I’m going to come right out and say it. I may be wrong but I’m ok with being wrong (please tell me if you think I’m wrong). Ok, here goes: I think Christians over-rate guilt and rely on it unnecessarily. I don’t think we need guilt to become a better person or in Christianese – to become more like Jesus.
Last night I lay in my bed thinking about how I failed that day as a parent. Guilt washed over me like an uncomfortable blanket, the prickly kind that seems more made for torture than comfort. I prayed about my actions and vowed to be a better parent. Sounds good right?
Others think so.
For example, consider the following article by the Christian Broadcast Network titled “Good and Bad Guilt?”. In it, the writers state that guilt is the sounding of our “internal moral compass” and it’s important to “listen carefully to your guilt”. Feel bad about something you did? Well, that’s your own personal Jiminy Cricket trying to get you to leave Pleasure Island before you turn into a donkey. I call this the Let Your Guilt Be Your Guide Perspective to Christian growth.
Christians are not alone in this perspective. For example, Dr. Brene Brown is an advocate of “guilt is good but shame is bad” perspective and has several Ted talks about this topic. To Dr. Brown, guilt leads to more authentic relationships and helps guide one to underlying problems of self-abasement.
What is the “guilt is good” argument? Basically, guilt hopefully ends in behavioral change. I hurt someone (or take part in a guilty pleasure), I feel guilty about hurting that someone, I apologize and become vulnerable and then I don’t do that thing that hurt someone again. Seems like a good thing right? It can be but I also think it’s unnecessary for Christians.
So let me address some questions I hear from the audience in my head:
What’s the big deal? Why are you picking on guilt?
Because we can be paralyzed by guilt. Because we make bad life decisions, ones that hurt others and cannot be undone no matter how much guilt we feel. Because guilt is a blunt instrument. It’s an emotional reaction that has to be channeled at its best and is overpowering at its worst. Because guilt is self-focused. It creeps in when things get silent and whispers in our ear all of our failings.
Because professing the positive role of guilt confirms the stereotype many have of Christians. The phrase “repent” becomes synonymous with “feel guilty!” instead of its actual meaning “to change one’s mind”.
Because, I regularly hear guilt from Christians when conversations go beyond the mundane. I hear statements like: “I don’t read the Bible enough”, “I don’t pray enough”, and “I could have been a better parent today” (that last one is me). These statements are usually resignations and dangerous. I can almost see Screwtape (the demon) sitting on my shoulder delighting in my misery as I try to become more like Jesus through guilt.
Guilt is an emotion. Isn’t it silly to “get rid” of an emotion? Shouldn’t we use our emotions or at least be in tune with them?
Shame is also an emotion and I’m pretty sure no one’s making an argument for us to listen to our shame to become a better person. Fear is also an emotion but Jesus was almost a broken record on his call to “Fear not” (e.g., Luke 8:50). From an evolutionary perspective, fear is a useful emotion as it keeps us safe but from a Christian perspective, we’re told to not be afraid (or at the very least, to not let fear control us). I think guilt is a lot like fear. Useful for non-Christians, unnecessary for Christians. In fact, I’m not sure how a non-believer would ever change without a guilty conscience.
Is this an argument to suppress emotions?
I’m not saying we as Christians should become Stoics. I want to laugh at a good joke, cry at a sad event, and rage against injustice. But notice how these emotions help me share a moment with others. Guilt doesn’t do this. Guilt may be a reaction to how I treated someone and it may even end in a more authentic relationship if I react positively to the guilt, but guilt is mainly about me and making myself feel better. If I’m late to a meeting, then I feel guilty and try to compensate somehow.
Notice we don’t need guilt to pinpoint when someone else does something wrong. If my child or student does something wrong, I don’t need to feel guilty to determine whether it’s wrong. Guilt is a uniquely self-based emotion. It stems from my actions and its mainly about me.
Wait, are you trying to say that we should be able to do what we want without feeling guilty?
No, not at all. I’m not calling for a way for people to do whatever they want without consequences. Nor am I suggesting we don’t have to apologize for our actions. I’m saying that Christians have another avenue for figuring this stuff out, another “internal moral compass” if you will.
This other moral compass is the Holy Spirit and its entirely different than guilt. Here’s what I’ve noticed by trying to tune in more to the Holy Spirit. There’s a reason it’s called the Comforter, Counselor, and Advocate (John 14:26). When God brings something to my attention through the Holy Spirit, the overall nature of the message is positive. If the Holy Spirit is focused on something I did that was wrong, it concurrently brings to mind the solution. No matter what the Holy Spirit focuses my attention on, it does so in a way that gives me peace, unlike guilt.
The problem is that we as Christians are not that great at listening to the Holy Spirit. Listening to the Holy Spirit comes through the disciplines (e.g., studying scripture, fasting) and being discipled. Side note: If you’re interested in becoming more in tune with the Holy Spirit, seek out someone who exudes the fruits of the spirit (e.g., love, self-control, Galatians 5: 22-23).
I’ll admit I’m a beginner at tuning in to the Holy Spirit. But I’m getting better and I’m noticing that it leads to more authentic relationships than guilt does. It allows me to focus on others rather than myself and it does so in a way that is both liberating and exciting. It keeps me from making comparisons with others and allows me to be at ease in any situation. To me, this is what being a Christian is about. We’re freed from the rotten internal mechanisms that non-believers have to rely on and which are laden with problems.
So what do you think about guilt?