Doubts, Guilt and the Lord's Supper

A few weeks ago, a very close friend and I were traveling together. As we discussed a host of subjects, I ventured into more personal territory. I had noticed that he had stopped taking communion at church for the past several months. He is a convinced believer in Jesus, but for some reason didn’t feel right about partaking. Here is how the conversation went:

Me: So, can I ask you a personal question? (He said “yes”.) I don’t want to be insensitive but I noticed that you have not been taking communion whenever it is offered in church. I actually respect the fact that you are taking it so seriously and not participating in a flippant way. I am curious to hear why.
Friend: Thanks, I don’t mind you asking. I really don’t know why I haven’t been participating. Something just doesn’t feel right. I just don’t know……
Me: That’s fine. I wanted to make sure you understood what the Lord’s Supper is all about. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on something that is vital to your growth as a Christian. Do you still believe in Jesus and that he is your savior?
Friend: I do, but I am struggling to really believe that God loves me. After all, my life has been a real mix of trials lately……(to be continued).
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I have a lot of pastor friends who struggle to know how to “fence” the table well when serving communion. I have many more friends who struggle to know whether they should even partake from Sunday to Sunday. Many of these friends struggle with deep guilt whenever communion is served. Maybe that is your experience. It certainly was mine many times before I properly understood the purpose of Communion.

Why is it that the wonderful sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is so hard for many believers to enjoy? After all, the Greek word that is used to describe communion is Eucharist, which means “to give thanks.” Even the word “communion” is a good word. It implies that you are communing with God; relating to him; enjoying his company; reveling in his love and mercy for you.

I think the confusion and angst that many Christians experience may stem from the Apostle Paul’s exhortation in I Corinthians 11:23-32 where he strongly confronts the Corinthians for celebrating the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner:

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

Verses 27-29 are startling. After reading these words, you might wonder if anyone is “worthy” to participate in the Lord’s Supper. But what is Paul really addressing? There are many things we could say about the specific context that Paul is confronting in Corinth. But one thing is clear. He does not want to erect a fence so high that needy sinners feel unworthy to participate.

Maybe I can share how I came to understand how to “fence” the table when I was pastoring a church full of both struggling sinners and sufferers. Here were a few things I would say:

Question: What does it mean to partake of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner?

Answer 1: If you think you are worthy due to your performance, you come in an unworthy manner. The table reminds us that it is only in Christ that we are able to approach and commune with God.

Answer 2: If there is a known sin in your life that you are stubbornly unrepentant of or in denial about, you come in an unworthy manner. The table is for humble, repentant sinners.

Answer 3: Instead, if you believe in Jesus and are struggling with doubts, are feeling distant from God, experiencing weakness and fatigue in your faith, or you failed to obey God recently, you should come to the table to eat and drink!

Based upon this perspective, I shared the following with my friend:

The Lord’s Supper is using the image of your need for physical food and applying it to your need for spiritual food. If you were starving, weak, and unable to stand and someone put some food in front of you, what would you do? You would eat and drink to regain your strength. It is the fat and satiated who do not eat; not the hungry. The Lord’s Supper is a time to give thanks that God feeds the helpless and draws near to those who know they are hungry.

I don’t know if this registered with my friend or not. He thanked me for asking and then the conversation changed to a song that was on the radio. Yet the moment was not lost on me. It was a simple conversation with a brother in Christ where I was able to remind him of the utter grace of the Gospel. God’s love is wholly undeserved and yet freely given only to those who know they are not worthy.

The next time communion is served, ask yourself if you are hungry and thirsty for God's love and grace. If so, eat and drink to the glory of God!

Copyright © 2014 Timothy S. Lane

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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at CCEF in Philadelphia, PA (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation). Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches.  For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.