The Verdict is in – GUILTY!

The Verdict is in – GUILTY!


Not being either a lawyer or a criminal, I do not know much about guilt from a legal standpoint; but theologically speaking I am rather familiar with it. Like most other people, I have often experienced a sense of guilt; and I am glad of it, because otherwise my case would be hopeless. In a theological sense, guilt can be defined as “a personal consciousness of wrong-doing for which the man himself feels responsible.” It is the pain in the heart which comes when we are aware that we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and done those things which we ought not to have done. It is the horrible realization that “I” am responsible for the evil in a certain situation – that I caused it. “Not my brother, not my sister, but me, 0 Lord!” Not the other fellow, not my enemy, not any scape-goat, but I alone. Without a sense of guilt, we should none of us ever turn from our wickedness and live. Guilt is the emotional driving force associated with a protesting conscience, which can set us on the road to better things. Only sensitive and potentially good people can feel guilt, because only they have an active conscience. Thus a healthy sense of guilt is a sign of grace.

Unfortunately, however, guilt has sometimes gone sick. It has overwhelmed people, it has paralyzed them, so that, instead of spurring them on to repentance and reformation, it has floored them. They have rolled about in dust and ashes, beating their breasts and bemoaning that they are sinners. They have even come to take a certain satisfaction in the exercise. It pays off. For one thing, since they are criticizing themselves so severely, they are immune to criticism from other people. Responsibility for making amends is removed; all they have to do is to moan, “I am a miserable sinner; there is nothing sound in me from head to foot; I am beyond hope!” Such people do not want forgiveness and restitution. If assured that God has forgiven them, they say, with some pride, “Ah, but I cannot forgive myself.” Well, it is an easy way out, but it is sick. The sole purpose and value of guilt is that it leads to reformation. A person who wallows in guilt, and enjoys it for its own sake, is sick.

This was the sickness of the Christian Church in the Middle Ages, when good-living people beat themselves, often literally, and called themselves muck, filth, ordure. Today we don’t do this. In fact, we have gone to the other extreme, and think we are pretty good. The average man in the street, or woman in the pew, apparently has no sense of guilt at all! If you challenge them, and tell them they ought to experience guilt, they become indignant and ask what they have done wrong! I remember a lady, one of my most active church workers, who solemnly assured me that, as far as she was aware, she had never done anything wrong in her life. As for other people, oh yes! Many, many people had harmed or hurt her, but she could honestly say she had never intentionally done anything to harm or hurt anyone else! And isn’t this attitude of spiritual complacency rather typical of many of us, though we do not admit it quite so frankly as that lady?

However, there is still plenty of guilt around, but on a different level. And since people no longer move in a religious framework but in a psychological framework, I call it “psychological guilt.” It is derived, not from a sense of breaking God’s laws of right and wrong, of alienation from God, but from a failure to live up to the requirements of our secular society: or, if you like, failure to live up to the success-image we have made for ourselves. Maybe we have fallen down in our job, and so feel guilty. We are ashamed because we don’t have as good a color TV as the next man. Or we are too fat, and we meant to diet, but have not kept it up – this makes us feel guilty. Or our children have not turned out as we dreamed they would; they have developed a will of their own, and gone against us, which makes us feel terribly guilty! According to our code, everything should be successful, comfortable and pleasant; if things go wrong, or if we fail in any way, we have sleepless nights, indigestion, stomach ulcers, gallstones – all to no purpose whatsoever.

If only we could realize that the goals we set ourselves are probably unrealistic, and that even if we achieved them they would soon cease to satisfy us; that many of the things we feel responsible for are not really our responsibility at all, and we should keep our fingers out of them (which applies even to our own children when once they are adult). If only we could realize that we are not answerable to the Joneses next door, nor to a society that worships success and achievement, but to God Alone!

Not everything that fails or goes wrong is necessarily evil; it may be part of the normal process of growth and development. It is normal, for example, for teen-agers to turn against their parents at a certain stage of their developing self-awareness. The sharp and sometimes bitter hostility between the generations in a household is often necessary to push the youngsters out onto their own two feet (push the baby bird out of the nest, as we say). If this is recognized and accepted by parents and children, much worry and unhappiness can be avoided, and there need be no guilt feelings on either side. Feelings of inadequacy and futility; power struggles between husband and wife; temptations of all kinds; you don’t necessarily have to feel guilty about them. It is how you cope with them that makes them good or bad.

If things seem to be going badly, try to see why they are that way. Maybe you will find some reason for it which is good. Your aim should not be to have a trouble-free life, nor a temptation-free life, nor even a successful life as this world measures success. Your aim should be to have an ever-improving relationship with the Lord your heavenly Father. True guilt, in contrast to the spurious psychological guilt which we have been considering, has to do with this relationship with God, and with nothing else. It is God-oriented and is an essential part of the process of regeneration.

