I’d like to offer a word or two in acknowledgment and appreciation for guilt. Distinct from shame, a core belief that one is bad in and of oneself, in one’s very essence, guilt is that emotion/feeling/awareness/gift that inspires us to feel remorse for something we have said or, in the words of our confessional formula in the Book of Common Prayer, “things we have done and left undone”. I have heard more than once such dismissive statements as “All church is about is guilt” or “I got sick of all the guilt so I quit attending” or the more blunt, “Screw guilt!”. I often think, in the face of such comments, that I am sad that people take away from church or worship experiences nothing but an overwhelming sense of guilt. If that’s the case, then those faith communities are not doing their job. There is certainly more to a life of faith than being reminded of one’s shortcomings and need for forgiveness.
At the same time, I would like to suggest that a certain amount of guilt, the kind that comes when we realize we’ve messed up or hurt someone, is part of what makes us human, and it’s part of how we are put together. We have a term for those among us unable to feel guilt for the hurt they have caused to others: sociopaths. This is a condition that requires rigorous treatment and, sometimes, incarceration. There are few things that speak more profoundly of despair than the person who has no ability to see how his/her actions have impacted another, and the accompanying inability to feel pain or remorse for the damage done. We sometimes describe such people as having no soul.
Guilt can lead to growth and new life. We can get sick and tired of feeling the way we do, and so we seek to live a new and better way. We can have the realization that the choices we are making are bringing us less, rather than more, life. We can, in a moment of reflection, realize that Jesus Christ forgives us and that part what happens when he forgives people in the Scriptures is the accompanying admonition, “Go now in peace, and sin no more.”
We live in a culture that seems, at times, bent on justifying ourselves, our actions, and claiming a type of entitlement that allows us, with impunity, to pursue our own ends and to cut others to shreds in the name of being right. Injecting a little self-reflection and guilt into our lives, especially during Lent, may be a way to grow in faith, hope and love.
In Praise of Self Deprecation
By Wisalawa Szyborska
The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with. Scruples are alien to the black panther. Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions. The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations.
The self-critical jackal does not exist. The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly live as they live and are glad of it.
The killer whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos But in other respects is light.
There is nothing more animal-like than a clear conscience on the third planet of the Sun.