Escaping the Prison of Guilt

All people bear the weight of sin on their shoulders. The story of Creation tells us of an all-loving God who made a man and a woman in His image. The story of the Fall tells us of a serpent and an act of disobedience. Because of Adam, the entire world was cursed and all people were born into sin. Being able to distinguish evil from good led humanity to feel guilt, which when strong enough becomes shame. No one is a stranger to these feelings. And for those of us who have embraced the mission of following Jesus, it is particularly easy to identify instances in which our actions (or even thoughts) don’t match his example. Christians are called to repent of their sins. As a matter of fact, this was Jesus’ very first message; “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” [1] However, repentance goes beyond mere guilt. The New Testament Greek word translated as “repentance” literally means “change of mind.” Even though guilt is the first step towards a genuine change of mind, there is no guarantee that it will actually lead us there. We need to be careful in dealing with guilt because it might endanger repentance rather than facilitate it.

In order to make sure guilt leads us to repentance, it is helpful to reflect on the nature of guilt and its practical implications. Paul discusses guilt in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.” These contrasting ideas of godly and worldly sorrow, and the fact that only one of them brings repentance tempt us to label our feelings as either one or the other. But the lines between godly and worldly guilt are not always clear.

John Piper provides some insight on this issue in “The Good End of Godly Regret”. According to him, the difference between the two kinds of guilt lies in their source. Godly guilt stems from the realization of having disrespected God and the consequences of this offense in one’s relationship with Him. On the other hand, worldly guilt might result from fear of making a fool of oneself or of having jeopardized one’s safety. Giving too much importance to the way other people would react to one’s sin is particularly dangerous, since it implies putting man’s word before God’s. In Piper’s words, “Godly regret is the regret of a God-saturated heart, not a world-saturated heart.”

Recently, I had an experience I which I struggled to overcome feelings of guilt. I was severely disappointed with myself because I hadn’t been loyal to two significant commitments I had made to people I cared deeply about: one of them to a close friend, and the other one to a colleague in a project. I had prioritized my own comfort and interests before theirs, despite promising them I would not do so. Betraying their trust filled me with shame. After avoiding the situation for many weeks because of how uncomfortable it made me, I acknowledged my faults to them and apologized. However, the relief I so longed for did not come even after I had received their forgiveness. Self-reproaching thoughts lingered on although there was nothing else I could do at the time to mend those relationships.

I was constantly evaluating why my guilt remained. At the time, I was determined to change my attitude, which according to 2 Corinthians 7, means that my guilt wasn’t completely worldly. On the other hand, it wasn’t entirely godly either because it had strong components of pride and selfishness. I was concerned with the fact that I had sinned but also with losing a right standing in my friends’ eyes and failing to live up to my own standards. My guilt wasn’t exclusively worldly or godly, but rather had elements of both. I found myself striving to have it be entirely godly but I was failing terribly, which made me feel unworthy of forgiveness. My guilt seemed to have degenerated into a consuming shame that kept me focused on the gravity of my wrongdoings rather than on the will to improve my behavior, preventing a change of mind from fully taking place.

It is no surprise that any of us would be unable to only feel godly guilt if we consider our dual nature; sinners, yet made in the image of God. Our feelings will hardly ever be fully godly or worldly; they will most likely fall between the two. Therefore, trying to evaluate our experiences based on strict categories of guilt can be dangerous. We will end up condemning ourselves as worldly, which would lead us down a spiral of shame. Such frustration diminishes our motivation to imitate Christ.

In order to avoid falling into these traps, we need to accept that our capacity for godly feelings is limited because we’re far from being godly creatures. I don’t mean that we should be content with our sinful instincts and embrace them. Rather, we can redirect our focus from striving to only feel godly guilt towards making sure that these feelings, no matter how complex, lead us to the right path: that of repentance. Piper has this in mind when he claims repentance is the “test of godly guilt.” He argues that one can determine if one’s guilt is godly by analyzing whether it leads to change or not. Here we can see some of the elements Paul uses to describe godly sorrow such as “eagerness to clean oneself” and “readiness to see justice done.” We should keep our dual nature and the purpose of guilt in mind as we read the 2 Corinthians 7 passage.

