Guilt can be corrosive to a personality, or it can be a gateway to repentance and the transforming experience of a new start. Guilt can creep up on a person over many years, slowly becoming a dominant influence in his life, or it can strike suddenly.
Like conscience, guilt seems to serve a useful purpose socially by keeping humans in proper relationships with others in his tribe or group. It is the stick that conscience uses to accomplish its purposes. First come the pangs of conscience, then the pangs of guilt. It is a spur to maintain right relationships with others, to not cause distress and grief for other people, which later on one might regret. It helps to oil the wheels of social intercourse.
The three best-loved strategies for dealing with guilt are to avoid it, to bury it and to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
The first is to avoid it. This is not difficult in the short term, and people who use this method (don’t we all at times ?) are often very successful with it. They busy themselves with the matter in hand, whatever it is. Then – perhaps unconsciously - they line up for themselves lots of activities that will occupy their time. They join this committee or that group. They enroll at the gym. They cram a lot of activity into their time. This has the advantage that they are tired at the end of the day, making it less likely that guilt will hinder their sleeping. They make new friends and often get into a position where they are ‘needed’ by others – which has the added advantage that it boosts their ego. But, of course, the nature of guilt is to quietly abide its time. It does not wither way – rather it steadily grows and eventually becomes a nagging influence to the peace of mind of the person.
The second strategy for dealing with guilt is to bury it. This is a more risky strategy, although in the early stages it has a lot of payoff. It is the way of hiding from too much thought and reflection by using alcohol or drugs or some other substitute. Basically it is a comfort mechanism – one which puts off thinking about the reason why guilt is felt. And one can get to really like the drinking, drugs or whatever. Later on, of course, when addiction has set in, there is a double problem: the guilt is still there embedded in the psyche and the drug has become a tyrant – an addiction that is hard to shake off.
The third strategy for dealing with guilt is to pretend that it does not exist. This is a more difficult strategy, but appropriate for those who have an aversion to drugs. It is the way of the fixed smile. It is the way of always saying, to anybody who ever asks, ‘Yes, thanks, I’m fine’. It is a decision of the will not to let this thing (guilt) ruin one’s life. Guilt may be having a profound effect on a person’s life but they refuse to even countenance its existence by sheer willpower. It is a ‘grit the teeth and get on with life’ approach. It is a fixed determination to manage one’s own life in the way one wants and never admit defeat – even to oneself.
Of course it is possible to mix and match these responses.
Taking guilt as a fact of life, how should the Christian deal with it? And are there any special factors that affect gay people?
The Christian message is above all else a message of a Holy God’s unending love and forgiveness for all our failure and sin. This is the bedrock of the New Testament. It is the message Christ preached – the core message. It is the message of the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ. The Christian answer to dealing with guilt is the message of the Cross: the forgiving love of a Holy God who is like a father.
If God really loves us the way Jesus told and showed us, then we should be able to find release from conviction of guilt. We should be able to take a clear and quick route back into right relationship with God, and then move on with our lives without backward glances. The effect of guilt is to make us feel alienated from God – the effect of realizing God’s forgiveness is to be reinstated in a loving relationship with our Father without block or hindrance.
What are the steps we should take when we feel heavy with guilt?
Firstly, we have to stop deceiving ourselves. We need to look at ourselves honestly and accept that we did wrong. While we pretend nothing is wrong we will never see our guilt healed. While we are still excusing ourselves, or blaming others, we cannot get at the underlying guilt. No alcoholic can really be helped until they face the fact that they are alcoholic, and the same applies to guilt. Sometimes we are not sure whether we really are guilty – then we have to say that we did what we thought was right at the time and that if it was wrong we ask for God’s forgiveness.
The next step is to ask whether there is any scope and need for reparation. If we have wronged someone it is not enough to feel sorry. It may, however, not be possible, in which case we have to recognize that we have done all we possibly can.
The next step is to recognize that fundamentally it is God whom we have wounded by our sin, selfishness and intransigence. We sometimes feel God is distant and untouched by what we did, although the victim is alive and here! But on reflection, if we recognize the intense involvement of God in every aspect of his world, we can more easily recognize that we have hurt him.
