Appropriate Guilt

Not too many years ago it was fashionable to view guilt as an unhealthy legacy from a superstitious and unhappy past—from a time which we moderns were prepared to leave behind. Guilt was seen as neurotic, masochistic, and without any redeeming purpose in the lives of individuals or in the well-being of society.

But over the years we have found that we cannot escape guilt. Happily a distinction is made today between appropriate guilt and neurotic guilt. This distinction assumes that there are times in our lives when guilt is appropriate—that the feelings of guilt we have, instead of being neurotic and unhealthy, may be the best indication there is still within us some basis for goodness and truth.

I would suggest that guilt is appropriate when it stems from behavior, attitudes, or beliefs which hurt or diminish the wholeness of persons, whether ourselves or others. When guilt is associated with the actual harm we do as we misuse the freedom we have in situations of life, then guilt is appropriate and legitimate. The question is, “What can we do with the appropriate guilt?” How do we deal with it in constructive, redemptive, and healing ways? Let me suggest a biblical model outlined by pastoral care specialist Howard Clinebell. There is nothing new or surprising in this model. But usually our lives are complicated most often by ignoring the obvious solutions to our problems. This model is easily understood, time-tested, and liberating for all involved in the guilt matrix.

  1. The first stage in the process is RECOGNITION.  We must face the behavior that hurts us and others and feel the guilt that is appropriate. So often we are simply not aware of our destructive behavior. Often marriages and relationships degenerate because neither partner realizes the harm each is doing to the other. Recognition comes through self-evaluation and through listening to the truth spoken in love by others.
  2. Confronting ourselves with the cause of our guilt will lead to CONFESSION which is experiencing and expressing our painful guilt feelings. Recognition is not enough. We can recognize our destructive behavior and never do anything about it. To move beyond simple recognition we must bring our harmful behavior, attitudes, and beliefs out in the open where they can be dealt with. Often we are like a child with a splinter who does not want to go through the pain of having the splinter extracted. Like the splinter, our sin must be brought out. The “demons” must be named if there is to be healing. This confession certainly should be addressed to God, but perhaps we may find it helpful to confess to others whom we trust and who can help us deal with our guilt and pain.
  3. After confession we are ready to receive FORGIVENESS, whether it be from God, others, or ourselves. Receiving forgiveness requires humility (as we acknowledge we are dependent on the grace, goodness, and understanding of others) and courage (as we take hold of the new future created by this forgiveness). Forgiveness always allows life to begin again. I think that’s why forgiveness figures so prominently in Jesus’ teachings. He knew that very often life can begin again only after the cleansing grace of forgiveness.
  4. After receiving forgiveness we are ready for REDEMPTIVE BEHAVIOR. Our experience of forgiveness will change us and our behavior, attitudes, and beliefs. Forgiveness received which does not change people and their behavior is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Cheap grace never transforms or redeems people. And a grace that does not transform or redeem cannot be from God. God’s grace is costly, not cheap. It seeks not only to forgive but also to re-create as it allows for a rebirth. I think the church has a great deal to learn from the AA twelve step recovery program. Seven of the twelve steps deal with “a searching and fearless moral inventory” which includes confessing to God and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs, making a list of all the persons we have harmed, and making amends to such persons whenever possible, EXCEPT WHEN TO DO SO WOULD INJURE THEM OR OTHERS. This is a healthy pattern the church needs to discover—or perhaps we should say rediscover since the pattern is rooted in Scripture.
  5. The final stage in the process of dealing with appropriate guilt is RECONCILIATION. The goal of all redemption is reconciliation. (That is a truth that we Christians almost always overlook. Paul in his letters made it very clear that the ultimate goal of God for us and all creation is reconciliation. God NEVER has to be reconciled to us or creation. God’s love is always unconditional and indiscriminate. It is we who need to be reconciled to God, others, self, and perhaps today most importantly creation.) The most deadly consequence of our guilt and destructive behavior is the fracturing of relationships. Guilt produces shame, which is the fear of being seen as we really are when we know we are not what we should be. So we hide behind masks, erect barriers between us and others, and deal dishonestly with each other, God, and ourselves. The good news in Christ is that God’s goal in redemption is the restoration of relationships and the healing of all segments of our lives. If we have recognized our sin, confessed it, received forgiveness, and offered redemptive behavior when appropriate (not as a purchase of our forgiveness but a sign of our transformation and gratitude for grace), then we are ready for the joy and healing of reconciliation as we come home to God, others, and ourselves.

This Lent as we enter into “an honest and fearless inventory” of ourselves, may we have the courage to deal redemptively with the appropriate guilt in our lives.

(Throughout this process we must be sensitive to the AA principle that we are to do nothing that would further injure others. We may have hurt people so deeply that even our presence or any contact with the one we have offended may be too painful a reminder of the hurt we have caused. They should not have to suffer even more just so we can feel better about ourselves. Common sense, sensitivity, and honest prayer can guide us in the decisions we have to make in these situations.)

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