In praise of guilt

In this age, guilt has acquired a bad reputation. But more often than not it functions positively, helping preserve societal and personal relationships, and highlighting our need of God.

DCJ is an assistant editor of Ministry


We live in the "me" generation. Our age has seen the acceptance of such farsighted wisdom as "If it feels good, do it." Current popular psychology suggests that guilt is an emotion to be avoided at all costs. If we experience guilt we are encouraged to get rid of it by any means possible to avoid the damage it may do to our tender psyches.

The media have suggested that religion makes people feel guilty for doing what comes naturally. Those who arouse this emotion in others are often portrayed as unhappy ogres. This has made many (and perhaps particularly ministers) sensitive to the charge of "laying guilt trips" on people.

The April 30, 1984, U.S. News & World Report carried an article titled "The Emotion of Guilt Has Been Given a Bum Rap," which rebuts distortions such as these. In the article Dr. Willard Gaylin, clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, notes that inappropriate guilt, like other inappropriate emotions, is destructive. But that does not make guilt bad.

Dr. Gaylin contrasts guilt with "guilty fear," which is fear "of punishment for wrongdoing. We feel guilty fear when we become afraid of being caught violating external standards. Guilt, on the other hand, is a form of self-punishment for failure to live up to internal values. It often requires—and invites—punishment for its relief.

Guilty fear may show that the one experiencing it has not yet internalized the value system violated (as a child might fear punishment but experience no guilt for disregarding a parental value that the child has not yet internalized). Or it may indicate that the person involved has rejected the precept as having little or no consequence.

Guilt, then, is an emotion of maturity. It presupposes internalized standards, a developed conscience.

Gaylin states, "When you have actually done something morally wrong, it is always good to experience guilt— always." Guilt serves to maintain the larger society. And it assists in preserving personal relationships by leading us to apologize for unjustified bad behavior.

Gaylin concludes by saying: "When we examine either the behavior on our public streets or the moral behavior of many of our public officials, we begin to sense that the problem of our time is not an overwhelming sense of guilt but an underdeveloped one. When you do bad, feel guilty. It is good for you and for the rest of us who share your environment."

I did a quick survey of the Biblical view of guilt and found the following. Like Dr. Gaylin, Scripture closely associates guilt and punishment. In the Bible the threat of punishment functions as a deterrent—even for Christians. And guilt is an appropriate emotion for people (including Christians) when they have transgressed moral standards. Guilt, or more accurately an attitude that does not recognize and deal with guilt, separates one from God (Hosea 5:15). And—it's almost a truism—Scripture is concerned with the way of clearing guilt. It points to the God of salvation as the one who can deliver from guilt (Psalm 51:14).

Guilt continually carried can become a burden that eventually breaks a person mentally and physically as well as spiritually. Here Christianity offers release. Jesus spoke of our need to make things right with our fellow human beings as part of the process of dealing with our guilt: " 'So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go: first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift'" (Matt. 5:23, 24, R.S.V.). The Temple altar, of course, was used primarily in services designed to expiate guilt.

The good news that is ours offers forgiveness: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, R.S.V.). And it offers us the hope that we need not repeat the same offenses (see Jude 24; 2 Peter 1:3-11; Romans 6; et cetera).

Guilt, then, serves a positive function in our spiritual life, as well as in our societal and personal relationships. It highlights our weaknesses—our need of God's grace both to forgive and to empower us to break out of our bad patterns of living.

I am not suggesting that guilt is an emotion we all should "enjoy" continuously, just that it is an emotion appropriate to all of us at times. It serves a purpose. And we may deal with guilt in better ways than denying, repressing, or ignoring it.

And I am suggesting that we should not live in terror of arousing this emotion in those to whom we minister. Although we should not deliberately seek to play on the emotions of our hearers in order to arouse guilt and thus manipulate them into doing what we think they ought to do, at times our members should feel guilty; And at those times, if we through our preaching or our counseling arouse this emotion in them, we have done them a service. Through this means they may be led to straighten out their relationships with God and/or other people.—D.C.J.

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DCJ is an assistant editor of Ministry

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