Once we turn Godward, accept our own guilt, try to make reparations, recognize that God too was hurt by our actions, then we are ready to hear again the message of the New Testament. Jesus told us that God is love, that he forgives a repentant (change of direction) sinner, that his love covers all our sins (every single one of them) and all our inbuilt sin. He does not require any promises from us, nor even change of life before we turn to him in repentance. What he wants is that we feel sorrow – enough sorrow to want to change, and He accepts us just as we are.
But what if I cannot give up the sin that is so embedded in my life? What if I know that I will sin in the same way again next week, and am already half looking forward to it? The desire to turn to God and to place the matter into his hands is enough. He does not demand of us that we change first – that we lose our propensity to sin. All he wants is that we turn to him in our troubles and seek his help. He will help us see what is right and what is wrong. He does not require us to be clean before we are cleansed, nor pure before we are washed clean. He will engender the hope and faith in us that he deems necessary – we are not meant to be self-powered but God empowered.
If we are wise we will not become dependent on a ‘feeling’ of forgiveness – nor, at the other extreme, will we just assume that God has forgiven us. The best way is to make a definite act of confession to him of our sin and receive from his hands, by faith not feeling, his forgiveness. It is an event, not an attitude or a concept. We ask for forgiveness and, knowing that God freely grants it to us with full reinstatement to full fellowship with him, by faith we appropriate that freedom from guilt which is his gift to us.
The reason it is so important to actually confess and receive forgiveness is that we may not have realized what our sin has done to us. By our wilful sin we have reduced our capacity to hear and respond to God. If we continued along this track we would eventually drift so far from a warm and loving relationship with our Father that reclamation would become a major issue.
Guilt can be dealt with, and should be dealt with, quickly and cleanly. Someone once said ‘keep short accounts with God’ and every day we need to open our gates from our side that his Holy Spirit may commune fully and freely with us. We need to confess what troubles our consciences and accept his forgiveness. Our hearts have to stay open to Him.
It must be noted in passing that guilt can be pathological. It may be an unhealthy part of our personality. For example – guilt can arise in the child, for some childish action, and have dire repercussions in the adult many years later – out of all proportion to the magnitude of the sin that caused it. This can have a depressive effect on the adult concerned, a loss of joy and spontaneity. How do we ensure that this is not operating in us to some degree?
Paul speaks of the love, joy and peace of God filling us (Galatians 2.22) – and if we never feel that lift of joy in our hearts then we are missing out for some reason on the simple but profound gifts God wants to give us. This problem needs sharing with a wise Christian friend who may be able to help us get past our frightening ogres.
But what about the gay Christian? Does he have any particular problems with guilt? Yes, of course he does. How can he possibly live in a society where he is marginalized by many people and where fellow Christians continuously tell him, or show him by their actions, that they think that he is in error, sinning, sick or perverted, without his feeling guilt to some degree? And what about his internal struggle – half feeling he is right to realize his true sexuality, but half wondering whether he is trying to fool himself into thinking it is acceptable to God.
This opens up a huge area for discussion, but my space has run out. I will return to the plight of the gay Christian and the homophobic churches in a later article. Suffice to say here
that the best way forward for the gay Christian is to realize in their own life, day by day, the love and joy and peace that God has promised him. His best response to the unchristian attitude of most churchy Christians is to live a Christ-like life.
We must learn to be loving and to live free from the censure of others – even the Christians. The refusal to accept the guilt loaded onto oneself by anti-gay Christians is a vital decision. Make it in prayer, before God. The subject of being in the closet or in the open in a homophobic church will also be addressed later, but whichever church you find, let the love and joy and peace of God fill your hearts every moment of every day. Focus on Christ and let the Holy Spirit guide you.
Let me finish with St Paul. Finally, brethren, rejoice in the Lord always. Never return evil for evil, learn to be content in whatever your circumstances - and be filled with the joy of Christ. (See Romans 12:17-21 & Philippians 4)