When my youngest sister was about three, Mom needed a serving spoon at supper. So Sis jumped up to get it for her. She grabbed a slotted spoon, and when she looked at it, she said, “Broken! I’m sorry!” and started to cry.
Cute story. I know a grown woman who left church after a sermon on how God loves everyone and commented that she had never felt so condemned in her life! Not such a cute story.
Recently I read about a poll that found that the people who most actively care about the environment are much more guilt-ridden than those who care far less. Clearly people can and do feel guilt, or not, quite apart from whether they actually do or don’t do something wrong.
Nowadays we have a plague of guilt feelings. People who have committed no serious social infraction, let alone a crime feel tremendous but non-specific guilt. They go to seminars and buy all kinds of books, hoping to boost their self-esteem. None of this stuff works, though, unless someone actually challenges their own habitual thinking and changes their mind.
That’s no way to live.
Real guilt without feelings
Richard Speck was out to commit burglary one night and found that the student nurses who lived in the apartment he picked were home. So he systematically strangled all but the one who managed to hide under the bed.
The original death sentence was reversed by the courts, so he lived the rest of his life in a “penitentiary.” That’s a name given to institutions that were intended to lead criminals to penitence, but that’s not how it worked with Speck.
Somehow he managed to get booze and drugs in prison and even got videotaped telling other equally remorseless prisoners that he had no feeling about being a mass murderer and wasn’t at all sorry.
It’s not only notorious monsters like Speck who do not feel their guilt. Think of all the people you know whose rudeness (or gossip, or bitterness, or any number of other toxic emotions) has caused great pain to people around them.
Think of the tension they cause in offices, neighborhoods, or families. Everyone knows where guilt lies except, unfortunately, the guilty parties. They continue to justify their attitudes and actions. They refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for the consequences of their acts.
After all, such acknowledgement of real guilt would be the first step to repentance and maybe even reconciliation. Some people are emotionally incapable of taking that step.
We’re all guilty of something. We have all hurt other people somehow, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of a crime. Sometimes we have done something wrong. Sometimes we have neglected to do something right.
If we feel guilty about real guilt, is that any healthier than feeling guilty about phony guilt? Or are guilt feelings unhealthy in themselves, regardless of how real the guilt?
God’s solution to this plague
We also hear the voice of the devil. We experience both voices the same way we experience the voice of our own thoughts—and the remembered voices of parents, teachers, neighbors, bosses, and others
God tells the truth. Satan lies. Our own thoughts are always based on incomplete information and influenced more than we like to admit by the opinions of others. In that case, shouldn’t we be especially concerned to find what God has to say about the matter?
And here’s a wonderful scripture to start with: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9).
We can confess our real guilt. Once we do that, we can stop feeling guilty. After all, we have the promise not only of forgiveness, but being cleansed from all unrighteousness. There will be consequences to live with, but whoever truly believes the forgiveness and the cleansing need not feel the guilt, which God has taken away.