded, but I haven’t found one yet.

    July 25, 2014
  5. Rosie Perera #

    The dominating emotion I felt growing up wasn’t so much guilt as FEAR. I was taught to pray the “sinner’s prayer” to become a Christian so that I would avoid the eternal torments of hell. But every time I prayed it, I never felt any different, so I wasn’t sure it had worked. I used to do it over and over again hoping that one of those times it would take. I was terrified of God. I thought he was a literal minded bully who was looking for the least little excuse to snuff me out (either in the hereafter or even in the now), e.g., if I sinned without confessing it. I made sure to be very careful in my prayer wording so that he didn’t take me the wrong way when I was asking him to help me fall asleep, and interpret it as “put me to sleep” (as in euthanize me). I really thought he would have *wanted* to do that.
    I did also get some pressure to witness to others and heard about my responsibility for their damnation if I didn’t share the gospel with them. But the “gospel” I knew at the time surely didn’t feel like very good news, so I was reluctant to share it.

    July 25, 2014
  6. Presby Girl #

    I grew up in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I didn’t experience God in this way at church or through my family. I learned about a God of grace, love, and forgiveness. But I started to hear about the guilt, shame, and fear around high school from friends who mainly went to Southern Baptist churches. This was in Houston, Texas where I grew up. I distinctly remember feeling sad for them that they didn’t know the God I knew, the one they taught at my church. Not that mine was right and theirs was wrong, but visiting their churches I could feel the guilt trip coming from the pulpit and I didn’t like it. It was contrary to everything we were about at my church.

    July 26, 2014
  7. i even remember a song:
    don’t do a half-day’s work for the Lord and expect a whole day’s pay;
    only what’s done with all of your heart counts on the judgment day.
    how can you sit idly by, knowing souls are doomed to die?
    don’t do a half-day’s work for the Lord and expect a whole day’s pay.
    there may have been motions included.

    July 28, 2014
    • Alex C #

      Wasn’t there a parable that Jesus gave – about a landowner specifically hiring people late to only work a couple of hours and then still choosing to pay them a denarii (full day’s wage)?
      Everybody needs to hear the gospel of Jesus. Adults, teens, kids…it is good enough news on its own, and does not require some sort of additional emotional force in order to be fruitful. Gospel truths might cause some emotional turmoil on their own…but I don’t think anything needs to be blown out of proportions in order to cause additional turmoil. Especially when it highlights “do this or else” motivation as opposed to you know, “God is amazing, and in light of what he has done for us, let’s work to do these things” kind of truth.

      August 1, 2014
  8. O #

    I don’t encourage guilt trips, but having a healthy consciousness about sin and its implications is mandatory. Knowing that I will indeed perish without the atoning grace of Christ.
    And passing that on in a loving way is really our calling as the Body of Christ.

    August 1, 2014
    • Well, in many ways I agree with you. But when you say, “passing that on in a loving way is really our calling as the Body of Christ” that’s where I get uncomfortable because I have seen a lot of negative behavior justified as loving. “I love you and don’t want you to go to hell,” has been the justification for a lot of damage done and terrible communication of gospel truth. This post isn’t about hiding the consequences of sin, it’s about communicating it an a holistic, age-appropriate manner.

      August 1, 2014
  9. Matt Mager #

    Are you suggesting that we shouldn’t help people to see their guilt before God at all? Or are you suggesting that law-preaching without the gospel leads to despair?

    I believe it is quite clear that we need to help people see their guilt and condemnation before God before they can understand and appreciate the grace of the gospel. That model seems quite apparent in Paul’s gospel exposition in the book of Romans. First three chapters on sin, guilt, and judgment before he turns the corner in 3:20.

    Also, Peter seemed to use the method if highlighting people’s guilt related to the crucifixion in Acts 3:
    14 But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses. 16 And on the basis of faith in His name, it is the name of Jesus which has strengthened this man whom you see and know; and the faith which comes through Him has given him this perfect health in the presence of you all.

    17 “And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also. 18 But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. 19 Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; 20 and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you,

    Please clarify. Perhaps, we are in agreement.

    August 1, 2014
    • Matt,

      First of all, this is a post about how we communicate the gospel to children. If you can find a proof text that suggests that we shouldn’t consider age-appropriate communication, I’m willing to read it.

