Chances are that many of the members of your small group show up already feeling guilty. Before you open God’s Word with your group, your group members are already reviewing the last week in their heads. They are thinking about how their devotional time was insufficient or nonexistent, how they lost their temper with their spouses, how they spent too much money on furniture and didn’t give enough to missions, and how they spent too much time watching football and not enough playing with their kids. Your group members show up already feeling guilty, and if you aren’t careful, your small group meeting will only make things worse.
Too often group Bible study devolves into an unhealthy fixation on what we aren’t doing or what we could be doing better. As a small group leader, it is critical that you strive to correct this because guilt is an inferior motivator to grace. So how do you correct the endless cycle of guilt that your group members so easily fall into? Here are four suggestions:
Emphasize Christian Identity
In the greatest sermon ever preached, Jesus immediately drew his disciples’ attention to their new identity as kingdom citizens. The Beatitudes focus on being rather than doing—Jesus isn’t telling us to be more meek, poor, or pure so that we might be blessed, but rather describing those who are blessed and happy, those who are recipients of God’s special favor. The New Testament writers echo Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount by reminding us that who we are in Christ is not dependent upon our moral improvement or effort. In Christ we are adopted as God’s children (1 John 3:1-2), freed from slavery to sin (Rom. 6:6), born anew (1 Pet. 1:3), given an imperishable inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4), clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27-28), and united to His church (1 Pet. 2:9). The members of your group who have trusted their lives to Christ, but continually find themselves paralyzed by guilt, need to know that what Christ says of them is true no matter how they happen to feel about themselves at present.
Acknowledge the Grace of God in Each Other’s Lives
Before challenging his readers to take deliberate steps toward cultivating Christlike attitudes, Peter reminded His readers of God’s grace and power: “His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness” (2 Pet. 2:3). No matter where your group members presently find themselves in their walk with Christ, they are recipients of God’s varied grace (1 Pet. 4:10).
Every member of your small group who has trusted Jesus is a recipient of God’s grace in Christ. If you hope to see your group members take critical steps toward Christlikeness, help them see and savor the grace God has shown them in Christ. Do not, however, only speak of God’s grace generally; point out where you see the grace of God at work in their attitudes, their perspectives, and their relationships. Help them see God’s hand at work so that they might begin to see that have indeed been given everything required for life and godliness.
Resist the Urge to Compare
Your group members may find themselves in a perpetual guilt cycle because really they are struggling with sin, or it may be because they are measuring their spiritual growth against someone else in an unhealthy manner. Every member of your group, yourself included, is different. They have different weakness, strengths, struggles, trials, and burdens. Be wary of constantly holding up your success or the successes of your more stable group members as a standard to strive for. Every step toward Christlikeness, no matter how insignificant it may seem to us, is a miracle of God’s grace and is worthy of celebration. We should all be careful “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] should” (Rom. 12:3). Don’t compare yourself to your group members, and help your group members resist the temptation to compare with each other. Spiritual growth is not a competition; encourage your group to encourage and support each other as they pursue Christlikeness.
Let Grace Be Your Motive
It is important to note that often we find ourselves in a perpetual guilt cycle because we really are guilty. In such instances, however, it is not our effort that leads to healing but God’s grace. It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4), not self-imposed shame or the judgement of others. Whether our guilt comes from genuine conviction of sin or from failing to live up to some extra biblical standard, the solution is the same. We need the same God who mercifully saved us to renew our minds and help us embrace our new identity in His Son (Rom. 12:1-2).
Only God’s grace can break cycles of guilt and shame. The answer you need and the answer your small group needs is not to do better or try harder; the answer is to look to Christ (Heb. 12:1-2).
Drew Dixon is Discipleship Strategist for LifeWay Christian Resources and the Editor-in-Chief of GameChurch.com. He also writes for WORLD Magazine, Paste Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture, and Think Christian. Follow him on Twitter: @drewdixon82.