In an excellent sermon last Sunday, my pastor articulated the difference between these in the Christian’s life:
Conviction: the work of God in pointing out a specific action which we’ve done and which is wrong. God calls us to reject this behaviour to be restored in our relationship with Him.
Condemnation: the work of the enemy, suggesting that because of our tendency to sin we are beyond hope.
We should expect and welcome God’s conviction in our lives. We are not perfect, we sin. ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 Jn 1) Part of the sign of it being God’s work is that it relates to specific actions, and when we have confessed it, the guilt goes away.
By contrast the sense of being worthless, hopeless, unvalued, or no use, because we’ve messed up AGAIN is the work of the devil, and we need to recognise it as such, and respond by praising God for our salvation, for Jesus’ death on the cross that made it possible, and that the Spirit has revealed this truth to us (assuming that we HAVE accepted God’s mercy for the sins that we committed in the past).
Christianity is realistic that it recognises that all have messed up in the past, are continuing to do so in the present, and will do so until sin is removed from the world. It calls on everyone to accept that we are flawed – but offers a way forward. By contrast the world offers lies: ‘believe in children’, ‘love wins in the end’, ‘everyone has a heart of gold’. When challenged by the reality of the world today, excuses about ‘them’ abound: the 1%, predatory men, unreasonable women, the greedy workers, the Jews, the Muslims, the fundamentalist Christians, are offered as the real cause, and changes to society are proposed as the answer. (To be fair to Soviet Communism and the Chinese cultural revolution, they did recognise the need for individual change – they just assumed that it was only their enemies that had a problem.)
So far, so ordinary. Where this starts to get interesting is to consider this in terms of the response of mainstream groups to criticism from others. Certainly at times they respond to legitimate challenges by confusing ‘conviction’ and ‘condemnation’; challenges to wrong behaviour by individuals is dismissed as condemning the individual, not the behaviour, with the result that the legitimate critique is dismissed. This is seen in such terms as ‘slut shaming’, ‘body shaming’, homophobia and even Islamophobia’; because the guilt of these individuals is so wrapped up in their identity, their behaviour cannot be declared wrong without condemning the individual.
By ‘coincidence’ the Guardian has a long read on guilt just out. Musing on the issue of feeling guilty all the time, Baum argues that ‘His guilt is a constant, nagging reminder that he has taken this wrong turn’ and ‘It keeps us, as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written, in thrall to that boring and repetitive voice inside our head that endlessly corrects, criticises, censors, judges and finds fault with us, but “never brings us any news about ourselves”.’ This is a reminder that the gospel IS that ‘news about ourselves’ that gives us a truth on which to base our lives. Our evangelism must scratch where people are itching; merely repeating ‘God loves you’ is insufficient. The starting point of the gospel is that we are worthless wretches who have every reason to be guilty; we deserve to be condemned.
But instead God has chosen to declare us not guilty, to adopt us into his family and give us a hope. Biblically this makes sense of John’s comment: ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (Jn 3) and Jesus’ words: ‘There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day’ (Jn 12).
We need to accept that if we are preaching Jesus then people will feel condemned – indeed if they aren’t we may well be doing it wrong. The answer to that condemnation is to offer them the grace of God revealed at the cross – at the cost of their dying to themselves and being born again to live as God’s children obeying His commands. If we offer less than that – or succumb to the temptation to assure them they are ‘all right really’ – we are in danger of stifling the work of the Spirit.