The Thirty Minute Blogger

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Dealing with Guilt, Yours and Others: Good News from Christianity

To get down to brass tacks, at its most basic level, the term "guilt" refers to behaviors or acts that are in direct violation of moral values, codes, and laws held by the communities we live in ... and can't get away from no matter how hard we try or how insulated by technology we become. On the more subjective, squishier level, feeling guilty is caused by your own judgment or knowledge that you have crossed the line in some way. Of course, your own feeling of guilt can be a really good thing if, when contemplating some transgression or other, this feeling of looming guilt acts as your own personal Jiminy Cricket and helps you avoid that particular rules violation that you and possibly others will have trouble living with.

The Bible deals with the issue of guilt from start to finish in all its varied and thoroughly human forms. Guilt is the pestilential offshoot of sin (sin being turning away from what God wants for you and your life in order to chase something bright and sparkly that is more likely to be bad for you ... to put things on an outrageously simple and inadequate level). Guilt is a clear sign that you have alienated yourself from God. Being much more community oriented back in the biblical day than now in Western culture, one person's guilt would besmirch an entire community. So, to clear the community, and make the community right with God and thereby deflect possible negative judgment on them all, people came up with laws and priestly codes to both avoid guilt inducing behavior and to allow for appropriate responses when it occurred ... and it always occurred since we are all human (some things never change).

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the various laws and codes had become deeply oppressive (a guilty overreaction). Through all Jesus said and did, he liberated humanity from that guilt and code treadmill, overcoming the divide we created between ourselves and God by our sin and guilt and stated firmly that nothing we say or do (no matter how guilty) can separate us from God and God's forgiveness, which is offered to us all. If killing Jesus by nailing him to tree limbs couldn't do it, what you and I have done or will do can't either.

Of course, being a human run institution, the church didn't fully grasp the magnitude of what Jesus had said and done. The message of unconditional love and forgiveness (and right now I'll bet you're hanging caveats on that idea right now in your own mind, aren't you, come on, confess ...) morphed into a message of conditional, works-related love of God (a BIG difference). So, we returned to focusing on guilt in its many forms and blaming everybody who is guilty of ... everything.

Recent experience has taught me that to be able to assign blame, an individual would need to know the entire story of a situation, and to be able to do that one needs to be God. We mere mortals simply don't possess the faculties to follow through on every thread, every incident, every cultural norm of each and every individual involved in whatever went wrong well enough to casually assign blame. Sure we need judges and lawyers and police officers to deal with the outrageously sinful and deeply guilty. But for the everyday stuff, the average Joe or Josephine simply doesn't know enough to assign guilt and blame to others in a snap judgment. Hence, the biblical injunction against judging (As you judge, so you shall be judged). You can take that one on both the spiritual and entirely human dimension. In human terms, judge others and you'll be held to those standards you used to judge them. Sooner or later you'll be found wanting ... and judged.

Now, Christians have a way out of this dilemma. There are certain ways to treat yourself and others when dealing with guilt. These are outlined in a complicated text called the Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling. They're good guidelines well worth your consideration.
  1. It is entirely inappropriate for you to either consider yourself either flat out unforgivable (to practice "unmitigated self-condemnation" to use the DPCC's term) or peacock proud of your own morality.
  2. God in Christ has stated once and for all strongly that we have worth and are forgiven (repeat that line over and over until it starts to sink into your heart ... intellectual understanding just won't cut it here).
  3. When we accept for ourselves that we live in the context of God's love for us (powerful and unwavering love) we are freed from fear of alienation from God. To live within that love, we need to confess guilt, change our lives to avoid sin, and make up for whatever wrong we have done (you still have things you have to do).
  4. Living in the fellowship (community) of other believers (you can be one too, trust me, ... and you are invited into the community, you really are) helps to shape our values and inform our judgments and conscience, allowing us to grow responsibly in love toward God, others, and ourselves (very, very important). 
  5. Forgiven believers have a big job to do and that is forgiving others, restoring relationships that have been broken, and doing our parts to help maintain and grow our communities of faith. After all, those communities are supposed to be busy living out and proclaiming the good news message of God's forgiving love and need every forgiven believers help in doing so. Far too many are agonizing under guilt they could be freed from. 
  6. Recognize that guilt is complicated and life is muddled by the "structures of evil" to use a DPCC term I enjoy. Check out what the therapists and behavioral scientists have to say. Christians should use these professionals' insights and seek their skills when possible and appropriate to heal human brokenness. 
  7. Help the hurting whenever you can, who suffer from guilt (if it's "neurotic guilt" recommend specialists trained in helping them). Help them to take for themselves, assimilate, and share with others God's love, forgiveness, and acceptance, moving toward personal and communal wholeness. 
With all those healthy guidelines, there's plenty to do, and none of it involves finger pointing and scapegoating others. None of it involves carrying a deadly burden of guilt around with you forever that you can't see any way to clear from your shoulders. Jesus came to do that for you. Accept Jesus' actions and message of God's forgiving love, and give yourself and others a break today.

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