Guilt and being guilty

I wrote some time ago about the difference between regret and repentance. This is connected to that set of thoughts.

In pastoral care situations, I frequently hear people talking about how guilty they feel. It’s an epidemic, especially amongst Christians whose consciences have been made tender by the work of God’s word.

At the same time, the popular psychology and (worse still) pop psychology of the day, tells people that guilt is a negative and unconstructive emotion, and that we should avoid it. Just sing with Ol’ Blue Eyes, and you’ll soon feel better. Anyway, the problem is almost certainly somewhere else: childhood experiences, workplace bullying, economic strain, whatever. It’s not your fault—you don’t have to feel guilty.

Anyone with integrity, and every Christian, knows that that’s not true. We are guilty. We have sinned in thought, word and deed; daily and much. Yes, bad things have happened to us. But we have also thought, said and done bad things, and caused bad things to happen to others.

By the same token, many people feel guilty for things of which they  aren’t guilty. Mental health problems can cause people to feel extreme anxiety and guilt about their shortcomings, which are not caused by them but inflicted on them by their illness. Clinically depressed people feel guilty because they aren’t being positive and thankful. Which is a bit like people with anæmia feeling guilty about not having enough oxygen in their blood.

Because, contrary to the pop pscyhologists and self-help-authors, the problem with guilt isn’t the emotion. There is a problem if you are guilty, whether you feel it or not. If you are guilty and you don’t feel guilty, that’s a particularly severe problem.

For guilt is a fact, a relationship between norms and subsequent facts. Thou shalt not have other gods—that’s the norm. Worship of self, career, family, money, Krishna—that’s a fact subsequent to the norm. If that fact exists in your life, you are guilty. Even if you feel good about it.

The problem with the feeling of guilt is not that it’s negative.

The problem with the feeling of guilt is that it’s utterly unnecessary. Have you done wrong? Are you guilty? That’s what confession of sin is for: own up, repent, confess your sins to God. And if you are feeling just fine about your sin, you can confess that, too!

Absolution deals with guilt, absolutely and totally. Christ nailed all that to the tree of the cross. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us all our unrighteousness. However you may feel, having confessed and been absolved, you are not guilty. So you now need to get over it. Apologise to those you have wronged. Make good that which needs to be made good. Forgive those from whom you have withheld forgiveness.

And hear the Gospel. Receive the Sacrament of forgiveness, life and salvation. There God reminds you, assures you, insists to you, that you are not guilty.

That’s why we go to church.

The Right Response to a Great Tragedy

There’s a good post over on Steadfast Lutherans by Pr. Nathan Higgins on how to respond to a national tragedy. The substance of the post is summarised in the opening sentence:

Perhaps the best way to respond to a national tragedy – or any kind of tragedy, is with mourning, repentance, and faith.

In case you were wondering about this, Jesus seems to agree.

By a complete coincidence, this Sunday’s Sunday Cantata will be showcasing a cantata written for a penitential service in response to a great tragedy. That’s right: a penitential service. On 30 May, the city of Muhlhausen suffered a terrible fire, in which several hundred houses were destroyed. They responded by holding a penitential service in one of the town churches, St. Blasius. For that occasion, the newly-appointed organist of St. Blasius, 22-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach.

The text of the Cantata is Psalm 130, and no one is surprised that Bach does an absolutely sublime job on setting it. The music is full of unresolved tensions—which are only resolved on the word “Forgiveness”. And the whole piece ends on the major dominant chord: we are left waiting for God’s answer, but in full confidence that it will come.

Here is what Masaaki Suzuki, founder and director of Bach Collegium Japan, has to say:

This psalm tells of ‘the depths of our sins’, and traditionally it seems that the descending fifth interval was often employed to express these depths. Both Luther’s chorale Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (From depths of woe I cry to Thee), which Bach later used in his cantata No.38, and Psalm 130 of the Genevan Psalter, compiled by Jean Calvin, begin with this motif of the descending fifth. Bach, too, opens his cantata BWV131 with this same motif, and relates the words of the psalm with deep passion.
In fact the sense of ‘sin’ against the Absolute Being does not exist in the traditional Japanese mentality. In Japan, ‘sin’ has always been something relative, and it is believed that sins are washed away as time passes. However, ‘sin’ as taught in the Bible can be forgiven only by God, and not by one’s own self. Therefore, in this cantata, Bach stresses that only God can give forgiveness by using the dissonant major seventh chord and its resolution only once on the word ‘Vergebung’ (Forgiveness)( BWV131, No.2). The longing for God is sung fervently by the alto and tenor (opening of No.3), and the night watch waits longingly for the morning, which signifies redemption, as expressed in the sustained tone in the tenor aria (opening of No.4).

