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.