      I am kind of at a loss with your use of the Scripture you posted. Paul’s rhetoric (and I don’t mean rhetoric in a pejorative sense, but rather as a set up to his rhetorical argument) in Romans was entirely appropriate in the context he was giving it. I don’t think that the point of the first three chapters of Romans is that we should go, therefore, and do likewise at all times in all circumstances. We need to be wise (and sensitive) in the ways we communicate.

      As far as Peter’s talk in Acts 3, that’s kind of a strange example since he’s talking to some of the very people who were (not just in a conceptual sense) responsible for Christ’s crucifixion. That’s the very thing that I suggest we don’t dump on children because they don’t have the capacity grasp all the nuances of their guilt.

      August 1, 2014
  10. Matthew Mager #

    Jayson,
    Thank you for your response. I do believe that we need to work hard to communicate with children. I have often said, if you can teach kids, you can teach anyone. I have a 2 and 4 year old at home as well as a congregation of people from all different spectrums of life and varying levels of understandings of Scripture. So when it comes to teaching children I don’t think we need to pick and choose what truths to communicate but like with any person start out with the basics. But what could be more basic than guilt before God?

    I agree that an exposition of Roman might not be the best method to communicate the gospel to young people, but are you saying that we should NOT to a child their guilt before a holy God. Apart from Christ my child and every child deserves hell Eph 2:3. Why would we not tell them what their state is before a Holy God.

    Should we not tell them of the dreadful of their sin and severity of God wrath so that they will fly to the sweetness of the Savior’s grace. If this is manipulation than what blessed manipulation it is! Would that more were manipulated!

    I believe that only God can move the heart and will to Christ (Jn 6:44, 65). We must be very careful to not give false assurance to a child and get them all to repeat a sinners prayer. But we must speak plainly to them to state of their souls before God.

    Jonathan Edwards brought his young children to a smoldering house that was recently burned down with several family members in it to speak earnestly to them about eternity and point them to Christ. Perhaps, we can learn from colonial pastor-theologian. All of his children demonstrated fruits of conversion.

    I don’t think we need to tell children less truth about their state before God, we just need to communicate it well and also communicate the wonders of Calvary’s love well (Rom 5:8-oops I quoted the rhetoric of Romans.) But something tells me that you wouldn’t have the problem with the rhetoric of 5:8 being communicated to young people just ch 1-3. Perhaps, I’m misunderstanding you.

    August 1, 2014
    • “Perhaps, I’m misunderstanding you.”

      “Rom 5:8-oops I quoted the rhetoric of Romans,” This sarcastic comment despite my explicitly saying that I wasn’t using rhetoric negatively (it’s a word with a rich heritage in how to inform and motivate), says you don’t really care to understand me.

      If you read my words and disagree with them, that’s fine. If you read about Edwards using a recent (guessing because it’s still smoldering) tragedy as an opportunity to share the beauty of the gospel to his children, as a standard for your ministry, I’m not going to dissuade you. The end justifies the means, right?

      August 1, 2014
  11. Matthew Mager #

    I write not to pick a fight. This is your home blog. I’m just a guest. It was linked by challies. It’s his fault…haha. Forgive me for my sarcasm.

    I haven’t read any of your posts before this one. I am genuinely trying to understand you. I still am wondering whether you believe in principle it is wrong to communicate with a child their guilt and judgment before God? The illustration of a child killing I agree is probably a little beyond the conceptual reach of a child (depending on the age).

    So if you believe 1) that it is wrong to communicate to a child their guilt before God and the coming judgment so that you can help them understand the cross work of Christ then I vehemently disagree. But if 2) you just believe that telling a child “youkilled Jesus ” is not the best way to communicate their guilt then we actually agree. I have never said that to a child and probably wouldn’t. Hopefully you can see the difference.

    So I guess I am asking for 1 or 2 or another option I am not able to think of.

    August 1, 2014
    • I’ve found very few small children who do not have some level of tenderness toward the Lord.

      Does a four-year-old need to completely understand their personal guilt before the Lord and his wrath against them? I just don’t think they do. I don’t think they have the capacity to.

      I don’t doubt there are many who disagree with me. Obviously, this blog includes the testimonies of people who struggled with the message that they, as children, were responsible for driving the nails into Jesus’ hands by their little sinner hearts.

      So any church that they attended would probably tend to disagree with me. That’s fine.

      I’m not sure why we need to go back and forth about this, because I’m not overly concerned if you disagree with me. I don’t mean that disrespectfully—just factually. I have been at this long enough to know that someone always disagrees.

