'I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don't recommend Christianity."
Lord, I know where he was coming from when he said this.
I'm not entirely sure about the port, mind you. I like a glass of port after a meal; at Christmas I was prevailed upon to try blue stilton with my port (as you know, I am not a fan of mouldy cheeses) and I have to say that the port really did make it an exceptional experience. Somehow the strong taste of the cheese and the sweet richness of the port combined to make it very pleasant indeed. Still, I think I am more of a red wine sort of girl. Or a nice demi-sec champagne.
But that's not the point.
Discomfort. How much is it of my own making, and how much is healthy discomfort? With regard to what I believe, how much is justifiable and how much inappropriate? How much of the discomfort around issues to do with faith in my life is down to you, and how much to me? What things are issues that you are nudging me to resolve, and how much comes from the other guy?
The difference between conviction and guilt, for instance.
The other day my regular devotional email asked me what my daily quiet times were like and suggested that perhaps I should get up earlier in the morning to make sure that I spent time with you. Every fibre of my being shouted 'Nooooo!' Please be assured that it's not because I don't want to spend time with you; I very much do. It's more that I am not a morning person. Left to myself I would stay up late and get up mid-morning but you know that. It's not particularly compatible with having a family, however. I don't think I ever greet the day with enthusiasm and spring out of bed with energy. It's a grudging leg that slides slowly out from under the duvet after every last bit of 'snooze' has been wrung from my alarm clock.
But let's not dwell on my lack of sleep. There lies great disgruntlement. And you've heard it all before. Actually, most people of my acquaintance have more information than they needed on the subject of my sleep deficit.
What I'm interested in is that after reading this email with some scepticism, I sent it to a friend who I know has a similar devotion to her pillow with a facetious comment about it not being my desired reading for the day. I know she would have sympathised. What she came back with was a one line suggestion that I should think about whether I was feeling convicted, or guilty.
I believe that you do sometimes convict us. You make us aware that we need to change our behaviour. You point out an area of our lives that needs work. You love us while doing it; mostly you are gentle and understanding, but you are also perfectly righteous and cannot stand and watch us indulgently while we do something that offends you. I also believe that you choose your timing carefully, because if you convicted me all at once of all that is wrong with my life I would shrivel up and expire. But when the time is right, and you know that we are in a position to do something about it, you might just whisper, 'Ahem. Have a think about what you just did.'
So, how do I know the difference between conviction and guilt? Do I feel guilty about not finding a quiet time every day? Yes, sometimes. Do I feel convinced that it should be held first thing in a morning? No, I don't think so. I hope not. Please, no. I do accept that last thing at night isn't so good. Especially not lying in bed with the light off and covers tucked round my neck. Surely after lunch is good enough? Or sort of mid-morning? Is there really something special about first thing when I'm clinging to the last vestiges of a warm bed? I'd be interested in hearing your views on this. Well, I think I would.
I'm getting off the point again.
I think the difference is that when I feel guilty, I start feeling bad about myself, and negative thoughts crowd in.
'There's no point in trying to get this right, I'll never do it.'
'If I can't do this, I'm not a very good person.'
'I'm a bit of a failure, really, aren't I?'
...and so on. Coupled with my constant need to Get It Right, this is guilt for me. I easily feel defeated, which makes trying again so much more difficult. Giving up seems an easier option. Guilt has me focusing on the problem.
Conviction is different. Conviction seems to be when I suddenly stop and think to myself, 'Blimey, I should be doing that differently.' I sometimes feel sad that I got something wrong, but the long, lingering sense of blame isn't there. There's an answer to the problem. When I feel guilty I feel ashamed and heavy. When I feel convicted I feel that I need to be forgiven, yes, but that things aren't ruined forever. I haven't blown it. I'm not the sum of my failures. It isn't a comfortable feeling, as CS Lewis said, but it isn't crushing, defeating, depressing, insidiously demotivating.
Conviction comes with the knowledge that you will forgive me and I can try again. Guilt, on the other hand, discourages me from trying again because I feel too bad about things.
Guilt comes with condemnation, and conviction comes with forgiveness. With guilt, a door slams shut when there's realisation of wrong, whereas with conviction, the door is open and there's a light shining from the next room.
You said that you came not to condemn the world, but to save it. So if I feel condemned, then I believe it's not you that's doing the condemning.
But if I realise that I need forgiveness, then I know that you are waiting with open arms and a smile to forgive me and send me out to try again.
'There is no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus.'
And that's me. In you. So there's no condemnation.
And that's me. In you. So there's no condemnation.
So, do I feel convicted or condemned about early morning quiet times?
If it's all the same to you, I would rather shrug off my feeling of discomfort about the concept that it's necessary to get up ridiculously early in the morning (because in this house to beat the children out of bed and have any peace first thing would mean rising before the birds. That might be a slight exaggeration). I'd rather continue my search for a better time. I confess that my search has not perhaps been relentless and determined. I could probably do better.
Help me to notice the difference, Lord. Help me not to get dragged down with guilt and anxiety over the many ways that life goes wrong and I need to do things differently. Help me to understand when you are prompting me to come to you and sort something out, and when I am being lied to by the one that the Bible calls the Accuser.
Help me to understand the difference between conviction and guilt. Help me to be honest and keep a short account with you so that the rubbish doesn't pile up round me so that I can't see over it.
So, quiet times.
You tell me. I'm listening. I'm bracing myself in readiness for a word from you.
But I'd ask you to remember that I'm not at my best first thing in a morning, and certainly not before my first coffee. You made me that way....