Monday, January 7, 2013

Good Guilt

I am what I will do, not what I have done.

A Christian friend of mine recently asked me if I feel guilt.  It was such an odd question to me because it's not like I had just kicked a little girl's puppy and laughed about it.  We were just having a debate about the mechanics of God's forgiveness, but we hadn't hinted at guilt in the preceding discussion.

Guilt is BIG in Christianity, and there is no need to rehash that here, but I did want to share thoughts about how I process guilt, because I think most people do it all wrong!  ;-)

Guilt is a mental pain which should be used to teach you a lesson.  Just like the physical pain you would get if you touched a hot stove teaches you not to do touch hot things and helps preserve your health, guilt should be processed the same way.

Guilt teaches you not to do particular actions (or to do other actions), which ultimately helps preserve your health, the health of your relationships, and the health of the community at large.

And here's the key: Once you learn your lesson, there's no point to clinging on to that guilt.  Let it go.

Just like in our physical analogy of burning yourself, if you keep touching the burnt skin, it will not properly heal.  If you keep recycling though your guilt causing memories, that guilt will not properly heal either.

That's not to say you will not think of those memories and have some guilt from time to time, just like your burnt skin will still be painful when you accidentally bump it in its healing process.  But there is a big difference between bumping a burn blister and rubbing it on a cheese grater, just like there is a difference between passively thinking of the guilty memories and actively looping and focusing on them.

The point is this:  We were not born knowing everything.  We will make mistakes.  Learn from them, and move on.  Do not define yourself by what you have done.  Define yourself by what you will do.


  1. That all makes perfect sense. I know that in my head, but it still doesn't make it easy in practice when you've been doing it all wrong for so long.

  2. Yeah, this definitely falls into the "easier said than done" category. ;-) That's especially true when you've got a habit built in. This didn't happen overnight for me either, and, in fact, it took a few decades to realize what was really going on with guilt. But I think it is possible to change your perspective through time and diligence. Good luck! :-)

  3. Good post. It is a good exercise to think of the benefit we get from pain, and why not mental pains as well.

    I definitely have a tendency to obsess about things (more so when I was a teenager than now, but I still do it every once in a while). Next time I catch myself doing it I will envision myself repeatedly touching a fresh burn, seems like it would be a good image to get my brain out of the cycle.

  4. Thanks Hausdorff! I've been thinking about a follow-up post with some thoughts of how to break those obsessive cycles.

  5. I'd love to read your thoughts on that, as much as I've gotten better over the years, I still get caught in those mental loops sometimes.

  6. So do I, Hausdorff! Depending on what it's about, it can be kind of fun. :-) But not always, and I think there are some methods to break out. I'll put it on my to do list. Hopefully I'll have it up by next week.

  7. If I said this to an apologist, I imagine the response would be that our ability to feel guilt at all, good or bad, is due to a God given conscience.

    Then I would sigh heavily.

  8. LOL. You're probably right, Grundy. And I'd sigh too.

  9. TWF, if it were not for my own take on guilt, I would prefer yours, for I've never encountered a wiser take on it than what you've written. (Makes you wonder why not, doesn't it?)

    My own take on guilt, however, is that it is largely a useless emotion, for it does not tell us what is right or wrong, but rather we feel guilt when we do something that goes against what society, our community, or the important people in our lives tell us to do. Consequently, guilt is not a reliable guide to what's right or wrong, but merely to what's socially acceptable or not.

  10. Thanks Paul!

    That is a good point. An excellent point, actually. Guilt is not bound by absolutes, and is definitely influenced by society. However, I do not think that all guilt falls into that category. For example, guilt can be the result of empathy. If you distributed something unequally, you may feel some guilt because you think that the people who got less (assuming they did not know that they deserved less) felt cheated. Experiments with monkeys show that they are able to recognize fair treatment vs. unfair. So this suggests the possibility that there are some native, or instinctual, sources of recognizing fairness, which in turn would also speak to a certain level of instinctual guilt. At least I think so. :-)

    P.S. I just checked out your site. I somehow missed the boat that you had started blogging very regularly again. I'll have to check it out in a few days when my work schedule lightens up. I've missed your thought provoking posts.

    1. That's a great point about empathy and the possible innate nature of guilt. I hadn't thought of that. Now I guess I'm going to need to mull it over some. Thanks, TWF!

      And I look forward to seeing you when you have the time!

  11. Funny but I never had much problem with guilt as an unsaved person, and it was not guilt or the release of it that filled me with overwhelming joy when I came to know Christ as Lord. It was love. I think for the first time I understood what Love really meant.

    I had a friend who was a psychologist and told me that guilt was the most common problem she saw in her work with institutionalized people (back when we had institutions). I agree with TWF. Guilt is spilled milk, figure out what went wrong and move on.

    WRT God given conscience - well without the knowledge of good and evil (which I thought we kinda stole) there would be very little to be guilty over. But what do I know?


  12. Thanks David! I'm glad that you've had a good experience with your guilt. Obviously there is a spectrum of deliverance experience; joy, love, and for some the lifting of the burden of a heavy guilt. Jesus died for your sins. When you ponder that, it can be taken several ways, and one path is to realize that your actions led to the death of a perfectly innocent man, who also happens to be your beloved God. That can be an even heavier burden to bear than the original sins.

    WRT God given conscience, I seem to remember having to be taught some lessons as a child before my conscience was fully developed. So to me it did not seem totally like a God-given gift, but often something earned and/or nurtured from my parents and others. Your mileage may vary. :-)