"Don’t Make Them Feel Guilty." Good advice?

Regarding women and men who have participated in abortion, I’ve heard some pro-life advocates say “Don’t make them feel guilty.” I think the sentiment that’s usually behind this statement is helpful, but I think it can be easily misunderstood when it’s expressed this way. There are two possible meanings of “Don’t make them feel guilty.”

  1. Help them avoid feeling bad about their abortion experience.  (Indeed, some have said, “You don’t need to feel bad.”)
  2. Avoid making it appear that you are a better person who can look down your nose casting judgment.

Let me respond to #1.

No, actually, if the person had an abortion, feeling bad about it is essential to coming to Christ for forgiveness. That’s precisely what this person needs. So, I suggest that #1 is not helpful.

I think regularly about Greg Koukl’s statement about the gospel (I suggest memorizing this.):

The Gospel is offensive enough. Don’t add any more offense to it. But we should not remove the offense inherent to the Gospel, either.* 

I think we could say something similar regarding the person who’s participated in abortion:

The truth about the wrongness of abortion (guilt) is offensive enough. Don’t add any more offense to it. But we should not remove the offense inherent to the truth about the wrongness of abortion (guilt), either.

Practically speaking, this means we follow #2 above: Avoid making it appear that you are a better person who can look down your nose casting judgment. So, this means we follow my colleague Tammy Cook’s advice: we don’t treat abortion as the unforgiveable sin.  And, we don’t treat it as “so much worse than anything I have done.” Instead, we turn the mirror on ourselves and reflect on our own fallenness.  This will naturally produce the empathy that’s going to be most helpful to the person who has participated in abortion.

Let me add two additional thoughts:

(1) I don’t mean that every person who has an abortion is equally guilty or should feel equal intensity of guilt.  I do mean that whatever the appropriate amount of guilt is for someone to feel, based on all of the relevant factors (which I’m not sure I can enumerate), we should not get in the way of someone feeling that by tossing off dismissive statements like, “It’s not so bad.”

I think many of us (if I am any indication) have an inclination to simply try to make people feel better. Sadly, this inclination is stronger in us than the inclination to be helpful to them for the purpose of their long-term, whole-person good.  My argument in this post is that we should suppress our desire to simply make people feel better and focus our efforts on walking with them as they reckon with what they’ve done.  While taking this approach, we should encourage them toward Christ rather than away from Him into the sort of self-reliance and isolation that is so enticing to all of us when we have done wrong.

(2) I am also mindful in writing this post that I have done many serious wrongs and I am guilty.  What I am arguing above is that the best way for friends of mine to be helpful to me is to let me feel that guilt and point me to Christ, who brings me to God spotless, based on His free gift of forgiveness.  So, if I am not connected to the wrongness of what I’ve done, they might ask questions to help me connect.  And, if I am beating myself silly because my sense of healthy guilt has morphed into a mechanism for self-centered inaction or depression, my friends should attempt to help me correct that by reminding me that being too focused on guilt says something about my acceptance of Christ’s forgiveness.  (I’m not mapping out how this discussion should go, though, so don’t take this as instructions for what to say when.  I’m simply mapping a general approach.)

The point here is that I don’t point the finger at women and men who have made decisions to participate in abortion, as if I have done no wrong.  I have done many serious wrongs.  So, the following is a message not just to others, but to me:

The truth about my guilt is offensive enough. Don’t add any more offense to it. But please don’t remove the offense inherent to my guilt, either.

*Note: I’ve altered the wording in the article slightly, based on personal conversations with Greg.

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