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.

Non, je ne regrette

[Health warning: the first part is mildly technical and a little dry, but ‘contemporary application’ follows further down!]

In today’s NT reading in the Lutheran Service Book Daily Lectionary (Matt. 27:1–10), the ESV tells us that Judas, seeing that Jesus was condemned to death, “changed his mind” and attempted to return the 30 pieces of silver he had been paid for betraying the Lord.

Reading this, I was intrigued by the weakness of the expression. He merely “changed his mind”, yet this was enough for him not only to throw away the considerable sum of money but his very life. For he went and hanged himself.

The earlier translations in the tradition to which the ESV places itself, namely the Authorised (‘King James’) Version and the RSV, as well as the NRSV, plump for the opposite end of the spectrum, by telling us that Judas “repented [AV adds the reflexive ‘himself’]”. That doesn’t seem right, either: repentance is within the NT and consequently in Christian theology a technical term with connotations that are incompatible with Judas’ subsequent actions. In short, repentance properly understood will never lead to suicide.

So ad fontes it was: what does Matthew actually tell us? Well, he tells us that Judas returned the pieces of silver, μεταμεληθεὶς (metameletheis).
Now that word can mean a change of mind (as in Mt. 21:30 ff.), and it can mean repentance (several places in the Septuagint, for example). But its root meaning is something different. According to Liddell & Scott, the basic meaning of the verb is to regret or to rue something.

Hence, the NAB rendering of this verse: “Judas deeply regretted what he had done”. Which, to my mind, is right on the money. He regretted, rid himself of his unjust wages, and, full of regret, tragically took his own life.

Had Judas not merely regretted (μεταμέλομαι, metamelomai), but repented (μετανοεῖν, metanoein), the story would have ended very differently. Judas wasn’t the only one who messed up with Jesus. Peter did, too. Later, Saul played an even more directly violent part against Jesus. Judas regretted what he had done. Peter and Paul repented. He died. They were resurrected.

When it comes to human sin, to the errors of which people are guilty against one another and against God, the worse thing you can do is to harden your heart and deny your guilt, and thereby declare black white and white black, and call God a liar and yourself a god.

But spiritually, you are no better off if you recognise your faults, but your only reaction to them is regret, guilt. Because regret is only a recognition of the problem, but it can offer no way out of it. If you merely regret, you are faced with your guilt, and then left to wallow in it. It is wholly negative.

This is presumably why it has become so fashionable for people to look back on their lives, in autobiographies, on Desert Island Discs, and in casual conversation, give a frank description of the follies of their past, and then conclude that of course “I have no regrets—all those things have made me who I am”. Frank Sinatra, who surely had much to regret, speaks for whole generations of moderns.

And I agree: we should not regret the past. I would like to encourage you to sing with that rough-edged sparrow, Édith Piaf, Non, je ne regrette rien.

Do not regret. Repent!

Confess your sins, and receive absolution! Move on, not in spite of your guilt, but without it.

When Peter explained to the people of Jerusalem that they were guilty of the death of God’s Messiah, they were horrified, cut to the heart: “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37) As well they should have been.

What Peter didn’t say was, “Feel guilty, very guilty.” He didn’t tell them to feel or express mere remorse and regret. Nor did he tell them to pick themselves up, learn from their mistakes and move on, like some modern-day politician caught with his pants down.

Instead, he told them: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Repent! Acknowledge your sin. And then run to the Lamb of God who deals with the sin of the world. He deals with your guilt by removing it. Not just the feeling of guilt, but the actual guilt. So that you are no longer guilty but innocent. With a colourful past, but no regrets, because your past is buried with Christ, and your present is the resurrected life His forgiveness gives you.

What does such baptizing with water signify?
— Answer: It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever. (Small Catechism: Part IV, Question 4)