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The Journey Inward: When Is Guilt A Form Of Crazy Making?

 

September 27, 2018



By Dr. John Campbell

Ever left a worship service feeling worse than when you walked in?

Randy and Vickie felt that way. On the way home from church, they were feeling down about the sermon. Pastor Glenn’s topic that day was, “Whatever became of guilt?” He declared early in the sermon that people needed to be cautious about the humanistic approach to guilt. “A sense of guilt occurs because we’re truly guilty.” He went on: “guilt solves the problem of loving ourselves too much.” His New Testament text for the day was from the Gospel of John 16:18: “When he comes (the Holy Spirit), he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment. Don’t quench him.” The essence of Pastor Glenn’s message was guilt makes us more responsible.

According to Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their book, “12 Christian Beliefs that can Drive you Crazy,” Randy and Vickie, cited in their book, had good reason to feel worse after the sermon.

Where is crazy making in Pastor Glenn’s sermon? It goes like this: guilt is good for us, is helpful for our spiritual growth and makes us more responsible Christians. This is based on the presupposition that if we don’t obey a biblical principle, then our ensuing guilt serves as a corrective. (Thankfully, I attend a church that doesn’t emphasize this mistaken notion).

An example of this sort of thing occurs in our daily life. When a father, for example, says: “After sending you money for college expenses you won’t even come home for Christmas.” What happens: a son or daughter feels guilty if they don’t go home. The message: You have disregarded a parental expectation.

Another version of guilt making occurs when a parent says: “I am spanking you for your own good, so you will grow up and be a responsible adult.”

An incident happened in my own childhood when I was still in a high chair that illustrates this. I cupped my hands around a glass of milk; the cup slipped from my hands and spilled milk on the floor. My father shouted at me for this mistake and came over and said: “Sit up.” In an angry tone he told me to hold my cup a certain way. I felt guilty; had I done something wrong?

“Feeling guilty,” however, is not biblical but develops from experiences at home, school and church, for example. Guilt in the Bible is not a “feeling” but a state of being. Cloud and Townsend point out that the Bible refers to guilt as a state — an indication of how all of us miss the mark and feel separated from God: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And we are restored by grace, not by a law of conviction.

A biblical form of guilt is empathic, centering on the hurt we cause someone, not how bad we are. We are prompted to seek restoration of loss connection. We seek to heal, to make restitution to those we hurt. The Apostle Paul notes that faith is the means of reconciliation and relationships are a goal. “Out of sheer generosity he put us in in right standing with himself. A pure gift.” And he did it my means of Jesus Christ.” (Romans 3: 23 from “The Message”)

Guilt “feelings” focus on our “badness; our sense of unworthiness and deserved punishment. Guilt prone people are afraid to love. They give of themselves under obligation rather than cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:7).” They try to love to avoid feeling guilty, not because they want to. Guilt-ridden people can’t be themselves because they worry about breaking some self-imposed standard.

Susan, for example, has been feeling depressed. Her old get up and go is gone. She lacks energy. She wants to lay in bed mornings. But she goes to work and presents a friendly demeanor. She acts like she isn’t hurting inside. She especially worries that her associates will discover her depression. She tries to avoid guilt if others will judge her negatively.

If we feel the same guilty angst that Randy and Vickie felt, and Susan feels, we may be dominated by false messages of guilt based on mistaken notions attributed to biblical teaching, or our background.

What then can we do? For one thing, recognize that “feelings” of guilt have been built into us by too-strict relationships (like my strict father at the dinner table). We learn where we got guilt messages. Cloud and Townsend suggest we get into a support system that is more concerned with relationships than “sin-busting,” a group that understands that “God’s kindness leads you toward repentance” (Romans 2:14).

A support group and counseling help us internalize new voices. “Guilt isn’t resolved by simply retraining your mind. You need to replace critical voices with accepting ones.”

Randy and Vickie needed others to help them understand their mixed feeling after the sermon. Awareness and reflection with others can help. We don’t have to feel under judgment for wrong-doing that limits our lives and narrows our ability to expand our horizons.

Poet Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Wild Geese:” “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves...Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

In her soft gentle way, Oliver is reminding us to feel freedom from guilt-ridden obligation, to allow your body-self to love what it loves; the world offers itself to us and awaits our embrace.

(Dr. John Campbell is a licensed psychotherapist and ordained clergy living in Brevard.)

 
 

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