It works like this. We are all born into hereditary evils of every kind. We start out on the adventure of life facing toward hell. All our innate desires and tendencies have to do with love of self and the world, which are the basic loves of hell. If we continue successfully and pleasantly in that direction, as the world would have us do, we shall end up in hell. Since that is not God’s intention for us, the obvious thing to do is to put the brake on our natural, inherited desires, and say “no!” We must repent, be converted, turn around and face heaven instead of hell, transforming our love of self and the world into love to the Lord and the neighbor, the basic loves of heaven. But what driving-force shall we have for doing this if we do not feel personal guilt for our evil condition? Only the sting of guilt can spur us onto the journey of regeneration. You may ask, “How can we feel guilty for our heredity and environment, when we were not responsible for them?” Of course we cannot. But we have free will; and the moment we choose to act freely in accordance with any tendency to evil, that act makes it our own; we become responsible for it, and can feel guilt concerning it. Even if we do not act according to it, but say “yes” to the evil inclination, giving assent to it in our heart, we automatically assume responsibility for it.

A few years ago, partly through the influence of Freud, a “pass the buck” psychology was in vogue. There was no such thing as sin; if you did wrong, it was because of your upbringing. Your parents treated you too harshly, or not harshly enough. Either you came from a broken home, and so did not have a chance; or your home was so good that when you left it you collapsed! Anyway, if your parents were not to blame, it was your school, your companions, your bad health, the weather, anything. Always someone else, something else; never yourself. Fortunately a more healthy and realistic attitude has now been adopted, and blame can be placed where it belongs: in the heart of the man himself – in your heart, in my heart. And with that comes guilt, which disappears only when we have tackled the problem and put things right. If we stifle the guilt feeling, then. of course it achieves nothing, and in the end our conscience which produced it dies, and its body lies festering in our subconscious, producing all kinds of disorders. But if we react wisely to the warning signal of the pain, and set off towards heaven, then conscience revives, and the guilt feeling disappears healthily, having achieved its purpose. Your sorrow is turned to joy.

Later on, the process will be repeated in some other area. Another inherited evil, previously unsuspected, will come to the surface; and, insofar as we give consent to it, this becomes our responsibility, our fault, something for which we are personally to blame. A spasm of guilt will disturb us, prompting us again to confession, repentance and reformation in this new area. And so, gradually, throughout life, area by area will be changed over from alignment with hell to alignment with heaven. “Here a little, there a little, precept upon precept, line upon line.”

A point to bear in mind is that on no account should we allow ourselves to continue to feel guilt after the situation which produced the guilt has been put right. A minister in a recent TV broadcast had a small poster which read: “Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Then, under it, in small type, “If you have already repented, disregard this notice.” This, of course, was a gag, but it had a real point to it. Once you have repented of some specific sin, and received forgiveness from God, you should put it right out of your life and forget it. Discard it and throw it into the garbage can, and let the garbage collector take it right away. Where he takes it to, I don’t know …; I certainly shall not follow him to find out!

As you mature spiritually, the character of your guilt will change. You will become more and more sensitive to the evils still latent within you, and the pain of the guilt will be more intense. But, paradoxically, you will find it becoming easier and easier to bear. You will even learn to welcome and embrace the pain, because you know from experience how amazingly sweet the outcome will be. The pain of the guilt is but a small price to pay for the wonderful drawing near to the Lord which results from the removal of the offending evil.

As you eventually become an angel in heaven, you will cease to be exposed to temptation from hell, and so the ordinary feelings of guilt will cease to afflict you. However, life in heaven is not always on the same level of advancement and happiness. It passes through fluctuations, corresponding to our day and night, springtime and harvest, summer and winter. Otherwise the bliss would pall and grow stale. Every angel periodically experiences an immersion into his own ego. Clouds cover his spiritual sun; he feels alienated and unhappy. When this inner dissatisfaction with his selfhood reaches its painful maximum, he cries out to the Lord and begs to be restored to his former state. The Lord then gently raises him out of his ego and refills him with the Divine Love, Wisdom and Power. The clouds disappear, the Sun shines brightly again; and the angel’s joy is all the keener for the sadness of the temporary alienation. These periodic experiences of sadness, which can be called guilt, keep the angel constantly aware of his utter dependence on the Lord, and lead gradually to an abandonment of the lower self, and complete submission to Him. Guilt renders the ego soft and malleable, so that the Lord can take it in His hands and mould it to His will.

Evidently God Himself likes it best this way. To illustrate what His Fatherly concern for us may be, I will end with a story I heard of a mother who lost her air pilot son during the Battle of Britain in World War II.

The story goes that she was told she could have him back for just five minutes, so that she could re-live with him any five minutes she liked, taken from the whole of his life. Would she like him as he last came home on leave, as captain of his fighter squadron? No, she said. That was fine, but she did not need to repeat it. Would she like him in his last year at school, head boy and games captain? No, not that either. Then she decided upon the five minutes she would most like to share with him again. It was when he was five years old. He had asked if he could cross a busy street alone, to play with a little friend, and his mother had forbidden it. He had shouted “I hate you, I hate you!” and had stamped angrily out of the room, slamming the door. She had gone on quietly with her sewing. After a little while, the door had opened and he had come back. He climbed on her knee, put his arms around her neck, and said, “I’m sorry mummie.” And that was the moment, out of his whole life, that she chose to re-live.

Alienation. Guilt. Penitence. Reconciliation. Oneness with God. You can have them today.

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