      If the gospel to you is entirely about penal substitution, then I can understand that guilt is the most important factor that you can communicate and the only road into the kingdom.

      But I don’t think that it is. It is simply one facet in many of the ways the gospel is redeeming all things to God through the cross. There are a number of things we can communicate to children about God and in some way, this includes our need for his forgiveness. This WHOLE post is about HOW that’s communicated.

      I can appreciate your position, but if your view of evangelism and communicating the Gospel is found in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, we’re just going to disagree.

      And I’m okay with that. Neither of our positions rest on whether or not everyone on the internet agree with them.

      August 1, 2014
      • Hi Jayson,
        Thanks for the post! It is eye opening to see how the church has used and still uses guilt as an evagelism tool (not a very good one).
        Matt, I think you are confusing the purpose of the law. Guilt is only one piece of Romans 3 (take it from Lutheran, we kind of have the biggest Protestant stake in Romans).
        Paul’s point is that we are dead in sin, not guilty. Righteousness is just as much about God’s act of making us alive than it is forgiveness. Guilt and forgiveness of sins is just one piece of the gospel, and without God’s action of making us alive in Christ, forgiveness has no point.
        You probably won’t like this idea, but as Lutherans we often tell children how we are made alive in baptism. We drown to sin, and rise to life in Christ. It is much richer image to use to with kids. Instead of God the pesky school-marm, God is the one bringing us to new life.

        August 1, 2014
  12. Maguffin #

    This topic has really struck a nerve with me.
    I have had periods of my life when I’ve been active in evangelism and “witnessing”. While I think some real good has come from my efforts, I confess that I’ve often approached it out of a guilt-fueled sense of duty rather than out of genuine love. I do believe that there are times in the Christian life when we need to be obedient whether we feel like it or not, and I also believe that if we wait for pure motives we will never accomplish anything. Thankfully, the power of the Gospel is in the seed, not in the sower. Still, I’m concerned about the large, overshadowing role that guilt had played in my Christian life, and I’m grateful for this discussion as I wrestle through that.
    There’s a saying among evangelists, “Law to the proud and grace to the humble”. Maybe the distinction is that it’s healthy for sin and guilt to humble us, but unhealthy when it shames us?

    August 2, 2014
    • Thanks for your comment. It was very soul searching and honest.

      I am familiar with that evangelistic saying, but I wonder if Paul would agree. For him it seemed to be grace to those who don’t understand the law, and an understanding that the law isn’t going to save you to those who do.

      August 2, 2014
  13. Ben G #

    I always like to say that guilt is a horrible motivation for action, and God never calls us to use guilt as a motivation for action nor does he call us to linger in guilt or shame. The purpose of conviction of sin (and of temptation and even of “walking in righteousness”) is to drive us to the throne of grace where we leave any guilt and shame behind and are restored to dependence on God and right motivations for living – namely faith working through love. (In the case of “walking in righteousness, we stay at the throne of mercy and grace, and maintain dependence & right motivations.) In Christ, we are totally and eternally cleansed of guilt and shame, but sometimes we feel guilty or ashamed because we let the devil and his spirits convince us to let our sin (or our temptations our even our successes) drive us away from God rather than to Him.
    The only sin that the bible calls “crucifying Jesus again” is to reject Jesus after having known him.
    I hope that helps and encourages,
    Ben

    August 2, 2014
  14. I think there’s wisdom here. Remembering my own tenderness as a little child, I definitely would have been emotionally scarred by the over-the-top kind of rhetoric being quoted here. As it was, I was raised with an unusual “best-of-all-worlds” combination of denominational backgrounds that most children don’t have, so I think I enjoyed a better balance growing up.

    I do think that as kids get older, parents shouldn’t be afraid to confront them with guilt. I’ve seen how much pain adolescent selfishness and rebellion can cause. Kids who are hurting the people who love them with their sin need to be told, quite firmly, that they are guilty before God and need to examine themselves. Maybe the crucifixion would be an effective tool in cases like this. Maybe we don’t need to get quite so literal as “You’re driving the spikes into his hands right now—you, personally!” but more restrained rhetoric to the effect that you are hurting/offending Jesus, and that your sin was part of the load Jesus bore when he was separated from God, could actually be effective and needed.

    August 2, 2014

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  3. Emotional Bullying: Using Guilt to Lead Kids to God

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