There are two stories surrounding the legend of guilt in American churches.
On the one hand, he is the hero. He is the benevolent sheriff who polices our conscience to tell us when we have acted badly. He puts us into an emotional jail so that we might learn our lesson and become a better citizen. Where, o where, would we be without the boundaries created by feelings of guilt? Who would be our guide in such a dangerous world? Thank you guilt, for reminding me why I shouldn’t touch the proverbial stove: it makes me feel bad. Thank you, guilt, for keeping many youth from falling into the world of debauchery and sinfulness by creating sinking feelings in the pits of adolescent stomachs.
But just as often as we hear and tell stories about guilt being the hero in Christian circles, we hear the conflicting story: guilt is no hero. Guilt is a villain. He comes to rob us of feeling close with our Creator. He tells us lies about how our God looks at us and feels about us. When guilt rears its ugly head I am told to proclaim with St. Paul that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). Thanks guilt, but no thanks. Now get out of here before I call on Christ to arrest your emotionally abusive ass.
So which is it? It seems completely arbitrary when we decide to apply the “guilt is a hero” myth to our situation and when we apply the “guilt is a villain” myth. And so we hold these conflicting stories together like six-day creationism and the Stegosaurus. And just like the conflict of the Stegosaurus we either compartmentalize the conflict or we create intricate theories to allow us to “make sense” of the conflict.
I am done with compartments.
I am done with complicated theories.
Here are a few reasons why I will no longer live in a story where guilt is a hero:
Guilt Reinforces Self-Centeredness: Feelings of guilt are me-centric. They cause me to focus on my own feelings. When I let guilt lead my focus is on trying desperately not to have feelings of guilt. My apologies simply become ways to get rid of my “guilty conscience” instead being about healing a relationship with another person. In this scenario, other people’s feelings or worth are not as important as my feelings. Instead of self-centeredness, the Gospel proclaims a life of forgiveness. It is the absence of guilt that allows for a life free from self-centeredness.
Guilt Is Self-Deception: In an ironic twist, guilt helps me get out of taking responsibility for my deep brokenness. It divorces my character from my actions. Guilt says to me “as long as you still feel really bad about what you do, you are not a bad person, you just do bad things.” The worst form of this self-deception is a self-righteousness that says “I am not as bad as those people who are evil, I just sometimes do evil things.” So then guilt becomes my way of telling the difference between “evil people” and me, who just does “evil things.”
Guilt Is Inconsistent: I just simply don’t trust my feelings of guilt anymore. When I was a kid, guilt convinced me that dressing up for Halloween was wrong. When I was in my 20s, guilt convinced me that I shouldn’t drink alcohol. For some reason, guilt didn’t tell a group of theologians in the nineteenth century that slavery was wrong but it did tell them that interracial marriage was. He failed to mention to me that the way I manipulate relationships is immoral or that my utter disregard for the environment might possibly be unethical. I think guilt is just a bandwagon jumper, shaped more by my culture, upbringing, and personality, than by truth.
Guilt is Sin: Ultimately, I have decided that guilt is a sin. It is distrust in God’s ability to do what he says he will do. We ask: what would happen if guilt were not our guide? The answer: the Spirit of God would finally be allowed to do his job. I do not trust my feelings of guilt to make me a better person. I trust a God who said that he would renew me from the inside out. Are we morally and spiritually mature enough to unhitch ourselves from guilt, take the training wheels of negative emotions about ourselves off, and start believing God when he says that he is the one at work in you, that he will continue to chisel you into the image of his son until it comes to completion?
Do we actually believe that? If so, then it’s time to sit down with guilt and break the news that his services are no longer needed. He has not delivered on his promises to make me a better person but has imprisoned me by an unattainable standard. Instead, I will start the journey of living out a story of true freedom. The road is unpredictable but the possibilities are endless.
One of the frustrating parts of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is every character’s ambivalence towards the Ring. They are told over and over again that even though the ring is powerful, its power can only be used for evil. And yet, again and again, everyone thinks they can overcome the nature of the Ring. They think they can change the nature of the Ring and use its power for good.