A funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century. We decided that the concept of sin was something we should leave behind as archaic and out-of-date. While we were busy locating the elusive self inside of us, we decided that guilt was too painful. The only solution was to change the rules and “redefine” wrong.

Newsweek columnist Meg Greenfield had some interesting thoughts on this phenomenon in a piece entitled, ‘”Why Nothing Is Wrong Anymore.” In our society, she suggested, the word “wrong” has been taken out of “right and wrong.” What’s been substituted? How about “right and stupid,” “right and unconstitutional,” or “right and emotionally ill”?

Don’t think her analysis of our cultural sickness stops outside the front door of the Christian community. On the contrary, it comes right inside. Many Christians would change the couplet to read: “Right and what I feel is right.”

In other words, let’s skip over those tough sections of the Bible that talk about God’s hatred for adultery and divorce in favor of sections filled with more “hope and compassion.” I think of people like Alice … who had read all the verses about not marrying a non-Christian, but did so anyway because “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right.” Their child is now suffering the abuse and neglect of an antagonistic dad.

I think of people like Chad … who met and married a woman on the same weekend his divorce came through because he felt God wanted him to—and that very weekend his former wife came looking for him to ask if he’d be willing to restore their relationship.

I think of people like Kyle … who volunteered his time at a crisis pregnancy center to give unborn children the right to life—but didn’t feel like allowing a pregnant daughter to live at home because of the negative affect it would have on his clients.

Where does the epidemic of hypocrisy and shifting standards leave us? Without exception, it leads us to the wilderness of unrest. How can we return to the place where right is right, and wrong is not excused on the basis of our feelings? By following a narrow way marked off by an eternal Book—a pathway that offers freedom and rest by giving us the choice to live life within the standards of God’s Word.

Throughout Scripture and throughout the ages, those who have entered into God’s rest have done so by making a conscious choice to stay within the protective fence of God’s standards. Put another way, the further we walk away from biblical guidelines, the closer we get to the cliffs of anxiety, fear, worry, and unrest.

A story from the frontlines

Back in 1967, a classmate that I later met in graduate school spent four harrowing months in Vietnam before being wounded and shipped home. One story he told taught me a lot about the urgency of staying within protective boundaries.

As the Vietnam War escalated, Mike knew that his chance of being drafted was high. With that fact staring him in the face, he decided to enlist. It was a good thing, because two days later he received his draft notice. At least, he told himself, I’m going to get a preference of what branch and what unit I’m going to be in.

Mike chose the artillery because he figured that if he did have to go to Nam, he would at least be behind the lines lobbing shells long-distance at the enemy. What he didn’t know was that his choice would put him in some of the heaviest fighting of the war. Following his training, he received orders to go overseas with a unit assigned to guard the perimeter of the Da Nang airbase. On the long plane flight to Vietnam, they were congratulating themselves on their good fortune of being stationed so far from the front lines. And while this proved true for many of the men, the first thing Mike found waiting for him at the airfield was a packet with “special” orders. He was to immediately join a convoy which took his field piece and four men over treacherous territory to a Green Beret camp … right on the very edge of no-man’s-land.

The Special Forces stationed at this remote fire-base were weapons experts, skilled in search-and-destroy missions and hand-to-hand combat. Mike and his gun crew found themselves the only regular army soldiers in the middle of this elite fighting corps. For nearly four months, Mike learned the life-saving nature of boundaries as two eight-foot barbed wire fences provided his greatest sense of protection. For almost a hundred yards outside the outermost fence, all the grass and trees had been cleared. Buried land mines and other anti-personnel ordnance hidden in this open area provided further protection for those within the compound.

There were trails through the mines that the Green Berets would use to come in and out from patrol. One afternoon a man under Mike’s command ventured gingerly across one of those trails to pick some fruit in the nearby jungle.

Besides an occasional mortar shell falling near the perimeter, there had been no direct enemy attack since they had taken up their station. In fact, it had been over a week since his gun battery had been called on to provide supporting fire for one of the patrols. Even then it was for a unit near the limits of his range.

“Why can’t we go outside the fence for awhile?” one of his gunners had asked him. “The Berets do it all the time …” Lounging near their cannon, the rest of the crew watched as this man headed out of the compound toward the fresh fruit that had tempted all of them since they arrived.

Mike’s friend had nearly reached the edge of the forest when they saw him stop suddenly and take a step back. He turned abruptly and began to run back toward the fence. That’s when the sickening sound of automatic rifle fire started to rip from the jungle. The young man’s body was shot to pieces before it ever hit the ground. In just moments, the quiet that had lasted for weeks was shattered by the scream of incoming mortar rounds. The attacking NVA troops poured out of the jungle like angry fire ants—many of them following the very route they had seen Mike’s friend take through the minefield.

For three hours the fighting was intense—and often hand-to-hand. At one point, Mike ordered his cannon cranked down level, firing point-blank into the incoming troops. Somehow the men held their position. Mike and many others sustained severe wounds. Others hadn’t been so fortunate.

As Mike related this story, he closed it with words that will always ring in my ears.

“Tim, you want to know why I don’t fight God when it comes to areas He tells me in His Word to avoid? Because I’ve seen what it’s like to walk outside the fence, and I don’t want any part of it.”

Whether we realize it or not, when we decide to walk away from God’s Word and the clear boundaries it establishes for our lives, we are walking into no-man’s-land. While the danger we face will not be bullets or mortar fire, the spiritual flames and arrows of an unseen enemy can prove every bit as deadly. No piece of fruit, however tempting, is worth rendering ourselves defenseless and vulnerable by venturing outside the fence of His Word.

The gift of guilt

While we may never have thought of it this way before, one of the fittest gifts God has given us is the ability to experience and feel guilt. While Freud and others have called it the “universal neurosis”—a destructive force in peoples lives—it can actually be something God uses to protect us.

I’m not saying that all guilt is good. Imaginary guilt, or guilt imposed us by people wanting to control us doesn’t serve our best interests. Scripture tells us there is a sorrow that leads to death, but also speaks of a sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). It’s this second aspect of guilt that we need to make our ally, not our enemy.

Guilt serves us spiritually the way fever serves us physically. When we get a fever, our body is telling our mind that we have a sickness somewhere. A person who wants to get better doesn’t ignore his symptoms. Neither does he hate himself because he’s feeling sick. Rather, the negative feelings act as a physical reminder that the fence has been crossed between sickness and health.

“In the same way, guilt tells us that something is wrong with us emotionally or spiritually. It says in a clear way, You’re stepping outside the fence by making this decision … pursuing this relationship … avoiding this person … accepting this invitation ….

To use another analogy, guilt is like the oil light on the instrument panel of your life. When it comes on, it’s saying “Hey, friend, check your life! You’re headed for problems if you don’t!” You can choose to ignore this spiritual warning light—you may even, by repeated sinning, sever the wires that connect it—but ultimately the consequence of your sin will bring your life to a screeching halt.

Adapted from Little House on the Freeway © 1987, 1994 by Tim Kimmel. Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of Multnomah Publishers, Inc.