Bach’s cantatas continue to tell the Bible’s messages vividly through the universal language of music, just like the biblical stories portrayed in stained glass in churches, even in this predominantly non-Christian country, Japan.

Here’s a little taster:

Leaving your gift at the altar

I grew up in Lutheran circles in Western Finland that can only be described as pietist orthodoxy. For many (most?) English-speaking Lutherans, that’s supposed to be a contradiction in terms, but take my word for it, it isn’t necessarily. My experience is of a rich, deep spirituality rooted in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. (My cousin Juhana Pohjola explains this background briefly but clearly in his lecture at the excellent recent Symposium on Scandinavian Lutheranism at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, ON. You can listen to it here.)

As you would expect, though, the ‘pietism’ bit of that equation can cause occasional problems. One of them used to be infrequent Communion. I say, used to be, because things have changed much in my lifetime.

Strictly speaking, the problem isn’t a pietistic one anyway, since infrequent celebration of the Sacrament was pretty universal in those parts, not only in pietist circles. However, pietists added their own peculiar reasons for such infrequency, some of which are still around and which are far well beyond pietist circles. One of my pet irritations among them is the desire to commune infrequently so that it feels more special. I challenge anyone to take that approach to other forms of eating and drinking and see how it works out!

Another, more biblical argument, comes from the Sermon on the Mount:

[Jesus said,] “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, ESV)

The way this has traditionally been read by many is that it’s a reference to the Lord’s Supper (“altar”), and that you shouldn’t come to receive the Lord’s Supper if you are in conflict with someone, or at any rate with someone in the church (“your brother”), but rather be reconciled first (“leave your gift there before the altar and go”). And so many people have stayed away from the Sacrament because they are angry with, or have had an unresolved argument, or worse, with someone. And they have also preferred infrequent Communion, in order to give them time to do the rounds and prepare for right reception by seeking reconciliation first. I have even witnessed near-hysterical scenes just before the start of the service as members of the congregation have tearfully done the rounds with one another, confessing whatever bad thoughts they have harboured towards one another and forgiving one another so that they can come to the altar and receive the Lord’s Supper.

I’m all for people being reconciled with their brothers and sisters—in fact, with the world and its dog, so far as it is possible. Confessing our sins to one another and receiving and giving forgiveness is a thoroughly good thing. Likewise, to come to receive the Sacrament of the world’s reconciliation to the Father while refusing to be reconciled with a fellow-believer is a fairly obvious sign of impenitence. Impenitence is never a good state to be in when coming to the altar!

However, I contend none of this has anything to do with Matthew 5:23–24. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is speaking of someone bringing their gift to the altar. What, I ask, has that to do with receiving the Lord’s Supper? Yes, it has the word ‘altar’ in Matt. 5, and Lutheran and many other churches have an ‘altar’ in their churches as the locus of the celebration of the Sacrament. But, as Norman Nagel would probably say, it’s not what word are being used but how they are being used that matters.

What Jesus is referring to is ‘bringing gifts to the altar’. And his audience is Jewish. So, what exactly is he referring to? My suggestion is that he is referring to the—ready for it—bringing of gifts (offerings) to the Temple. He is saying that if you are in a murderous state on account of your anger toward your brother, it’s not a good time to bring gifts to God. Better to acquire a broken and contrite heart first, to do justice and show mercy first, before bringing gifts and sacrifices to Him. Because the sin of the heart will stain the gift in the hands.

To translate into 21st-century church life, what Jesus is in effect saying is: don’t put money on the plate, don’t bring flowers on the altar, don’t sweep the car park, until you are reconciled. Repent first!

What he isn’t saying is: don’t come to the Sacrament. Because if that’s what he was saying, no one could come to the Sacrament, because there is plenty of sin of all kinds in all our hearts, and if we were to wait till it was all dealt with…

No, wait: that’s precisely why we come receive the Sacrament in the first place! Because we are sinners in need of forgiveness. To receive ‘forgiveness, life and salvation’: to be forgiven, to be strengthened in the new life (including the power to forgive), to eat and drink salvation from sin, death and the devil. So if you have sinned against your brother, withhold your offering if your conscience demands it. But by no means stay away from the Sacrament of forgiveness. Instead, seek absolution from the pastor, eat and drink the forgiveness wrought and brought by the body and blood of Christ. If you find it impossible to forgive, seek absolution for that, and eat and drink forgiveness, life and salvation for that. How better could you overcome the power of the sin in you? And what could you possibly need more when you are stuck in this, or any other sin, than forgiveness?

So, don’t stay away. Oh, and if you do withhold your gifts, it’s probably a good idea to set them aside to be given later when everything’s sorted out…

[There’s a really good discussion on forgiveness with Pr. Bill Cwirla on Issues Etc. Listen to it here.]

HT: My thinking on this subject got going some years ago when listening to a talk by Douglas Wilson.