How people experience guilt and shame

sun.earthHave you ever heard of elentics?

Don’t bother checking google. You won’t find much.

Elentics comes from a Greek word translated into the english word “convict” ( ἐλέγχω / elencho). It means to expose, convict or reprove.

Jesus used this word in relation to ministry of the Holy Spirit:

“…when he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment concerning sin, because they do not believe in me” (John 16:8-9).

Elentics focuses on how people experience guilt and shame.

I was first introduced to elentics when asked to review a paper titled: The Application of Missionary Elentics to Preaching to Postmoderns by David A. Ridder.

The subject is especially important in relation to sharing your faith (particularly in a cross-cultural context). We know that conviction is the necessary precursor to conversion (i.e. to someone receiving God’s gift of salvation).

Confession of sin leading to salvation must involve sincere acknowledgement of sin from a genuine sense of conviction. And genuine conviction will involve an experience of contrition (sorrow over one’s sin).

Elentics is concerned with how people experience conviction about sin.

All who care about reaching others with the goodnews of salvation must care about elentics.

Taking this subject seriously will help us avoid the risk of offering a solution to people who do not understand the true problem. The good news of salvation is only good because the bad news about our sin is so bad.

Guilt and shame regarding sin is expected in relation to salvation (II Corinthians 7:10 – “For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation.”

Salvation includes four experiences

  • conviction
  • confession
  • contrition
  • conversion

All people experience guilt and shame. All people feel some conviction based on a moral conscience. God made humans in his own image and although that image has been profoundly marred by sin, it remains an important part of what it means to be human (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). Even those who do not know God and His revealed will experience guilt associated with divine standards of right and wrong.

Universal experience of guilt: 

“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them” (Romans 2:14-15).

Conscience always involves a degree of cultural conditioning but it provides connecting points for God’s truth.

“In initial evangelism the missionary should stress sin, guilt, and repentance principally with reference to native conscience – particularly that aspect of their conscience which is in agreement with Scripture…We must preach in such a way that native conscience functions as an independent inner witness to the truth of what is being proclaimed about sinful selves. In this fashion conscience works with the missionary message.”  (Robert J. Priest, 1994. Missionary Elentics: Conscience and Culture. Missiology: An International Review  XXII (3): pp. 309-310)   

Application to Postmodernity

In Toward a Cross-Cultural Definition of Sin, Wayne T. Dye noted that,

“In order to speak to the postmodern conscience effectively, we must do what any good missionary does when initially engaging a new host culture. We must learn how sin is defined for the particular culture (Dye, p.29). This is the fundamental starting point for missionary elentics. As applied to postmoderns, we may safely assume that even those who reject the notion of moral absolutes, especially as revealed in Scripture, still have consciences, experience guilt, and are aware that they don’t measure up to their own sense of right and wrong.  We may safely assume on the basis of Scripture that the Spirit of God is still convicting postmoderns.”

“The missionary should systematically note when and why people feel offended, unfairly treated, or exploited.  What makes them seek revenge? What do they think is fair? What sorts of offenses do they think cause illness or crop failure? From such clues he can learn the ethical system and thus better understand the consciences of those he is trying to reach.”  (Dye, T. Wayne. 1976. Toward a Cross-Cultural Definition of Sin, Missiology: An International Review  IV (1): p.38).

Ridder’s paper offers insightful contributions about how postmoderns experience guilt and shame. As one who has ministered in a University town for 30 years, I found his conclusions perceptive and helpful. 

Steve Cornell

See also: “Exploring Unbelief: Why do people refuse to believe?”

This entry was posted in Apologetics, Confession, Depravity, Elentics, Evangelism, Gospel, Guilt, Postmodern, Witness. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How people experience guilt and shame

  1. Pingback: Why do people refuse to believe? | WisdomForLife

  2. Pingback: Five ways to understand unbelief | WisdomForLife

  3. Pingback: Text to World | Macall West

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