The danger of getting caught up in one’s guilt lies in forgetting to prioritize repentance. It is important to acknowledge the harm that our sins cause, but the depth of one’s guilt should not be a standard for one’s moral worth. Reaching a certain level of guilt is not how one is freed from sin in Christian doctrine. The Christian response to the problem of sin is found in a third story that follows those of the Creation and the Fall: the story of Redemption. A story in which I am so flawed that I don’t deserve God’s forgiveness, but He is so full of grace and loves me in such a way that He sent His Son to die and pay for my sins. One in which all I need to do to receive this gift is to wholeheartedly accept it and give myself to Him. And one of the main things that giving ourselves to Jesus requires of us is to repent of our sins. It is because of how outrageous the Gospel is that it is so easy to miss its point, which is what I was doing by wallowing in shame instead of pursuing a change of mind. Perhaps this approach of prioritizing repentance with the sweeping power of the forgiveness given to us through Christ’s atonement will cleanse our hearts from worldly guilt.

But, despite the forgiveness that Christ’s sacrifice provides for us, shame is not completely out of place in our lives. C.S. Lewis offers an enlightening perspective to this apparent contradiction in The Problem of Pain by reflecting on episodes of shame: “At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them. A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being.” We feel guilt and shame because we’re made in the image of God and sin is supposed to disgust us as it disgusts him. These feelings are a sign that there is more to the world than what the damage the Fall caused; there is also goodness, which is what we strive for and why we feel bad when we fall short of it. We cannot, then, outright reject the importance of guilt and try to suppress it, even when it has a heavy worldly component.

It is only outside the context of repentance that guilt has no value. Therefore, we need to let repentance be the culmination of our guilt process. To continue to feel shame past the point of repentance is to deny the power of Christ’s atonement. We cannot refuse to forgive ourselves when God sacrificed His Son in order to forgive us. Lewis, this time in Letters to an American Lady, addresses what is behind shame beyond repentance: “If there is a particular sin on your conscience, repent and confess it. If there isn’t, tell the despondent devil not to be silly. You can’t help hearing his voice (the odious inner radio) but you must treat it merely like a buzzing in your ears or any other irrational nuisance.” Lewis agrees that repentance and confession is where self-condemnation should stop and that if it doesn’t, we’re falling into a trap set by the devil. Piper has a similar take on Satan’s role in this process when he says: “If he cannot keep you from regretting your sin, then he will do his best to keep you from enjoying your forgiveness.”

Moreover, Lewis reinforces the value of Christ’s sacrifice by saying: “Remember what St. John says, “If our heart condemns us, God is stronger than our heart.” The feeling of being, or not being, forgiven and loved, is not what matters.” In the midst of my shame, I needed to remember that I was forgiven, even if I thought I was too terrible to deserve it. Accepting this forgiveness is crucial since only through the freedom it provides can one let go of guilt and begin a change of heart. A change that involves confessing one’s sins explicitly and without excuses, thinking of concrete steps towards changing one’s attitude, and praying so that the remnants of guilt would go away. Prayer is crucial—it also helps us determine whether we are actually experiencing a change of mind or only fooling ourselves into believing so.

Of course, it is not easy to put these precepts into practice. But it is important that we at least have the steps of how to deal with sin clearly set in our minds so that we don’t get stuck along the way. Let us acknowledge and repent of our sins, yes, but once this is done, let us forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead, as Paul called us to do. [2] Let us not have the past weigh us down so heavily. For God has so much in store for our future if we are willing to accept His forgiveness, given to us not because we could have possibly earned it, but due to sheer grace.

Notes:

  1. Matthew 4:17, NIV.
  2. Philippians 3:13, NIV.
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